by Dr Michael Low

A second article on this giant of piano music 

According to all reliable accounts, Liszt was the first true celebrity pianist in the history of Western art music. He was the embodiment of the Romantic Era: the sublime and the ridiculous, the diabolical and the virtuous, the transcendental and the mediocre, and no other composer in the 19th century had as diverse a compositional output. Liszt’s physical beauty, musical gift and striking stage persona combined for an intoxicating cocktail of the visionary, genius, sex, lust, snobbery, vanity, religion and literature. In short, he was Faust, Mephisto, Casanova, Byron, Mazeppa and St Francis all in one. Had cyberspace and social media existed in the 19th century, the tagline for Liszt would probably have been #Sex #Drugs #Classical Music #FranzLiszt.

Liszt was the first musician to have the piano placed in profile, so that the audience would be able to see his facial expression. He was also the first pianist to perform from memory, flouting the traditional view that to perform without music is a sign of disrespect to the composer. As a composer, Liszt’s output consists of over one thousand works. And until today only the Australian pianist Leslie Howard has recorded all of Liszt’s piano works (for Hyperion). Liszt’s one-movement symphonic poems, as well as the late piano pieces, were seen by many as works which were to have significant influence on the next generation of composers. Some argued that Liszt’s experimental use of harmonies (in particular in the late works) was prophetic in its foreshadowing of atonality, paving the way for the works of Scriabin, Debussy and Schoenberg in the early part of the 20th century.

LisztLiszt’s life and music have been the subject of numerous film adaptations. On one hand, Charles Vidor’s Song Without End (1960) won an Academy Award for Best Musical Score, as well as a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture. On the other hand, Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975), based on the novel Nélida, written by Liszt’s first important mistress, the Countess Marie d’Agoult, was notorious for its re-imagining of Wagner as a vampire (yes you read that correctly…) and its use of giant phalluses, reminiscent of Japan’s Shinto Kanamara Matsuri. One of the 20th century’s greatest pianist, Sviatoslav Richter, played the role of Franz Liszt in the 1952 Russian film entitled The Composer Glinka, while Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody in C Sharp Minor was immortalised by the evergreen animated duo of Tom and Jerry.

Recommended listening (all of which can be found on YouTube)

Années de Pèlerinage (Books 1 and 2): Lazar Berman

Vallée d’Obermann (from the 1st Book of Années de Pèlerinage): Claudio Arrau

Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este (from the 3rd Book of Années de Pèlerinage): Claudio Arrau

Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses): Claudio Arrau

Two Legends: St François d’Assise: La prédication aux oiseaux and St François de Paule marchant sur les flots: Alfred Brendel

Mephisto Waltz No. 1: Evgeny Kissin

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C Sharp Minor: Benno Moiseiwitsch

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 in D Flat Major: Martha Argerich

Liebestraume No. 3 in A flat Major: Frederic Lamond

Études de concert No. 2 in F Minor (La leggierezza): Martha Argerich

Études de concert No.3 in D Flat Major (Un sospiro): Frederic Lamond

6 Grandes Études de Paganini: Andre Watts (Live Recording from Japan 1988)

12 Études d’exécution trancendente: Lazar Berman (Live Recording from Milan 1976)

12 Études d’exécution trancendente: Boris Berezovsky (Live Recording from Roque d’Antheron 2002)

Études d’exécution trancendente No. 5 in B Flat Major (Feux Follet): Vladimir Ashkenazy

Ballade No.2 in B Minor: Vladimir Horowitz (Live Recording from The Met 1981)

Piano Sonata in B minor: Mikhail Pletnev

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Flat Major: Martha Argerich

Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major: Sviatoslav Richter

Piano Transcription of Beethoven’s An die Ferne Geliebte: Louis Lortie

Piano Transcription of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture: Jorge Bolet

Piano Transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod (from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde): Michael Low

 

As a teenager, Michael Low studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke. An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.

Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children.

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Korean pianist Sunwook Kim (born 1988) came to international prominence in 2006 when he won the Leeds International Piano Competition at the age of 18. Since then he has spent much time giving concerts and exploring repertoire, developing his own style, sound and ideas about the music he plays. By his own admission, he has now arrived at a point in his career and development as an artist where he feels ready to demonstrate “a more romantic, dramatic and yet refined pianism”. In doing so, his new CD, on the Accentus label, brings together two of his favourite works – Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Choral et Fugue and Johannes Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor. It is an unusual pairing, which reflects Sunwook’s interesting in programming, and in it he aims to show the link between the two composers, despite their stylistic differences: here are two composers, both pianists, who paid a special hommage to the music of the past. Both revered the spirit of Classicism and Bachian polyphony, as well as a love of proportion and well-ordered architectural structures within music. Thus, on this disc two great musical edifices are placed side by side, and the result is magisterial.

The Prelude, Choral et Fugue is the work of a composer at the height of his powers. Composed 1884, the work displays cyclic and thematic relationships, particularly in the recall of the Prelude and Choral in the Fugue, and the tripartite structure, probably inspired by Bach’s BWV 564, lends considerable weight and emotional power to the work. Franck was also an organist, and Sunwook Kim is sensitive to the full-bodied textures which recall the sonorities of the organ, while never comprising on clarity of tone and articulation. The work unfolds with a darkly dramatic grandeur, growing progressively more intense as the music approaches its denouement in the final passages of the Fugue. Such is Sunwook’s skilled sense of pacing that the opening Prelude in particular has the spontaneity and improvisatory qualities one expects to find in similar works by Bach. By the time we reach the central Choral, with its rich broken chords which recur throughout the piece and link the three sections, the music’s message and monumental architecture is driven home authoritatively, all handled with consummate skill and dramatic tension by Sunwook.

In contrast Piano Sonata No. 3 is a young man’s work, composed in 1853 when Brahms was just twenty. It was inspired by Beethoven and Schubert, and like the Prelude, Choral and Fugue, the five individual movements are linked with each other through subtle unifying themes. Sunwook displays sensitivity to the architecture of the music, building and emphasising structure through intelligently-paced climaxes, but just as in the Franck, there’s spontaneity too, particularly in the grander gestures. In contrast, the second movement is played with an unassuming and tender lyricism. The third movement begins with virtuoso panache, all dancing dotted rhythms, before the music moves into a hymn-like middle section. Again, the contrasting moods and textures are adeptly handled. The fourth movement opens like an intermezzo, intimate and expressive, but the serenity is quickly disturbed by an ominous low motif in the bass. The finale has everything in it – a jaunty main theme, sweeping lyrical melody, stately marches, a fugue, and moments of real pianistic bravura and high-octane energy. Sunwook’s crisp articulation and awareness of Brahms’ shifting moods, structures and soundscapes makes this a rewarding and absorbing performance. The recording has a bright yet warm clarity, the acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin ideal for this music. The CD comes with comprehensive notes, including an introduction to the pieces by the pianist himself.

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Sunwook Kim, piano

César Franck
Prélude, Choral et Fugue
Johannes Brahms
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, op. 5

More information

‘Steps’ is a large-scale cycle of music for solo piano by British composer Peter Seabourne (born 1960). Begun in 2001, it now runs to five volumes and is a project which the composer, by his own admission, anticipates running through his life, as a kind of “companion”. It is significant in Seabourne’s oeuvre not only for its scale, but because piano music was the medium which drew Seabourne back into composer after a 12-year silence. Volumes 2, 3, 4 and 5 are available on the Sheva label, and also on Spotify. The composer has also made scores available via his website.

The first volume of the cycle is entitled simply ‘Steps’, but subsequent volumes have subtitles which point to the compositional impulse for each collection – Studies of Invention (Vol 2), for example, are inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s inventiveness and creative genius, and include works with titles such as ‘Flying Machines’, ‘Perspectives of Disappearance’ and ‘Lenses for Looking at the Moon’ (a haunting, luminous piece which utilises the piano’s resonance and is redolent of Arvo PArt’s piano music). Volume 3, Arabesques, is inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, Southern Spain, while the most recent volume, Sixteen Scenes Before a Crucifixion, takes the Passiontide paintings of Caravaggio as its starting point, though the music is not overtly religious. The composer describes the pieces as nearer to Preludes and “a pianist’s Winterreise”. The first volume is not intended as a cycle, but rather a collection of pieces in the manner of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, for example, and the pieces display a wide range of technical challenges, so that some are playable by younger or less advanced pianists.

In terms of style, all the works in the volumes are extremely varied and idiosyncratic, with much rhythmic and melodic interest, often very lyrical though not necessarily “tuneful”. Seabourne employs a colourful and piquant harmonic palette which recalls Debussy, Janacek and Messiaen, while the rhythmic vitality of the music is akin to Prokofiev; indeed the brevity and aphoristic nature of the pieces aligns them with Prokofiev’s ‘Visions Fugitives’ and ‘Sarcasms’. The works are challenging, and probably best tackled by the advanced pianist who enjoys such technical challenges as varied time signatures, polyrhythms, myriad articulation, filigree textures and one with the requisite artistic sensitivity and imagination to bring musical colour and invention to the music. It is always gratifying to find new music for the piano, and Steps is undoubtedly an important addition to the repertoire and definitely worth seeking out.

Different pianists appear on the recordings of Steps (Giovanni Santini, Michael Bell, Fabio Menchetti and Alessandro Viale) and all display sensitivity to the material and the varied moods and characteristics of this music, together with clarity of tone and pristine articulation. Pianist Minjeong Shin from Korea will record ‘Steps’ Volume 1 this summer.

Peter Seabourne will feature in a future Meet the Artist interview

peterseabourne.com
 

 

 

 

(photo: K Miura)

In a concert celebrating 25 years since his Wigmore Hall debut, Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski presented a programme of music with which he is most at home – works by Bach, Schumann and Szymanowski, with an encore by Janáček. By his own admission, Anderszewski “cannot play just anything” and chooses to perform only those composers he feels a strong urge to play. By the standards of most pianists active today his repertoire might be regarded as “narrow”, but it is this limited focus which results in playing which is both fastidious (without fussiness) and spontaneous, and such spontaneity is clearly the result of a long association with the music coupled with a patient, thoughtful study of it.
Read my full review

The transfer of the International Piano Series to St John’s Smith Square while the Southbank Centre undergoes a facelift is proving successful and popular. An elegant venue with a fine acoustic and a beautiful Steinway piano, coupled with one of the UK’s most gifted pianists active today, made for an evening of music making of the highest calibre, in a diverse programme which opened with Schubert and closed with Rachmaninov.

Steven Osborne
(photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Schubert’s second set of Impromptus D935 are less frequently performed than the first set, with the exception of the third of the set (a set of variations based on the Rosamunde theme). The first and the last, both in F minor but very contrasting, were presented in this concert. The word “Impromptu” is misleading, suggesting a small-scale extemporaneous salon piece or album leaf. Schubert’s Impromptus, composed in 1827, his post-Winterreise year of fervent creativity, are tightly-structured and highly cohesive works.

There is nothing “small scale” about the opening of the first of the D935, and Steven Osborne‘s account of this was brisk, almost terse, and bold, with a grandeur redolent of Beethoven at his most expansively gestural. But Schubert does not linger in this territory for long and soon the music moved into a far more introverted realm. The middle section, tender duetting fragments over an undulating accompaniment, was poetic, intimate and ethereal. By contrast, the other F minor Impromptu was infused with Hungarian flavours, with offbeat rhythms and twisting scalic figures. Osborne pulled it off with a modest bravado, alert always to Schubert’s miraculous harmonic shifts and fleeting moods.

Read my full review here

‘Tis the season for “top 10” and “best of” the year lists (indeed, such is the popularity of these lists that it would appear that every music critic at The Guardian has issued their own Top 10 Concert/Operas of 2015).

Once again, I have enjoyed a busy year of concerts, reviewing 21 concerts in London for Bachtrack.com, plus various concerts at St John’s Smith Square, the 1901 Arts Club, St Mary’s Perivale and my local music society in Teddington.

“Hits” of 2015 include all five Prokofiev Piano Concertos in a single concert at the Proms, a musical marathon for the orchestra (LSO) and audience alike, with particularly fine performances by Daniil Trifonov and Arcadi Volodos. Other stand out Proms were Sibelius first and second symphonies, Thierry Escaich playing the Albert Hall organ, and Bernard Haitink conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in Mozart’s Piano Concert K488, with Maria Joao Pires as soloist (an exquisitely measured and elegant performance), and Schubert’s ‘Great’ C Major Symphony, D944. My enjoyment of many of the Proms I attended this year was undoubtedly enhanced by my concert companions.

At the Wigmore, Garrick Ohlsson’s Skryabin Focus residency proved enlightening and insightful, with Ohlsson revealing himself as a sensitive and colouful interpreter of this curious, sensuous and often totally over the top music. This was definitely an opportunity to surrender oneself to the composer’s unique soundworld in the hands of a most capable and modest pianist.

Another revealing concert was given by Antonii Baryshevskyi, winner of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition. He presented an engaging programme which made interesting links between Scarlatti and Ligeti, together with music by Chopin, Messiaen and Schumann which revealed Baryshevskyi to be a pianist at home with a wide variety of repertoire and styles.

Maria Joao Pires gave a delightfully intimate and atmospheric joint concert with one of her protegés, Pavel Kolesnikov, in music by Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann (both solo works and music for piano 4 hands).

One of the most eagerly anticipated concerts of 2015 – and not necessarily for all the right reasons – was Ivo Pogorelich’s “this is not a comeback” concert at the Festival Hall in February. It was a curious curate’s egg of an evening, with some very uneven, eccentric and clumsy playing combined with a blistering and masterful rendition of the Brahms Paganini Variations. The critics were universally damning, yet I felt rather sad that Pogorelich had been submitted to such vitriol. Whatever one may think about the quality of his playing, together with some very strange interaction with the page turner, it was undoubtedly an “interesting” concert, and somewhat refreshing to hear such personal piano playing as opposed to the “louder faster” school of pianism one encounters rather too often these days…..

Talking of which, against my better judgement I decided to hear Lang Lang at the Royal Albert Hall, and for me the first time I’d heard the Chinese poster boy pianist since 2002. There were flashes of insight and sensitivity, particularly in the slow movement of the Bach Italian Concerto, but the Chopin Scherzi were a vehicle for his trademark flashy, overblown virtuosity, the subtlety of Chopin’s writing lost in a whirlwind of noise and velocity. ‘The Seasons’ by Tchaikovsky was simply the wrong repertoire for the size of venue, but here there were also moments of beauty and hints of a more mature approach.

Which leads me to my “miss” of 2015, the much-lauded young Polish Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki who played much by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Chopin’s Opus 25 Etudes at the Wigmore Hall in October. I had read much about Lisiecki, very fulsome and often gushing praise and I was curious to hear him live. Sadly, most of his concert was a display of youthful arrogance and immaturity which manifested itself in some very ugly and unsubtle playing. Jan is only 20 and he has plenty of time to develop as an artist – and I sincerely hope he does.

In addition, I’ve also enjoyed fine performances this year by Jeremy Denk, Murray Perahia, Stephen Hough (including the premiere of his new Piano Sonata), Marc-André Hamelin, Yevgeny Sudbin, François-Frédéric Guy, Peter Donohoe, Steven Osborne and Warren Mailley-Smith. 2016 seems set to begin on a high with concerts at the Wigmore by Pavel Kolesnikov, Steven Osborne, Piotr Anderszewski, Denis Kozukhin, and the continuation of Warren Mailley-Smith’s survey of Chopin’s complete piano music at St John’s Smith Square, a lovely venue for piano music. Further ahead in 2016, I am very much looking forward to Andras Schiff’s ‘Last Sonatas’ programmes at the Wigmore, exploring the final three sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and Daniil Trifonov in June. There is much to enjoy in 2016 and I think my concert diary is likely to be as busy as it has been this year.

Link to all my Bachtrack reviews and articles

Wigmore Hall

International Piano Series

St John’s Smith Square