“perhaps the most impassioned music I have ever written.”
Robert Schumann writing to Clara Wieck, March 1838

Never one for disguising his emotions, Robert Schumann wore his heart on his sleeve and his music reflects his joy at being alive – and of being in love. His Fantasie in C, composed in 1836, is a remarkable display of soul-bearing, a piece imbued with passionate and unresolved longing, and the heart-fluttering panoply of emotions from ecstasy to agony which being in love provokes. It was written during a particularly long separation from his beloved Clara Wieck, at a time when their future together was far from certain.

The Fantasie in C is a love letter in music, a culmination of passion, virtuosity and delicacy. No salon sweetmeat, this is a highly demanding, sweepingly romantic large-scale work which pianists approach with trepidation.

Originally intended as a tribute to Beethoven and eventually dedicated to Franz Liszt, the Fantasie is cast in three movements. It alludes to sonata form but like its dedicatee’s B-minor Sonata, Schumann dissolves the formal structure to create a work of striking improvisatory freedom which heightens its emotional impact and poetic narrative. The ‘Clara theme’ which pervades the work is heard immediately in the descending octaves of the right hand. The music is an intriguing mix of grandeur and intimacy: the opening statement, a rolling dominant 9th chord, expresses the full depth of the composer’s passion and the music moves from a state of yearning to one of subdued tenderness before the restatement of the opening. The Adagio coda begins with a secret love message to Clara: a phrase quoted from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte: “Take, then, these songs, beloved, which I have sung for you.”

clara_schumann

“It makes me hot and cold all over,” Clara wrote of the march-like second movement, which grows more intense (and difficult to play) by its continuous dotted rhythms. It’s a majestic outpouring of joy which reaches its zenith in the exuberant coda, whose celebratory leaps (marked Viel bewegter – “with much movement”) would give even the most practised virtuoso some anxious moments.

Sublimely beautiful, tender and intimate, the third movement is an extended song without words, with ravishing diversions into the remote keys of A-flat and D-flat major which create an extraordinary sense of time suspended. In this movement the passion may be downplayed but it is no less powerfully felt. Falling motifs (drawn from the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto), and melodies of intense poignancy give way to a section of delicate tenderness, a waltz in all but name with 2 voices – treble and bass – singing together. One can almost picture Robert and Clara clasped in a deep embrace. The coda is an ecstatic declaration, gradually increasing in speed, before pulling back to Adagio for the close and three hushed C-major chords which are at once peaceful and yet tinged with sadness.

Here is Piotr Anderszewski in the final movement:

 

Leon McCawley – Schubert piano music (SOMM)

This enjoyable account presents Schubert’s often overlooked Drei Klavierstucke D946 alongside song transcriptions by Liszt and a rollicking Wanderer fantasy. The Klavierstucke (literally, “piano pieces”) were written in 1828 and are impromptus in all but name. They share the same structure as the popular D899 and D935 sets and are works of startling variety, colour and mood. McCawley neatly captures Schubert’s mercurial nature but never dwells too long in the melancholic, reminding us that though these pieces were written the year Schubert died, their composer was still very much alive. This is most clearly demonstrated in the third of the triptych, an energetic scherzo with a hymn-like middle section, and throughout the three works, McCawley highlights their songful qualities and dramatic contrasts.

Schubert’s songs, refracted through Liszt’s genius into wonderfully absorbing pieces for solo piano, are here given warmth, virtuosity and heroism in equal measure – for example in the gradual climatic grandeur of Auf dem Wasser zu singen, beautifully paced by McCawley. Meanwhile, McCawley’s Wanderer is a muscular majestic canter, positive in message but also replete in subtle harmonic shadings and an eloquent sensitivity to Schubert’s shifting emotional landscape.


Olga Stezhko – Et la lune descend: Claude Debussy

Appropriately, I listened to this generous new release from Olga Stezhko while reading a review of the new Pierre Bonnard exhibition which has recently opened at London’s Tate Modern.

Comprising of five suites, the album ‘Et la lune descend’ marks the centenary of Debussy’s death and charts the development of his writing for piano solo from the very first ‘Suite bergamasque’ to the much lesser known last suite ‘Six epigraphes antiques’. – Olga Stezhko

Like Bonnard’s paintings, Olga’s Debussy is vivid and richly-hued, the finer details of the music revealed through sonic clarity combined with a suppleness of pulse and tempo which never feels contrived or forced. Interior voices and details are sensitively highlighted. The piano sound in the upper register is particularly fine, with a harp-like crystalline clarity; one can almost sense the absolutely tautness of those high treble strings.


Anna Szalucka – A Century of Polish Piano Miniatures (Naxos/Grand Piano)

Another album to mark an anniversary, Anna Szalucka’s debut disc was released to coincide with the centenary of Polish independence in 2018. Each work represents a significant moment in the country’s musical and political history and the album pays tribute to the bravery of composers who stood up for freedom in art and culture during politically turbulent times. Appropriately, the album opens with works by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a passionate advocate for Polish independence and appointed the country’s prime minister in 1919. Miniatures by Szymanowski, Bacewicz, Gorecki, Mykeityn and Panufnik bring us almost to the present day and demonstrate the variety and inventiveness of the heirs to Chopin. While others may dwell on sentimentality, Anna takes a simpler (but never superficial) and more direct approach in her interpretations. Her playing is committed and authoritative with a piano sound that is warm and bright.


Adam Swayne – (Speak To Me): New Music. New Politics (Coviello)

Another musical journey in Adam Swayne’s new album and one which touches on the politics of present-day America in two works reflecting art’s ability to offer commentary on contemporary events and popular culture. Kevin Malone’s ‘The People Protesting Drum Out Bigly Covfefe’ was commissioned by Swayne and integrates popular songs captured live at anti-Trump rallies in the UK and the US – a permanent testament to the circumstances surrounding the piece’s creation. It’s energetic and urgent, and Swayne handles it with an assured aplomb and wit. This work sits well with Rzewski’s North American Ballads, which are based on American folk and work songs, and draw on folk musician and activist Pete Seeger’s work. Meanwhile, Amy Beth Kirsten’s Speak to Me, a work in three parts, includes vocalisations by the performer. Although based on the Echo and Narcissus myth, the political inference is clear in the “censoring” of the performer’s voice in the final movement where we hear the piano alone. Again, Swayne handles this music with assurance, creating an unsettled calm in the last movement. The album is bookended by Gershwin’s Three Preludes and Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude, and Swayne brings a toe-tapping energy and swagger to the Gould and the first and last of the Gershwin Preludes, while the middle of three is soulful and sensuous, deeply redolent of ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess.


Karim Said – Legacy (Rubicon)

This interesting new release from Karim Said juxtaposes Byrd, Morley, Bull and Tomkins – with piano music by Schoenberg and Webern. Said takes Joseph Kerman’s assertion that William Byrd had a “pervasive” influence on Arnold Schoenberg as the inspiration for the repertoire included on this disc and his fascination with the way composers influence one another, in this case across the distance of 400 years, is demonstrated in the organisation of the works on the disc. The Renaissance pieces take on a new dimension when heard alongside Schoenberg’s Suite for piano, op.25 and Webern’s ‘Kinderstuck’. This thoughtful disc is a wonderful example of how the old can shine a new light on the new, and vice versa, and Said’s tasteful, elegant playing brings the music to life with grace and clarity.


Cordelia Williams – Bach & Part: Piano Works (SOMM)

These two composers are natural companions as both share a deep spirituality and clarity of expression. The works on this disc reveal each composer’s interest in the way musical lines overlap, intertwine and respond to one another. While Bach’s counterpoint is concerned with the interplay of voices and motifs, Part’s explores timbres and intervallic relationships between the melodic lines; both share a striving for essence and economy of expression. Williams’ clarity is complemented by exquisite phrasing and musical sensitivity, a tender intimacy and simplicity in the works by Part, and elegance of expression in the Bach Inventions and Prelude.

 

Interesting things come from online connections – and this is one of the nicest projects I’ve been involved in recently, thanks to a Twitter/Facebook connection with composer Doug Thomas.

The Seasons is Doug’s hommage to Tchaikovsky’s suite of 12 piano miniatures which bears the same name, a year-long collaborative project with 12 pianists from around the world. Doug composed 12 short pieces, 1 for each pianist participating in the project. Each pianist recorded his/her piece and these recordings were released month by month via Doug’s SoundCloud and social media. Now all 12 pieces have been collated into an album, available via SoundCloud and Spotify (in a fully mixed/engineered version).

The music is generally minimalist in style, and each piece is different – like Tchaikovsky’s Season’s, Doug captures the character of each month, from the solemn frozen majesty of January to the reawakening of nature after winter (March – which Doug composed for me), the sunny playfulness of July and the melancholy nostalgia of December at the close of the year.

Other pianists participating in the project include Christina McMaster, Clio Monterey and Simeon Walker – all of whom have, coincidentally, appeared in my Meet the Artist series. This for me is a mark of the wonderful connectivity that social media affords us, and that those of us in the piano world have many overlapping networks and circles within circles.

It is very special to have a work composed especially for one and I felt a huge responsibility towards the composer and his music to interpret the work in a way which I hoped would fit with his original vision for the work, which conveys the excitement of nature bursting into life again after the winter chill.

Listen to the album on Spotify

In addition to the album, the sheet music for the complete project is also available here.

A selection of piano music that touches your soul, beyond any other….


Andrew James Johnson is a Composer and Pianist from the UK renowned for his melodically inspired and elegantly crafted solo piano works. His music speaks directly to the heart, conveying a range of emotions from the first few bars. As the music flows from his fingertips, Andrew caresses the piano with his yearning phrases alongside a natural virtuosity that takes the listener on a transcendent musical journey.

andrewjamesjohnson.co.uk

 

 

 

life_cover_750x750_88985424452_enThis could be the best thing I’ve heard this year. A bold claim, I know, but listening to Igor Levit’s new recording Life (Sony Classical) literally stopped me in my tracks….

With four recordings already and glowing reviews wherever he plays, this latest offering – his first in three years – from German-Russian pianist Igor Levit was eagerly awaited. It’s very different from his previous recordings which have focussed on “big” serious works (the Diabelli and Goldberg Variations, Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, late Beethoven Sonatas). ‘Life’ is a classical concept album, a very personal existential reflection on life and death, prompted by the death of a close friend. Music has proven therapeutic benefits and Levit finds a way through his grief , though perhaps not a sense of closure, in a series of solemn, valedictory and deeply thoughtful works by Busoni, Bach/Busoni, Schumann, Rzewski, Wagner/Liszt and Bill Evans. There’s no flashiness here, no glittering runs or vertiginous virtuosity – that would be inappropriate. Instead we have a continuous meditative flow of music from Busoni’s Fantasie after J S Bach through the fleeting poignancy of Schumann’s Geister (‘Ghost’) Variations to Bill Evans’ Peace Piece, an unusual but entirely fitting work with which to close this wondrous recording.

Every note is considered, measured, poised but never mannered: there’s none of the pedantry other “intellectual” pianists tend towards in performance. This playing epitomises the maxim “through discipline comes freedom” – something I felt very strongly in Levit’s mesmerisingly intense concert of Beethoven’s last three sonatas at Wigmore hall last year. You could have cut the atmosphere – one of concentrated collective listening – with a knife, and Levit achieves the same palpable sense of presence, intimacy and profound communication on this recording. It’s as if you’re in the room with him, quietly observing, listening, almost without breathing, while he plays. He finds incredible delicacy in the quietest reaches of the dynamic range – technically hard to achieve and emotionally wrought – and the entire album has a compelling processional quality, felt most strongly (for me) in Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Solemn March to the Holy Grail from Parsifal, to which Levit brings immense control and a hushed, prayer-like quality to the magisterial architecture of this work.  The Fantasia and Fugue on the Chorale  ‘Ad nos, ad salutarum undum’,  the longest work on this 2-disc recording, is another glowing transcription, also by Liszt, demonstrating that music, like life, is subject to change. Isolde’s passionate Liebstod and Busoni’s poignant Berceuse pave the way for the final work on the recording.

Bill Evans’ ‘Peace Piece’ matches the solemnity and intensity of the rest of album but in its ostinato bass and delicate treble filigrees, so redolent of Chopin’s tender Berceuse, there is, finally, a sense of consolation. It’s beautifully played by Levit, as are all the pieces on this recording.

Highly recommended

 

 

A recent conversation with a pianist friend of mine (who, incidentally, is probably the best advocate I know for amateur pianism, such is her devotion to the piano and its repertoire), during which my friend described a festival adjudicator who implied that she should not be playing works like a Chopin Ballade, reminded me of an attitude which exists, and persists, amongst some professional musicians (and indeed a few amateurs too) and teachers that certain repertoire is for professional or advanced pianists only. This is of course rubbish: no repertoire should be considered “off limits” or the exclusive preserve of the professional. The music was written to be played, whether in the privacy of one’s home or to a full house at Carnegie Hall

Prior to the nineteenth century, most music was written for and performed in the court or the church but there was also instructional music (for example by JS and CPE Bach) to help the keyboard player improve their understanding of technique etc (later taken up in the nineteenth century by Chopin, for example, in his Études). J S Bach’s Clavier Übung (literally ‘Keyboard Practice’) includes the six keyboard Partitas, the Italian Concerto and Overture in the French Style, and the Goldberg Variations – all wonderful works which regularly appear in concerts and are enjoyed by pianists the world over. All these works were written to be played at home as part of one’s keyboard study, and I cannot imagine Bach would consider his splendid music to be “off limits” to amateur players – nor Chopin either!

By the nineteenth century, the piano had improved significantly and by the mid-nineteenth century advanced manufacturing techniques meant pianos could be produced more quickly and cheaply. The instrument became an important member of the household and composers responded to its popularity by writing smaller scale works, “albumblatt”, miniatures and duets, specifically aimed at the “at home” or amateur player. Many of these works are now staples of concert programmes.

As pianists we are terribly spoilt for choice. We have a vast repertoire to explore, and today composers continue to add to that repertoire, which means we also have brand new music to explore and play. And in my experience, composers are pleased if you actively seek out their music to play (and preferably purchase it too). OK, so it’s not as prestigious as having it premiered by a leading artist, but that the music is being played and perhaps shared with others via piano clubs, self-organised recitals etc means the music is getting out there.

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re “not worthy” of this fantastic repertoire, that you shouldn’t attempt a Chopin Ballade, a late Beethoven or Schubert Sonata, Liszt’s Dante Sonata or Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.

The music is there to be played – just go and bloody well play it!