In February 2013 at the invitation of star conductor Christian Thielemann, the legendary Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini returned after almost 25 years to the Dresden Staatskapelle and gave his first performance at the Dresden Semperoper ever. The celebrated, 70-year-old pianist played Brahms’ 1st Piano Concerto in D minor, Op. 15.
For those who remember the Abbado/Pollini collaboration from 1999 and the Böhm/Pollini from the 1980s in that same work, the Böhm is considered the best in terms of balancing heroic pianism and confessional insight. The new Thielemann collaboration however, displays superior balance and tempi, richness of detail and greater substance in the piano part, often accomplished by Pollini´s dynamically supportive and active left hand structures.
Brahms originally conceived the first piano concerto as his first major work for orchestra, what would have been his first symphony. After that proved unsatisfactory, he began molding it into a sonata for two pianos. Brahms ultimately decided that he had not sufficiently mastered the nuances of orchestral colour to sustain a symphony, and instead relied on his skills as a pianist and composer for the piano to complete the work as a concerto. It was first performed on January 22, 1859, in Hannover, Germany, when Brahms was just 25 years old. Five days later, in Leipzig, an unenthusiastic audience hissed at the concerto, while critics savaged it, labelling it “perfectly unorthodox, banal and horrid”. In a letter to his close personal friend, the renowned violinist Joseph Joachim, Brahms stated, “I am only experimenting and feeling my way”, adding sadly, “all the same, the hissing was rather too much”. Today it is considered one of the finest and most powerful concerto compositions of the Romantic period.
Brahms’ biographers often note that the first sketches for the dramatic opening movement followed quickly on the heels of the 1854 suicide attempt of the composer’s dear friend and mentor, Robert Schumann, an event which caused great anguish for Brahms.
Chopin’s piano music does have a prominent place in the classical music repertoire. Janina Fialkowska’s Chopin Recital II recording on ATMA Classique confirmed the fact when it recently won the prestigious BBC Music Magazine Award for Best Instrumental Recording of 2012.
The BBC Music Magazine Awards are the only classical music awards in which the main categories are voted for by the public. The shortlist represents the very best of more than 1,300 recordings reviewed by BBC Music Magazine during 2012, and features leading names from the international classical music arena.
“I’m overwhelmed by the prize,” Fialkowska told the Independent. “I’ve devoted most of my professional life to the music of Chopin and it’s nice to have my playing recognized in this way.”
Montreal-born Fialkowska, 61, is recognized the world over as one of the great interpreters of the music of Frédéric Chopin, whom she names as her favourite composer. In 1970, she settled in New York and enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music as a student of Sasha Gorodnitzki, later becoming his teaching assistant from 1979-1984. Following her prize-winning performance at the inaugural Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition held in Tel Aviv in 1974, Arthur Rubinstein became her mentor and launched her international career. Last May, Fialkowska was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2012 Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards.
This short film artfully defines Janina Fialkowska’s imprint in the world of classical music: Constellation by Patrick Doan
“We have had many celebrated executants in London in this Chopin anniversary year — Zimerman, Pollini and Yundi Li among them — but none has taken my breath away quite like Fialkowska. If you have the chance to hear her, cancel all other appointments.” — The Evening Standard
“Fialkowska is formidable…performs with a clarity that sets her apart from the ordinary superstars. ” — The Toronto Star
“Fialkowska was always one of those “best-kept secret” pianists, loved by connoisseurs for her tonal refinement and exquisite musical taste, but her ordeal seems to have released a new lease of life in her music-making… the playing is sheer bliss. If you buy one Chopin selection this year, make it Fialkowska’s. ” — The Sunday Times
Pianist András Schiff’s latest recording was nominated for Grammy and gained international attention because of its lack of using the sustain pedal.
In this interview Schiff explains and demonstates his ideas on this widely discussed topic on how to play J. S. Bach’s music, and more specifically, the “Well Tempered Clavier” (BWV 846-893) on a modern piano.
In part two of the three-part special on building a career as a professional pianist, Piano Street’s guest writer Alexander Buskermolen spoke with Dutch pianist Hannes Minnaar about his education, vision on personal musical development, and the challenges he faces as an international performer.
Hannes Minnaar, who was born in 1984, is one of Holland’s most exciting and successful pianists. After winning third prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2010, his career took flight. Hannes Minnaar currently plays with orchestras like The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, The National Orchestra of Belgium and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. He worked with Herbert Blomstedt and Marin Alsop during those collaborations.
Alexander Buskermolen: To start off, could you describe your musical educational path in general? Please describe your path from your first piano lessons until now. Also, who were your teachers? What did they contribute to your development?
Hannes Minnaar: My first encounter with classical music was at the age of four when I listened to classical records at my grandparents. I wanted piano lessons for years, and my parents finally decided the time was right for me to start playing the piano. Well, to be exact, it was a keyboard and not really the piano. After starting lessons with the neighborhood teacher, it became pretty clear after two years that it was time to take the next step and go to music school. By this time, I was eight years old and my hunger for piano music was growing. While I was learning my first Clementi Sonatinas with my new piano teacher, I also made many trips to the local library to get Chopin’s Polonaises and Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque. Funnily enough, the Chopin Military Polonaise wasn’t the biggest problem. It was Clair de Lune with five flats!
After having three different teachers in four years, it was time to take a big step in my piano education. Since I was not old enough for the young talent class at the Conservatory of Zwolle, my parents and I decided to have private lessons with one of the most influential teachers of my life: Marien van Nieukerken. Now things started to become serious!
As I started my piano lessons with Marien, I learned about the tough side of becoming a pianist: playing Czerny etudes, raising the standard of technique, and learning music by heart for the very first time. During my lessons with Marien van Nieukerken, I realized that I really wanted to become a professional pianist. I couldn’t have wished for a better teacher to prepare myself for a career in music! He stayed with me up until I was accepted for a course of study on my way to a professional career.
When I started my professional musical education at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, I was very fortunate to have Jan Wijn as my teacher. The lessons with him were sometimes much different than the piano lessons I had had before. The biggest contribution that Jan Wijn made teach me to control the relaxation. Before that, I used to play nearly everything with just the fingers. I used no wrist or arm movement whatsoever. I simply couldn’t relax my arms as they hit the piano. The funny thing is, up until that point I had played a lot of repertoire that would let me get away with this kind of vertical piano playing. Later, when I started to play more Ravel and Rachmaninoff, I was able to benefit from this new technique and relaxation of the arms.
AB: Chronologically, which composers, methods, and compositions have specifically contributed to a certain technical or musical capability? Which piano methods did you encounter during your musical education?
HM: Like many Dutch kids from my generation, I started with the books of Folk Dean–this was the alias for the Dutch composer Theo Ettema, who lived from 1906-1991. After approximately two years, I started playing Clementi Sonatines, then Mozart Sonatas, Schubert Impromptus and even Brahms’ Opus 117. During this time, I also loved to play everything that I knew from television and radio.
With Marien van Nieukerken, I started to play Czerny Etudes, some unknown American Piano Sonatas, Chopin Etudes a lot of interesting but relatively unknown stuff, like pieces by Gottschalk, Ray Green and Simeon ten Holt. To be honest, 20th century music was something I appreciated more than, let’s say, an early Sonata by Beethoven.
During my time at the Conservatory of Amsterdam I also studied the organ, so I was attracted naturally to play a lot of Bach. Other composers that were part of my routine were Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and Ravel.
AB: In November 2011, you performed Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto. This work is known for its extremely difficult score and technical challenges. Technically and mentally, how did you approach this first encounter with this musical milestone?
HM: After I played in the finals of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2010, a couple of orchestras asked me to play a Concerto with them. Of course, these orchestras have their wishes about which Concertos to play. Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto was one of them. For me, it was time to take on this challenge and try to master it in a relatively short amount of time. I was already in the mood because I’ve performed Rachmaninoff’s First Sonata many times. I had a very busy schedule, so after doing bits and pieces of the Concerto during most of the spring, it was only in the summer that I found a couple of weeks to really dive into the score. During the two months prior to the concert, I really practiced day and night to master the whole Concerto.
In anticipation of the first performance, I was quite anxious. Despite this attack of nerves, I felt really at ease during the performance and I really enjoyed playing it on stage. The second performance later that week felt even better. I really hope that I’ll be playing this Concerto many times more. So, even though I was familiar with all the myths and stories, such as the movie “Shine,” it turned out to be a fantastic project.
AB: How did you prepare for a very demanding life as a concert pianists, in terms of repertoire, during your time at the Conservatory of Amsterdam? Did you, for instance, learn how to program a solo recital or chamber music concert?
HM: Some of the repertoire that I played prior to my time at the Conservatory I could still play in recitals. For instance, I’ve played Preludes by Rachmaninoff, Etudes by Chopin and Ligeti, and also the Sonatine by Ravel. This last piece, together with Miroirs and Rachmaninoff’s 1st Sonata, I even recorded on my first CD that was recently published.
When I started my lessons with Jan Wijn, romantic piano music was absolutely not the core of my repertoire. With him, I started working on pieces like Schumann’s Carnaval and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. In a way, you could say that Jan Wijn was a lot more orthodox in his approach to repertoire. He wasn’t necessarily the kind of teacher that asked me to bring 20th century abstract music to the lessons. But I enjoyed working on contemporary pieces with him as well.
AB: You’re also a very gifted organist and recently obtained your Masters degree in organ performance, Summa Cum Laude. Which parallels and differences do you encounter when practicing on both instruments? How do you apply your insights into your daily practice?
HM: One of the biggest challenges in playing the organ, compared to the piano, is that you need to find a different balance in body posture. The simple fact that your feet don’t touch the ground has a huge impact on this balance. Therefore a good posture is extremely important to achieve a free technique. Also, in terms of articulation, I found a new approach to the piano. Playing the organ, I feel that I became more aware of my fingertips and movements. Articulation is the biggest factor in determining different styles of playing. Therefore, I developed a lot more awareness about the duration of a tone and how it affects phrasing. Playing the organ also enriched my understanding of a musical line.
The difference between both instruments was mainly emphasized by the teachers. For instance, my organ teacher was quite strict and theoretical about tempo. He believed in set tempi for every composition. This approach gave me a certain context to work in – I never got that before. Jan Wijn was more effusive and talked a lot about effect and feeling. He still remained true to the score, of course. His vision often collided with the fixed context given by my organ teacher, Jacques van Oortmerssen. For me, this was a perfect opportunity to think outside the box and find my own musical truths.
AB: Considering the extremely high technical standards necessary for any performance, how do you deal with this? How do you make sure your performances are technically clean and well executed? How were you prepared for this part of your artistic career?
HM: I can start off by admitting that I’ve rarely played perfect concerts. There are always a few slips. I’ve seen some of my colleagues play their recitals absolutely flawlessly, which is highly frustrating, ha-ha! I can be amazed by this phenomenon, though I know the essence of a performance should still be about the musicality, stories, and gestures. To achieve technical perfection and 100% clean executions of compositions, I believe you need extreme dedication to the studying process and an ability to concentrate beyond what most people will ever experience. I found out that only when I am in optimal concentration and focus (and relaxation!) I’m able to play without a slip of the finger. But I feel my technique is rather based on playing musical gestures than playing notes, the latter being much more safe. A clean technique may never be the main priority. However, Jan Wijn has always been quite strict about any kind of mistakes that were made in a lesson or performance.
AB: I’d like to thank you for your time and effort to speak with us. We wish you all the best in your artistic and personal path and we’ll make sure to keep track of your expanding career.
Listen: Samples from Hannes Minnaar’s premier recording on Etcetera label.
During his current work recording piano music by the Italian composer Andrea Luchesi — a contemporary of W. A. Mozart — pianist Roberto Plano made a most unusual and rare discovery.
Patrick Jovell: We know you as the First Prize Winner of the 2001 Cleveland International Piano Competition and as finalist at the Twelfth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition of 2005. We also know of roughly 20 available CDs. We would, however, like to ask you about your unique discovery. We understand that you made this discovery while working on a recent recording of the music of Andrea Luchesi, a contemporary of Mozart who lived from 1741-1801. Can you tell us the story about what you have found?
Roberto Plano: Yes, actually it’s not easy to make new discoveries. I didn’t think that I could make one… The story is simple. I was getting ready for the world première recording of the two Keyboard Concertos by Andrea Luchesi, an Italian composer that I started to re-discover with a CD released on the Concerto label last year. One of these Concertos needed a Cadenza that was not written by the composer, so I decided to write my own. But just before the recording, a few Luchesi-fans let me know that Mozart probably wrote a Cadenza for the Concerto in F Major. This Cadenza had not yet been discovered. This news intrigued me, so I looked on the Digital Mozart Edition on the Mozarteum webpage for all the Cadenzas written by Mozart. I found two volumes. One contained some Cadenzas he wrote for his own Concertos, and one contained Cadenzas written for Concertos by other composers. In this last volume I noticed a Cadenza in F Major listed as a Cadenza for an unknown concerto. Since the key was the same as the Luchesi Concerto I played it, and found out that the musical material was undoubtedly the same! Mozart wrote that Cadenza for the Luchesi Concerto, and this was never discovered before! You can imagine my surprise. I was also aware that this Mozart music, with its missing Concerto, was probably never played in modern times. So, I learned it and recorded it.
Extract from Mozart’s cadenza K 624:
PJ: You have recently released an album with Andrea Luchesi Sonatas & Rondos. His compositional style could be described as being a mix of Mozart, Scarlatti and Galuppi, but what specifically has attracted your attention to his music?
RP: It’s exactly what you say that attracted me, together with the fact that these Sonatas were never performed on a modern piano. This seemed crazy to me since we regularly play the music of Luchesi’s contemporaries on a piano. These Sonatas are a mix between Scarlatti and Haydn, between Galuppi and Mozart. Music that could be similar to the Empfindsamer and Galant styles, but also close to the Classical style, especially in the slow movements. Listen for example to the Andante of the Sonata in C Major by Luchesi and the Andante of the Sonata K 545 in C Major by Mozart, and you will hear many similarities. Mozart wrote that Andante many years after Luchesi’s.
PJ: How would you sum up Andrea Luchesi´s influence? Luchesi was nominated official court Kapellmeister in Bonn in 1774. He was also primarily a teaching composer/organist with students like Reicha, Ries, Roemberg, and young Beethoven. What do we know about his interaction with the Mozart family?
RP: It’s incredible to see how influential Luchesi was during his time. The Bonn Music Chapel was equally important at the time when Luchesi was Kapellmeister. The young Beethoven played the viola in the orchestra with Luchesi conducting. Luchesi was also teaching other musicians that would be incredibly influential in the future, such as Anton Reicha. Reicha eventually became an important music theorist of many new musical forms. In Paris, he taught sonata form to great musicians like Berlioz, Liszt, Gounod and Franck. Luchesi led the Bonn Chapel to a great role in the music of that time, which is something that his predecessor, Beethoven’s grandfather, apparently didn’t do. Before going to Bonn, he had earned great fame in Italy and this was why the young Mozart paid him a visit during his trip to Italy with his father in 1771. Mozart liked Luchesi’s style that much so he asked him for a copy of his Concerto in F, which is one of the concertos I recorded. It is a piece he played in concert for many years after that, and he also suggested his sister Nannerl to use it with her students.
PJ: Luchesi´s works are said to be circulated in the name of Haydn, Mozart, and others since 1763. What is the story behind this? Is it true that German musicology is supposed to have misattributed them?
RP: This is the thriller beyond the life of Luchesi. I’m not a musicologist, so I cannot know what really happened during Luchesi’s time. What I know is that the copyright didn’t exist at that time, and there are cases where musicologists discovered that works attributed to one composer were not at all written by him. This happened, for instance, with Haydn´s Symphonies. Once, there were many more considered than the 104 we count nowadays. What I don’t understand is why we have many Luchesi compositions from his Italian years and very, very few from his German period–where did his compositions written after 1771 go? And it’s also strange that German musicologists never mentioned Luchesi’s name associated with Mozart and Beethoven… nor discovered that Mozart wrote a Cadenza for his F major Concerto!
PJ: Can you tell us about your upcoming recording plans for the Luchesi project?
RP: Between the first CD dedicated to Luchesi´s Sonatas and Rondos, and the one with the Keyboard Concertos to be released this fall, I also recorded a CD for the Italian music magazine Amadeus. It showcases Luchesi’s Sonatas Op. 1, where his development as a composer is obvious. It is out this spring.
Roberto Plano plays Andrea Luchesi: Piano Sonatas & Rondos
In this exclusive interview pianist Paul Roberts talks about his new book Reflections and the search for pathways into the core of musical interpretation.
Patrick Jovell: It has been a fascinating journey reading your book and I must say that it’s not only a book about Ravel but rather about the sources and states which are required in order to understand the transcendence of music. I understand “the case of Ravel” does propose many angles of such a process but does it also reflect your own way when approaching other composers’ music as well?
Paul Roberts: The somewhat over-used word today to describe this process is ‘holistic’. I believe this process is crucial, in fact for me it is self evident. I have never been able to accept that art, in whatever form, is something ‘out there’, detached, framed, separated, hence unconnected to our essential selves. We all know that art is an expression, in however complex a way (and often in a very simple way) of our own experience, our view of the world from diverse angles. If this is obviously true of novels, plays and poetry (the written and spoken word being more or less an exact response to the need for ‘something to say’) then I want it to be true of music too. I think we should be able to talk about music in relation to our experience outside music. I recognise, of course, that the correlation between music and the experience to which it is connected is much more difficult to isolate and bring forward for discussion, music being essentially abstract and lacking the concrete meanings of language. It is sometimes easier to talk about music from the 19th and early 20th centuries (so-called Romanticism and Impressionism) but it should be equally possible to talk in this way about Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and even Stockhausen.
So yes, my preparation for performing and teaching any music by any composer begins from a profound respect for the sources of inspiration, whether personal, literary, historical, stylistic. We need to engage with why the music exists at all and not simply treat it as a problem to be solved in a technical sense, to be learnt, performed and discarded.
And one further point is relevant to my own approach: I believe that the performing musician should be very aware of how other art forms operate, how other artists grapple with problems of expression, of form, of communication. If an actor needs to immerse herself in the flavour and manners of a period, in order to ‘act’ with complete veracity, then a musician should too. How can we perform Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales if we don’t understand the risqué nature of a waltz, or Ravel’s stated intention that these waltzes were inspired by early 19th-century Vienna? The ironic tension between Ravelian harmony on the one hand, and the ever-present limitation of the three-four time structure on the other, redolent of Schubert’s waltzes, is the very condition that produces this supremely great work of art. (See my chapter on Valses nobles in my book!)
It is by engaging with other art forms that one can come across such wisdom as the following, from the theatre director Peter Brook: ‘An actor must never forget that a play is greater than himself.’ Pianists should take heed.
PR: I discovered Debussy first, in my teens, and it was many years before I tackled Ravel. Being a slow learner and absorber I needed years before I felt able to say something about Debussy. Once I had got there – and I’m certainly not saying I am finished, the learning process is endless – I suddenly saw Ravel across the other side of the valley, it was almost a relief and a liberation to turn to something so utterly different from Debussy yet intimately connected both artistically and of course historically.
The affinity stemmed from a simple romantic attachment to all things French in my teens, and I have to say it was the music of Debussy, when I first heard it (La fille aux cheveux de lin, and Prélude à l’après-mid d’un faune, then Pelléas at university), that drew me to all things French. It spoke so strongly to me, it chimed in with my own secret desires and ideals, and I simply wanted to find out more and more. So I read about him – a recall a dreadful hagiography entitled Clair de lune which thrilled me at 16 (I still have a copy on my shelf). I listened endlessly, learnt piano pieces, and even at 21 dreamed of writing a book that would engage with all the solo piano music – at that time I called it Music and Painting. It took nearly 30 years to come to full fruition (my Images), and a good thing too.
I was fascinated by Debussy the man, and above all by the way the man was not only shaped by his times, but how he shaped those times himself. This above all developed my interest in the holistic approach to preparation and interpretation. Of course Debussy’s music can be taken as it is – the greatest art will always withstand myriad approaches and myriad interpretations, and I don’t deny that the greatest art is also self-contained – but it would be a foolish performer who didn’t at least pay some attention to Debussy’s own experiences of painting, poetry, oriental music, Japanese art and the music of Wagner and the Russians. It is but a short step to become interested in the life – for example, in Debussy’s highly attractive role as a father, and his relationship with his daughter that led to the composition Children’s Corner.
Following up these threads leads to the very nature of the creative process, which for me can be expressed by a straightforward question: how does the person Claude Debussy become the artist Claude Debussy? Can the two sides of this question actually be separated? If that seems a somewhat obscure, perhaps over-academic, approach for performing artists, then how about a question closer to home: how does the person Paul Roberts (fill in your own name) become the performing artist Paul Roberts (fill in your own name)? I do believe that for our health and well being, and thus for the validity of our art, we should all know from what material – experiences, inner compulsions – our creative impulses spring.
So it was a logical step that I should be drawn into writing a biography of Debussy. I originally considered that Ravel’s life would not interest me – it never had especially – but on turning at last to his piano music and realising that I not only wanted to perform it but also write about it, I soon discovered what a profoundly complex and fascinating ‘case’ the man himself offered. The more I explored the life, the more was I drawn to Ravel’s inner world, and the more I felt I understood the extraordinary qualities of his art. Reflections is not a biography of Ravel: it is a book about the piano music. But inescapably I found that I couldn’t write about the music without reference to the man.
PJ: A thrill for the reader, you are very concerned with the pianist collaborations with contemporary pianists like H. Faure, Viñes and Perlemuter and refer to them as messengers to the future. As a modern pianist, how do you listen to them and what in particular are you looking for? I gather there is a fine line between imitation, inspiration and analysis?
PR: It is fascinating and highly instructive to hear how pianists of the past played. It brings us down to earth, and helps us realise that interpretation is absolutely not an exact science and that what we ‘do’ today is partly to do with current tastes and fashions. So I marvel at the performances without ever wanting to imitate them. One couldn’t – it would be like walking around in the clothes from another era, complete with wig and silk stockings (or in Ravel’s case silk cravates, impeccably pressed trousers and spats).
But we soon learn to distinguish between surface fashions (the frequent arpeggiation of chords for example, apparent in some of Ravel’s own piano roll recordings) and the essence of the music. What never fails to come across in the finest performances – what for me actually defines a fine performance – is the nature of phrasing, the ease of movement within the music, the flow and intelligibility of direction. Perlemuter in particular is a master of this. Unfortunately there are very few recording of Viñes, and none in which he plays Ravel (Debussy’s Soirée dans Grenade he plays with tremendous Spanish flair and quite fast.). You don’t mention Walter Gieseking (and nor do I in the book) but he exemplifies refinement of phrasing in his Debussy and Ravel recordings. I listen for this, or I am at once struck by this – which is a constant source of aesthetic pleasure – irrespective of the ‘interpretation’, which I find is secondary. What I mean is, we would never play like that today, in terms of tempo, or rubato, but we should certainly aspire to that ease and rightness of phrasing.
And Ravel manifests this too in his piano roll recordings. His performances are often clumsy, full of errors, and often too fast, yet the musical flow, the engagement with musical meaning, is extraordinarily present.
PJ: As a consequence of the Debussy anniversary there is now a broad musicological and artistic discussion whether Debussy was an Impressionist or not, and some voices state the importance of pure classical idioms being tremendously important for Debussy, for example. Should or could Debussy and Ravel be compared at all? Many a pianist is used to “Impressionist Piano Music” compilations by the recording industry as well as among major musical editions.
PR: I think the Impressionist label is a necessary convenience – after all it does denote a historical period and a certain style of music – though I abhor the consequent attitude that the music is therefore ‘merely’ picturesque. It is extraordinary how pervasive the view still is in certain countries that Germanic music has greater depth, greater spiritual and intellectual dimensions. So yes I am all for the new attitudes to Debussy and Ravel that show how grounded their music is in rigorous musical procedures. I am constantly pointing out in my teaching how crucial it is in preparing Debussy to understand the precision of his rhythmic structures, how the apparent freedom of his phrasing and the disembodied textures by which the music appears to escape gravity, are all dependant on a strict observance of pulse and an awareness of complex harmonic relationships.
And yet . . . how would it be possible to conceive the full genius of La mer without recognizing that the creative impulse behind this vast symphony (which really does observe processes of symphonic form and development, and which Debussy himself, the arch-enemy of academia, called a ‘symphony’) is the sea itself, and the meaning, both psychological and real, that the sea holds for mankind? The title was not added as an after thought.
Yes most certainly Debussy and Ravel can be compared within the Impressionist genre – both wrote within and outside it. In the piano works Ravel is an ‘Impressionist’ in Jeux d’eau and Miroirs (and with titles such as those how could he not be? – titles comparable to the invitations provided by Debussy’s Images and La mer). In Valses nobles on the other hand, and Le tombeau de Couperin, he is definitely not, just as Debussy is not in Suite bergamasque and the Etudes.
PJ: France, at the turn of the last century was the scene for the most important Symbolist writers and the multi-possibilities of the language became a stylistic sign of this whole movement. When clarifying the musical essence of Ravel’s works your references to literature go hand I hand. What are the differences or similarities between a Ravel/Fargue collaboration and a Chopin/Mickiewicz or a Liszt/Goethe?
PR: I think there are very strong similarities. My next research project, which I am undertaking right now at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, is a logical extension of my interest in this field. I am looking at all those many piano works of Liszt that were inspired by literature. The result will be recordings and another book, working title Liszt and Literature. So not only Liszt/Goethe (you are alluding to the Faust Symphony, and to Liszt’s life-long interest in Faustian themes and images) but, in the piano music, Liszt/Petrarch, Liszt/Sénancourt (Vallée d’Oberman) Liszt/Dante – and many other collaborations.
The Chopin/Mickiewicz collaboration has had some attention, but it is more tenuous and for this reason doesn’t absorb me in the same way. But certainly the very use of the word Ballade implies a whole symbolic relationship, if not a real one, between music and story telling. This, in general terms, certainly does interest me. The presence of what one might call narrative tension, or narrative structure, is palpable in music, whether in a sonata, in a tone poem or in the Faust Symphony. The narrative tension of Liszt’s B minor Sonata is one of its most arresting features, apparent at once, and which never lets us out of its grip. But there is not a shred of literary context. One of the greatest examples of ‘pure’ music, it was nevertheless regarded in the 19th and early 20th centuries as somehow a narrative of Liszt’s life, a biography. This is an unfashionable approach to this mighty work today, but it is by no means to be derided. The presence of the single motif in every detail of the work provides that sense of both security and intelligibility that we get from popular art forms, yet it also sets up, at times, an electrifying dramatic tension that comes from the motif managing to undergo constant transfigurations while remaining the same. This is a perfectly acceptable metaphor for a human life – though whether Liszt intended it is another matter. But to return to a comment I made earlier, the performer should be always inquiring into the sources of the creative process, and not, then, assume that the simple (or not so simple) marshalling of thematic material is the sole reason for the greatness of the B minor Sonata.
As regards literature the irony is that Debussy was far more inspired by Symbolist poetry and drama, and in literature in general, than ever he was by Impressionist painting. So in many respects the Impressionist label, to return to your previous question, is a false one. But I take musical Impressionism to mean any association outside the musical sphere, any descriptive music, so for me Liszt is an Impressionist throughout the three books of Années de pèlerinage, as is Schumann in Kreisleriana (inspired by the writing of E T A Hoffmann). And Ravel in particular belongs to this 19th-century tradition: the three poems which inspired Gaspard de la nuit he appends to the score, so as to be read by the performer and directly related to the music under the fingers – which was exactly Liszt’s practice in the Petrarch Sonnets. In Miroirs Ravel was more secretive – and one of the most exciting discoveries I made when researching my chapter on Miroirs was how the music was intimately related to Ravel’s close friendship with the poet Léon-Paul Fargue, who would have been reading his new poems to the group known as the Apaches at exactly the same time as Ravel would have been introducing his new piano pieces. Fargue was an inspiration to Ravel, his literary mentor and a vital catalyst for his musical imagination. Fargue himself was fascinated by music, Ravel’s and Debussy’s in particular, and his poetry is replete with musical allusions.
PJ: Les Apaches or Société des Apaches — in which the poet Fargue was a member — was a group of some sixteen French musicians, writers and artists which formed around 1900 who had rallied around Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande. In French Les Apaches also meant “hooligans”. There were other artistic groupings in Paris at that time. In which various ways did Les Apaches form a base for Ravel?
They were ‘Hooligans’ because the young men (no women) were rowdy at concerts in support of their favoured composers – and for the fact that they liked to see themselves as apart, as an avant-garde élite. I would go so far as to say the Apaches group was the most important event/experience of Ravel’s formative years, without which his art would not have developed as quickly or as soon as it did. It was not only Fargue’s presence – though he was the most important of the non-musicians of the group for Ravel – but the whole set and setting, the ready ears, the ready and provoking discussions on art and life, the friendship and loyalty which enabled Ravel’s art to burgeon in a supportive atmosphere (though the group were sometimes mystified by it: Oiseaux tristes was at first regarded as inexplicable). And then there was the brilliant Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, a friend from Ravel’s childhood, who became one of the most significant pianists of the age for the promotion of new music. If Ravel wasn’t playing to the group it would be Viñes (as well as the painter Paul Sordes, who by all accounts was an able amateur pianist; as a painter Sordes was dubbed ‘the Ravel of the palette’.) We owe Gaspard de la nuit to Viñes , who not only introduced the original prose poems to Ravel (by Aloysius Bertrand) but who sat, literally, by his side during its composition. Viñes was a formidable virtuoso, and though Ravel had some skill he could not have performed the work as Viñes would have done.
It is highly significant for our understanding of Ravel’s art that the group was made up of a cross section of artists: poets, writers and critics, painters, composers, pianists. The phenomenon of cross-arts discussion, collaboration, mutual inspiration – which was a guiding principal of French Symbolism in the 1890s, and a strong current in Romanticism throughout the 19th century – had its continuation in the Apaches.
The first event of its kind ever in the UK, Music Education Expo took place at the Barbican Centre in London on 20-21 March 2013, hosting over 3000 visitors and 120 exhibitors.
The expo’s seminar theaters featured a compelling programme of influential speakers from the world of music education and beyond, while the interactive trade exhibition enabled primary, secondary and instrumental music teachers to get to grips with the latest resources, instruments, technology and expertise from across the music education business.
Among the many notable exhibitors were Music First, European Piano Teachers Association, Bechstein, Schott, Yamaha, Naxos Music Library and ABRSM. Piano Street was there to show the latest features, such as the Audiovisual Study Tool (AST) as well as other new features, soon to be announced here on the website.
The memory capacity of famous musicians seem almost superhuman. Can such outstanding accomplishments be explained by the same principles associated with ordinary, everyday memory related abilities? This is the story of how the pianist went about learning, memorising and polishing the last movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto, from the viewpoints of the pianist (author no. 2) and of a cognitive psychologist (author no. 1) observing the practice. The counterpoint between these insider and outsider perspectives is summarised by the observations of a social psychologist (author no. 3) about how these two viewpoints were settled.
Written for both psychologists and musicians, the book “Practicing Perfection: Memory and Piano Performance” by Roger Chaffin, Gabriela Imreh and Mary Crawford, (Psychology Press, 2002) provides the first detailed description of how an experienced pianist organises her practice, identifying stages of the learning process, characteristics of expert practice, and practice strategies. The core of the book, however, is on memorisation. An analysis of what famous pianists of the past century have said about memorisation reveals considerable disagreement and confusion. The authors point out how principles of memory developed by cognitive psychologists apply to musical performance and reveal the close connection between memory and interpretation.
“Of all the interdisciplinary collaborations of late between psychologists and performers, surely the most fruitful… has been that of the American-Romanian concert pianist Gabriela Imreh with cognitive psychologist Roger Chaffin and his wife the social psychologist Mary Crawford. I would go so far as to say that the report of their research should be required reading for every pianist, piano student and teacher in the land.“ – Piano Journal
A new, revolutionary tool that allows you to learn piano pieces faster, broaden your repertoire knowledge, improve your interpretational skills or to simply immerse yourself in the refined art of classical piano music, has finally arrived!
The AST integrates Piano Street’s sheet music library with the leading video and music streaming services YouTube, Spotify and Naxos and allows you to listen to recordings of pieces while following along in the scores. The recordings are carefully selected by the Piano Street Team to ensure that the performances are of professional reference standard and provide a diversified selection in terms of interpretational styles.
The AST which is now available for all Gold members includes the six composers Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt and Brahms – 860 pieces in total. More composers will be added regularly throughout the year.
While Piano Street’s own recordings and recordings from YouTube are freely available in the AST the two streaming services Spotify and Naxos Music Library requires accounts with the services.