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 itâs 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 composersâ music as well?
Paul Roberts: The somewhat over-used word today to describe this process is âholisticâ. 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 âout thereâ, 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 âsomething to sayâ) 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.
It is by engaging with other art forms that one can come across such wisdom as the following, from the theatre director Peter Brook: âAn actor must never forget that a play is greater than himself.â 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 â and Iâm certainly not saying I am finished, the learning process is endless â 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.
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 Debussyâs music can be taken as it is â the greatest art will always withstand myriad approaches and myriad interpretations, and I donât deny that the greatest art is also self-contained â but it would be a foolish performer who didnât at least pay some attention to Debussyâs 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 â for example, in Debussyâs highly attractive role as a father, and his relationship with his daughter that led to the composition Childrenâs 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 â experiences, inner compulsions â 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 Ravelâs life would not interest me â it never had especially â 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 âcaseâ the man himself offered. The more I explored the life, the more was I drawn to Ravelâs 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 couldnât 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, ViĂ±es 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 âdoâ today is partly to do with current tastes and fashions. So I marvel at the performances without ever wanting to imitate them. One couldnât â it would be like walking around in the clothes from another era, complete with wig and silk stockings (or in Ravelâs case silk cravates, impeccably pressed trousers and spats).
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 â after all it does denote a historical period and a certain style of music â though I abhor the consequent attitude that the music is therefore âmerelyâ 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 âsymphonyâ) 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 â both wrote within and outside it. In the piano works Ravel is an âImpressionistâ in Jeux dâeau and Miroirs (and with titles such as those how could he not be? â titles comparable to the invitations provided by Debussyâs 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?
The Chopin/Mickiewicz collaboration has had some attention, but it is more tenuous and for this reason doesnât 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 Lisztâs 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 âpureâ music, it was nevertheless regarded in the 19th and early 20th centuries as somehow a narrative of Lisztâs 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 â 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.
It is highly significant for our understanding of Ravelâs 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 â which was a guiding principal of French Symbolism in the 1890s, and a strong current in Romanticism throughout the 19th century â had its continuation in the Apaches.
In part one of a three-part special on building a career as a professional pianist, Piano Streetâs guest writer Alexander Buskermolen spoke with Hollandâs most prominent pedagogue, Professsor Jan Wijn (b.1934).
He has been responsible for training many of Hollandâs top pianists such as Ronald Brautigam, Hannes Minnaar, Nino Gvetadze, Paolo Giacometti, Thomas Beijer, Paul Komen, Ivo Janssen and many others.
Jan Wijn has taught piano at the Conservatory of Amsterdam for more than 45 years, so he is the perfect authority to guide us in our quest for the perfect path in piano education leading to a successful career in music.
Alexander Buskermolen: Professor Wijn, to start off our conversation on building a successful career on the stage, could you name a few âingredientsâ that all pianists should have in order to get accepted for studies in a professional music program? In what areas do you find certain differences among pianists?
Jan Wijn: First of all, itâs extremely important that these young musicians have a passion for music, and more specifically, a passion for playing the piano. There are many people who love music, but thereâs only a handful that are sufficiently talented in playing an instrument. Only these very talented young pianists who âlive and breatheâ (piano) music should aim for a professional music education.
The people who do get accepted at a conservatory should be very clear about their ambitions. Do they want to become performance focused musicians or do they want to become teachers? Even though many people will claim the first, here in The Netherlands we are in desperate need of the latter: well-educated and talented piano teachers. Performing in concert at the highest level, and pursuing an international career on stage is only possible for the extremely gifted pianists.
AB: Youâve been holding a teaching position at the Conservatory of Amsterdam for over 45 years, and youâve been teaching for more than 50 years: How would you describe the entrance level at the piano department during this timeframe? And which aspects of piano playing have been more or less emphasized during these past 50 years?
JW: The level of entry at the conservatory, especially here in Amsterdam, has clearly risen to a new standard. To give you an example: about twenty years ago it was customary to play Cramer and Czerny etudes at auditions for admittance into a professional music program. Today we get to hear very well executed etudes by Chopin. Another example: the exam that 1st year students do in order to continue to the 2nd year, consists of pieces that would normally have been played for a Bachelor’s exam.
Both examples underline the ongoing process of better achievements at earlier ages. You see this in sports, in chess, in business and of course in music. Everybody knows the examples of child prodigies playing incredibly difficult music at the age of 12. For most of these exceptional talents, the focus has been on achieving a technically perfect execution of the music. Itâs even rarer to find those child prodigies that possess both technical perfection and a deep musical understanding at a young age.
AB: Is there in your opinion a perfect path in piano education, starting off at the very first piano lesson, progressing on untill graduation from a professional musical curriculum?
JW: Itâs very difficult to describe one specific path considering the fact that all students have their own backgrounds, talents and weaknesses. In general you need to be lucky enough to start your lessons at a young age and with an excellent teacher. For all the different parts of your musical path you need to have the right teacher who can accompany you to, in the end, to musical independence. Ideally the first piano teacher will provide for a broad basis in which all fundamental elements are represented, such as reading notes, rhythmical precision, feeling for different styles and of course general piano technique. After this first, quite demanding acquaintance with the piano, normally itâs time to change teachers. If the student is both talented and ambitious, the aim should be to find a teacher who teaches the âyoung talent classesâ. Such a teacher can fully prepare the student for a professional study in music. He/she will be able to make good choices in repertoire, especially to enhance the studentâs technical capabilities and also mentally prepare the student for a career in music.
A second possibility, though not occuring that often, is to find an excellent teacher, if the student is lucky enough, in the vicinity of their home, which enables the teacher to work with the student all the way up to the audition at a conservatory. In The Netherlands we unfortunately do not have a set structure to offer to our young gifted musicians. This has to do mainly with politics and the low priority that musical education has these days. The âRussian modelâ, so to speak, that is used in Moscow is something that I believe will not work over here. Thereâs a different mentality when it comes to educating gifted children. In a way itâs a pity, but I just donât see it happening here. Yes we do have a lot of musical talent in our country, but great international success is very rare. For example, in the past thirty years, only two Dutch pianists made it into the finals of the Queen Elisabeth Competition. Rian de Waal in 1983 and more recently, Hannes Minnaar in 2010. No Dutch pianist has ever won at the Chopin or Tchaikovsky CompetitionâŠ (Editor’s note: Jan Wijn himself won first prize at the International Piano Competition at Orense, Spain in 1960.)
AB: Are you teaching every single student with a personal tailor-fit goal in mind?
JW: When I started teaching some 50 years ago, I held on to certain dogmas about piano playing and repertoire. If I look back on my career as a teacher, I now see that these fixed ideas have been replaced by a more holistic approach: with each individual student I simply choose which area needs attention in their development. Itâs like growing flowers and plants: sometimes they just need a little bit of water or fertilizer, the growing they just do by themselves.
AB: If you had to make a list of obligatory composers that should be played during the first couple of years of piano lessons for a child, which composers would be on that list?
JW: Before I make such a list, I think itâs good to divide the children into two groups: the ones that just want to play music for fun, not focusing on specific challenges and flawless results, and the other group obviously being the ones that have the ambition to pursue a career in music, or at least want to try to achieve the best results possible in terms of piano technique and âcorrectâ musical execution. Letâs focus on this second group.
Two absolutely essential musical styles are the polyphonic and Viennese classics. This means playing J.S. Bach (and contemporaries) and Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In an earlier stage of development you can play the sonatinas of Kuhlau and Clementi. The composers Stephen Heller and Walter Carrol I love to incorporate in the piano curriculum. With all of these composers the challenge is to play them as cleanly as possible, and with all the correct phrasings and style elements. Even though striving for clean and beautiful playing, Iâve seen that many of the gifted students Iâve worked with (mainly the boys) are very eager to play the big, virtuoso repertoire: Chopin’s Fantasy, Liszt’s Etudes, Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto, etcetera. I feel that every once in a while you should âthrow them in the deepâ and let them find out how this music works and relates to the other pieces theyâve played. However, after such a project they definitely need to go back into this disciplined approach of fine fingerwork and clean playing of the compositions mentioned before.
AB: Are there any dogmas that you uphold from a methodical or piano-technical point of view? Maybe in terms of positioning, repertoire, mentality, studying by heart, etc?
JW: Even though many of us pianists have been raised with certain ideas about the position and shape of the hands and the way to sit at the piano, Iâm very careful with stating one âbest wayâ to do so. Thereâre many examples in music history where pianists (or other instrumentalists for that matter) have developed a unique and highly individual approach to the instrument. The most well know example probably is Vladimir Horowitz. His fingers were flat and âflappyâ, but it worked out extremely well for him. Another example is Feuchtwanger, who is a self-taught pianist, but after receiving piano lessons at a later age, he got completely confused about his technique. Technique in my opinion is mostly personal.
On the subject of interpreting music on the other hand, I uphold very strong ideas. In my opinion, thereâs a lot of musical dishonesty going on. With this I mean that even young pianists make alterations to the score when it comes to dynamics or articulation. Also, the tendency to play the left and right hand unevenly is something I find very disturbing. For me it represents a misplaced feeling of security on stage. Staying close to the score is something I think is essential for an honest performance.
Itâs a known fact that current concert life is very demanding. In the past pianists could make a career with a relatively limited list of repertoire. These days, pianists are expected to perform a vast amount of different styles and compositions in a short amount of time. How do you prepare your students for this aspect of their artistic development?
Obviously itâs important that during studies at the conservatory, the students acquire as much repertoire as possible. This will form the basis of their future concert career. However, one of my former students, Hannes Minnaar, has created a very workable situation. He has limited the repertoire for recitals per season. Heâll therefore play one solo program and one or two chamber music programs allowing time, then, to be able to study new concertos and play them with several orchestras during the season. The bottom line here is that you shouldnât try to do everything at the same time, but choose your concerts and repertoire well. Play what is close to your heart and suits your style.
AB: You mentioned one of your most successful students, Hannes Minnaar (laureate QE Competition 2010). He has studied with you for approximately six years. Can you explain his âsuddenâ international success, looking back at his time in your classroom?
JW: One of the aspects of Hannesâ piano playing is that heâs able to read the scores extremely fast. He can therefore learn new scores easily and quickly, an advantage in todayâs performance industry that is not to be underestimated. Besides that, Hannes has a natural curiosity for (new) music. Of course all the necessary work has been done properly to ensure his technique is flawless. But success at competitions entails simply a lot of hard work and a bit of luck. In this sense, his personality, his style of playing and choice of repertoire are to his advantage (for instance in the final round of the QE Competition 2010, Hannes played Saint SaĂ«nsâ 5th Piano Concerto). There is never a guarantee for success, but itâs very rewarding to see many of my students doing very well on the international concert stages.
AB: Could you name one or more aspects of musicality that you have learned from your students?
JW: In general I could say that by listening to my students, I learn that there are many approaches to musicality and ways of interpreting scores. Itâs not something that my students say or point out directly, but itâs the consequence of being their teacher and listening to them as they play. I simply learn to be a better teacher by accepting the fact that their playing, in a way, is a reflection of my teaching methods.
Of course every once in a while Iâm surprised to find new fingerings or tricks through a student. To be honest I need to say that I used to be very skillful in finding little tricks to faciliate easy solutions for big technical challenges. Also, one of positive consequences of working with very young and talented musicians is that their energy is infectious. Their approach to music and life in general often works as a personal energy boost. It keeps me young!
AB: To conclude our conversation, could you give some practical tips to the readers of Piano Street about practicing at the piano? Maybe something about starting to work on an ambitious piece such as a concerto or romantic sonata?
JW: On working with such a demanding composition, thereâs nothing wrong with just muddling through the entire work for a couple of days. In this way you can get a bit more acquainted with the notes. Of course you probably will have heard the piece on CD, during a live concert or on the radio. But this reading/playing through helps you to determine which passages are most demanding and requiring the most work.
After these first couple of days itâs likely youâre a bit annoyed with the fact that you cannot play those beautiful passages, and will give you the right spirit to start working on the piece in a more serious and strict way. During this process, itâs extremely important to stay focused in an analytical way. Sooner or later (sooner is more likely) youâll run into technical challenges that require a plan on how to cope with these difficulties. Based on my experiences on working with talented youngsters, it is this process that needs the guidance and support of a good teacher.
In the end, studying all these major compositions is a process that starts with working from âoutside to insideâ, and then back âoutsideâ again. This will take time, energy and a lot of persistence. Finally, if you study correctly, all the hard work will definitely pay off.
During 2012 many Debussy recitals were played all over the world, but do you know who played the first all-Debussy recital ever?
Marcelle Meyer (1897-1958) was a major figure in the creation of new music from her participation in Erik Satie’s Parade in 1917 until her early death in 1958. She championed the works of Satie, Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky, as well as the French Group of Six composers (Les Six), all of whom she knew personally. Her fluid phrasing, great dynamic range and lovely tone are just three of the hallmarks of her rare and individual playing.
In her day Marcelle Meyer was the doyenne of French piano. Cortot admired her and she performed with the likes of Ravel and Couperin. She had a vast repertoire that extended from the Baroque to contemporary composers like Stravinsky and she left a considerable recorded legacy.
In 2007 EMI released an absolutely complete edition of Marcelle Meyer’s studio recordings, remastered from scratch, utilizing the best possible source material and modern technology.
EMI France’s 17-CD set Marcelle Meyer: Ses Enregistrements 1925-1957 has elicited great recognition in the media and has won major music awards such as Dipasson dÂŽOr in 2008.
Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky
Marcelle Meyer met Debussy at the premiere performance of Erik Satie’s Parade, for which she was the pianist. To give you an idea of the production: the mise-en-scene was by Jean Cocteau, the sets were painted by Picasso, and the choreography was by Leonide Massine, with orchestra conducted by Ernest Ansermet – the 20-year-old Marcelle Meyer was the pianist. Debussy was present at this event, which took place in 1917, just under a year before he died.
Meyer is said to have been coached by the ailing Debussy in how to play his Preludes, and certainly her playing is unique in its combination of impressionistic colours and timing. Meyer also studied with Ricardo ViĂ±es, who had premiered several of the composer’s works, and she clearly had insight into his art. While she recorded the two books of Debussy Preludes in 1957 – a recording that was unissued until 1989 – she (had previously) also committed three of them to disc in 1947, among them an incredible “La terrasse des audiences au claire de lune” in which time seems to stand still. Hear Meyer play this Prelude below followed by “L’isle Joyeuse”.
It is always a pleasure to congratulate a person who spent forty years in business, regardless of their trade. Therefor it was a very special moment for Piano Street when we got the chance to talk to Robert von Bahr, Founder of BIS Records, about the past, present and the future.
We highly appreciate BIS’ and eClassical’s free bonus track and special product prices to all Piano Street’s readers worldwide:
Six BIS Pianists – Introductions and Selected Recordings
Patrick Jovell: BIS is known as a recording company renowned for its impeccably high standards of quality, aknowledged internationally with numerous awards for its achievements. And next year, 2013, marks the 40th year for you in the record industry.
Could you summarize the developments within your business during this period of time, not only concerning the advancements from vinyl-LPs to CD-discs and further to the increasing concentration on digitalized production, but also how the prerequisites or conditions for continued endeavors have changed?
BIS Founder Robert von Bahr
Robert von Bahr: BIS has always been open for technical advances, as long as they don’t detrimentally influence the music or the sound quality. Thus, in the era of the LP:s (anyone remember them?) we released Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, played on the piano by a pianist with two hands, three feet and a nose on a 45-rpm LP, to avoid any distortion in the violently loud and deep passages. We also embraced the DMM (Direct Metal Mastering) system, a TELDEC in Germany invention that really enhanced the LP sound. We were the first label in the world that completely abandoned the LP in favour of the CD. Nowadays we are the biggest producer in the world of SACD (Super Audio CD), a system that allows us to present the music in high-resolution and in surround as well, while still being compatible to CD sound for those that don’t have access to an SACD player. And, finally, we have totally rethought the principles of downloading, to liberate us from the straitjacket of the pop world’s stubborn track/”song” thinking of 3,5 minutes’ duration, and created a site that operates on the specific conditions for classical music, and in high-res at that, at less than the usual market price. BIS uses technology, not to create an interpretation, but to let the composers and artists have their say without the interference of technical limitations. We, as producers and recording engineers, do not invade upon the territories of the composers and artists – we just make a good sound and then let them reign supremally, in that we present the complete original dynamics as they perform it. This may well lead to the misconception that we record on a lower level than others, which is complete baloney, since our loudest passages are the maximum allowed on a disc. However, since we don’t interfere with what the artists do, the softer passages may well be softer than the usual compressed products in the market, and therefore may lead people to believe that the truth is, in fact, untrue, whereas the compressed versions are the real thing. Oy vey!! Of course, if one wants to enjoy music while frying bacon or taking a shower, there is something in what they say, but those people aren’t the ones we cater for.
PJ: How does establishing oneself in the market today compare with how it was when you started?
RvB: Actually, I don’t see a difference at all. In classical music, it is the quality that counts, not any gimmickery. Probably we should be more updated on social media than we are, and possibly in modern times the level of the concentration span has decreased in the times of the increasing “spotifying” of everything to 20-second snippets.
PJ: In this article we meet some of the BIS-pianists, and particularize the interplay between the artistÂŽs unique attributes, repertoire, career and future projects leading to an exciting and creative recording process. This constitutes the firmÂŽs âpiano-profileâ. Tell us how your relationships with pianists unfold and develop, seen from the perspective of a business concern.
RvB: Also here we don’t maintain that we’re sitting on all the answers to Universe’s big secrets. We can, given our experience, which is uniquely long (with its 40 years BIS is the oldest classical label in the world, led by its Founder), quite quickly identify different artists and their strengths and decide, if and where their talent could be mutually profitable, both artistically and, not to put too fine a point at it, monetarily. We are loathe to employ artists for a one-off production, which inevitably increases the height of the threshold that they have to pass in order to become a BIS Artist, but, having managed that first hurdle, the ambition is to create a fruitful and durable relation – a symbiosis that allows the artist to develop hand in hand with an extention and broadening of BIS’s repertoire. All the pianists presented here belong to the core BIS artists and have recorded for us during long periods of time (between 8 and
29 years). These artists complement each other – indeed that was a prerequisite to work with them at all – but, inevitably, there are duplications of standard repertoire, albeit done rather differently. The operational word is, though, a common artistic development in symbiosis, for the mutual good of everyone concerned, and foremost the happy listener.
PJ: We will soon be able to read here on Piano Street an article about the non-compressed audio format FLAC and about your involvement in the digital distribution service which is offered by eClassical.com. How do you feel about the consensus concerning sound in mainstream production where compression is if anything more of a rule than an exception? How does audio compression affect our listening?
RvB: When it comes to sound quality and dynamics, we at BIS have but one answer: whatever the composers demanded and the artists performed. We simply don’t tamper with whatever the artists are doing. That’s the only way I know how to be honest, both to the artists and to the listener. Why should the listener be presented anything that has gone through the “filter” of a recording engineer, with or without talent, when it comes to the dynamics? And, having arrived at the conclusion that this simply is not on, we can extend this to the other part of sound quality as well, like bit-rate. Previously there were technical limitations that one simply had to accept, but, with the ever-increasing speed of Internet, this no longer is so. Therefore, after looking at what the “normal” sites are offering people in the form of down-loading, especially with the sharply constricted dynamics and the tampering through compression, I decided that this is not for us, at least not without giving the public-at-large an alternative to choose from. Therefore BIS bought eClassical.com and completely rethought the principles, after which a downloading site should be run – for classical music, nota bene – and implemented the changes, all of which are devised for two purposes:
- to present the music completely unadulteredly and
- in a way that makes sense for the customer from the points of view of expeditiousness, quality, guarantee and price.
PJ: We who listen to productions from BIS other than piano are fascinated by the exciting artistic collaborations which take place. We have been able to hear, for example, symphony orchestras from Sao Paolo or Malaysia, opera voices from Cape Town or BeethovenÂŽs symphonies with the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, or MahlerÂŽs Das Lied von der Erde sung in Chinese and with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Tell us about your thoughts and considerations behind these unique international and cultural synergistic results.
RvB: I simply believe that music is one of the very few cross-cultural languages – art and architecture being other examples – around. I also – and vehemently at that – do NOT subscribe to the notion that one has to be Norwegian to play Grieg or Finnish to play Sibelius (if that were the case, where should one have been born to do justice to Stravinsky? Russia, France, Switzerland, America?). On the contrary, I believe that the cultural baggage that every musician has somewhere, can cross-fertilize with the ones that the composers had and lead to something new and perhaps more interesting than if the music is performed “like it always was”. Therefore I consciously make odd couplings, like the ones enumerated above, or “worse” (like a Japanese pianist playing Russian repertoire with a Singaporean orchestra and a Chinese conductor, recorded by German producers for a Swedish label). Sometimes this really turns out well, like with the leading Bach Cantata cycle in the world, performed almost exclusively by Japanese (sic!), and very rarely not (but what evolution is there, if one doesn’t risk anything??). I also believe strongly in international understanding through performing together – if someone had put Hitler, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill in a room and told them that they couldn’t exit it until they had learned how to play a string quartet movement, there would have been no WWII, of that I am sure. How the Nobel Prize Committee in Norway could give the Peace Prize to EU rather than to Barenboim will go down as one of the big mysteries of all time.
âA dim light picks out the outlines of the hall. Suddenly a massive shadow appears and moves swiftly over to the keyboard, the only brightly lit surface to stand out from the large coffin-like box in the center of the stage. There follows the vaguest of unsmiling acknowledgments in the general direction of the audience, and then the music begins. Throughout the next two hours this music will keep its listeners enthralled with its extraordinary intensity as the audience senses the formidable physical, pianistic, musical and emotional presence of this most secretive of present-day pianists, Grigory Sokolov.â – Bruno Monsaingeon
Careerwise Sokolov didnât follow a conventional pattern and Monsaingeon suggests that Sokolov is less than world famous because he has not allowed more than a handful of his recordings — all live performances — to be released. With high integrity Sokolov objects to the studio and thus represents the secretive and eccentric. Monsaingeon says that Sokolov himself believe that the concert represents the focal point of magical life and that everything else is artificial. As a result, he was not only reluctant to be recorded but also to be filmed.
Sokolov’s record company continues to record a large number of his about seventy yearly recitals even though their request to release them most of the time comes up against the same negative answer but, according to Monsaingeon, albeit tempered by the phrase ”You can release whatever you want after my death”; he even suggested that his original recording company, Opus 111 (a reference to Beethoven’s last sonata), change its name to ”Opus posthume”, a label which seemed to him to reflect perfectly his own ideas on the subject of record releases.
In spite of this, Monsaingeon was able to overcome SokolovÂŽs privacy and reservations and the filming in Paris on the 4th of November 2002 was accepted. Conditions were that it was made live, with no retakes and with nothing to detract from his total concentration, which was directed exclusively at the music. This meant avoiding the perceptible presence of microphones, lights and cameras.
The theatre opened in 1913 and hosted Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ 5th season opening on May 15 with Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and the world premiere of Debussy’s Jeux. Some in the audiences were severely offended by the depiction on stage of a tennis game in Jeux. Still, this was nothing compared to the chaotic and tumultus reaction to the ritual sacrifice in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on May 29. Read more at history.com
The recent anniversaries of Chopin and Schumann in 2010 and Franz Liszt in 2011 inspire us to once again travel back in time and set focus on another tremendously important, yet almost forgotten virtuoso pianist from this golden era of pianism: Sigismond Thalberg.
Sigismond Thalberg was born in midwinter in 1812. Wednesday, 8 January 1812 saw not only the birth of Thalberg but also Wellington’s siege of Ciudad Rodrigo. Barely six months later, Napoleon would begin his ill-fated attempt to conquer Russia and James Madison would sign into law the American declaration of war against Britain. Thalberg was born into a world rife with conflict. The world knows remarkably little about Sigismond Thalberg before his mother brought him to Vienna in 1822 at the age of 10. That same year, Liszt, who was three months older than Thalberg, would also arrive in Vienna. Little did the piano world know that a rivalry would develop that would nearly equal the military conflicts of the day.
The first record of Thalberg’s education is from the spring of 1826, when Sigismond was 14 years old. Ignaz Moscheles took him under his wing, and Thalberg profoundly impressed him. In fact, Moscheles wrote to his good friend Mendelssohn, saying there was little else he could teach him. Very shortly thereafter, Thalberg gave his first public performance, playing Hummel’s Concerto in B-Minor. He then became a regular on the Vienna stage. Thalberg further developed his playing by befriending Clara Wieck. She was another very talented, young pianist in 1830s Vienna. Clara was slightly younger than Sigismond and may at the time have looked up to the dashing teenager. They would get together and share concertos they had learned or composed. Interestingly, Clara married Robert Schumann, who was an early Thalberg critic. At roughly this same time, Thalberg began studying counterpoint with Simon Sechter, a strict disciplinarian who demanded considerable attention to detail. Sechter was famous for a lack of elan, and it is his instruction that very likely inspired Thalberg’s nearly immobile, unemotional posture at the keyboard.
Thalberg in Paris
At 24, Sigismond Thalberg arrived in Paris. Taking it by storm, he began with a concert at the home of Count Rudolph Apponyi, the Austrian ambassador. He continued with concerts on nearly every stage in the French capital. Rossini, Meyerbeer, and Berlioz adored this newcomer, but Chopin did not. Berlioz even elevated him above Liszt and Chopin, saying he was the premier pianist in the world. Chopin countered, saying that, although Thalberg played splendidly, he was little more than a diamond-studded salon acrobat who had to use the pedals to play with dynamics. The public did not seem to care about the debate, however. They loved Thalberg, and the Swiss sensation raked in 10000 Francs for a single concert in April of 1836. It was at this time that Liszt became aware of his main rival. On Thalberg’s 25th birthday, Liszt published a scathing, highly controversial review of Thalberg’s compositions.
Italian refugees poured into Paris in the early spring of 1837. Italian princes drove many Italians to flee by hiring Austrian mercenaries to put down the many rebellions of that year. Both Liszt and Thalberg were sympathetic to their plight and agreed to stage a benefit concert for them. It became a “Duel of the Century” between the two titans of the keyboard. Critic Jules Janin, along with many other musicologists and historians, called it a draw. He noted:
“Never was Liszt more controlled, more energetic, more passionate; never has Thalberg played with more verve and tenderness…thus, two victors and no vanquished.”
Most modern Thalberg historians agree with this assessment. Most Liszt biographers, however, have Liszt trouncing his counterpart by exposing Thalberg as “Old Apreggio,” who had a “neat trick” of making two hands sound like three by playing the melody with the thumbs while embellishing it with scads of arpeggios up and down the keyboard. The debate is likely never to be settled since, obviously, no recording exists.
Read more about the duel: The Battle Between âIl penserosoâ and âThe Old Arpeggioâ
1838 and Beyond
Despite their intense rivalry and Liszt’s sometimes acidic comments to the press and public, they both remained friends their whole lives. Liszt was a frequent guest of Thalberg and his family, and Thalberg graciously promoted his friend to the King of Saxony in 1838 while on his own tour. Liszt, in turn, loudly cheered and applauded at Thalberg’s concert in Vienna ten years later. Additionally, in 1841 Fetis indicated that Thalberg influenced Liszt’s style in his Transcendental Etudes. Liszt himself agreed with this assessment.
Thalberg took a break from playing in 1840 to vacation in Germany’s Rhineland. He only wanted to relax as a tourist. The Tsarina of Russia persuaded him to play one concert for her, but that was it for nearly a year until he picked up where he left off with an 1841 concert in Frankfurt.
In 1843, Thalberg got married and settled into a routine of teaching lots and playing sporadically for the next decade or so. Thalberg developed a touch of Wanderlust in 1855 and decided to go to America to play. For three years straight, he played five or six concerts a week and made a fortune. Suddenly, in 1858, he and his family packed up lock, stock, and barrel and mysteriously moved back to Italy. No one knows why, even today. From then on, except for an 1863 Brazilian tour, Thalberg was silent at the keyboard until his death in 1871.
Because of his incredible style, Thalberg bred many imitators. Not all of them were worthy, and they have buried this virtuoso’s lasting influence under their mediocrity.
“From a composition point of view, the winning shot of Thalberg were the Fantasias on favourite opera arias, where he introduced a series of innovative and revolutionary technical formulas that made his pianism, during the first half of the nineteenth century, the only one capable to set itself against the supremacy of Franz Liszt…”
(Sigismund Thalberg biography, Il Centro Studi Internazionale Sigismund Thalberg)
1. Eliminate all tension, especially in the forearms.
2. Avoid striking the keys; rather, depress them as an extension of arm and body movement.
3. Dynamic markings are relative, not absolute; make the vocal line predominate.
4. Subordinate the left hand to the right except when it carries the melodic responsibility. Convey the overall harmony of the chords rather than their specific elements.
5. Shun the affectation of delayed entries for melodies.
6. Hold notes for their full values; slow, careful practice of fugues will develop this.
7. Modify and vary the sound rather than merely executing the notes. Learn thoroughly the resources and correct usage of the two pedals. Honor scrupulously all tempo indications.
9. Refrain from gratuitous fast playing; steady tempi, accuracy and expression demand and display greater ability, again facilitated by the study of fugues.
10. Play close to the keys. Listen to the music as you play; work with the mind more than the fingers. Study vocal technique and repertoire; listen to fine singers at every opportunity.
You might have encountered audio visual art in various forms, not at least on YouTube or in the world of computer gaming. Music visualization refers to systems which convert music or sound into film, video or computer graphics.
Music visualization, as a tool for multisensory learning, often occurs in pedagogical discussions. We are happy to have a chance to talk to audio visual artist Andy Fillebrown about his Musical Sculptures, which are now available on YouTube.
Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumblebee
Piano Street: When did you get in touch with the piano?
Andy Fillebrown: My earliest introduction to the piano was pretty painful. I was running through the house when I was a child and as I rounded the corner into the hall, I ran smack into the side of an old upright. Ouch! Probably not the best way to start playing, but it’s a funny story considering how much I love the instrument.
I was one of those kids that likes to take things apart to see how they work but I didn’t like getting my hands dirty so I read a lot of car repair manuals, instead. I grew up listening to my mother’s ballet class music. She would take us to the dance studio so she could keep an eye on my brothers and me while she was teaching. Initially, I took her beginner classes, but the old pianos in the building were a lot more interesting. I loved opening up the cases and looking at the inner workings while I pressed the various keys, and the fact that they were designed to make noise was awesome!
My father was a self taught guitarist and was starting to take piano lessons. He had beginner’s piano books around and he started teaching me from them. I took to it pretty quickly and formal classical lessons started soon after. I think was around 7 or 8 years old.
PS: How did you discover the connection between music and moving images?
AF: I had childhood dreams of being the next Beethoven but by the time high school came around I wanted to be the next Billy Joel. So I applied to Berklee College of Music instead of Juilliard. When I got there, I was blown away by how good the musicians were. Most of them were much better performers than I was, so I decided to switch to a film-scoring major. That was a lot of fun but the best part was learning about the physics of sound and the process of how the notes on the score make their journey to the final mix. It was like peeking under a piano’s hood all over again!
After graduating, I worked at a local music studio, taught myself how to write software so I could pursue microtonal composing more easily, and started working on converting AutoCAD into a 3D music sequencer. With AutoCAD, I was working with notes in 3 dimensions and experimenting with different scoring ideas in an immersive environment for the first time. Looking at scores that way, I started seeing things I had not noticed before and I started thinking of sound not as just symbols on a page, but as physical objects that could be shaped and molded.
PS: Which effects did these discoveries have on your work?
AF: It was exciting! I felt like I was an explorer discovering a new world, but I was having difficulty communicating the advanced compositional possibilities that would become available with the software and I was going broke from not pursuing a traditional career path. Necessity being the mother of invention, I taught myself how to use the 3D graphics software Blender and put together a home-made DVD to give people for Christmas. Everybody loved it so I started selling it, too. To advertise, I put three of the videos up online. They didn’t lead to many DVD sales and I was not getting the “wow” response I was looking for, so I went back to the drawing board, refined the concept, and put the camera in the score, instead.
PS: When you choose pieces for your musical sculptures, which musical qualities are you looking for when planning for a new animation?
AF: I believe beauty is divine, so it’s the only constant I use when choosing pieces. Everything else is in flux because I’m refining the selection process to reach the widest possible audience without making myself crazy working on music I don’t want to hear.
Right now I’m choosing pieces based on how much eye candy they will generate in the animation, so compositional complexity and virtuosity are big factors. Long scale runs, contrary motion, and notes jumping all over the place are mainly what I’m looking for right now. Licensing is also a consideration. I’m working with a zero budget, so anything in the public domain is great.
Early on I wanted to make the videos extremely technical with lots of annotations regarding melody, chord structure, and performance, but I decided it is too difficult to automate right now and too time consuming to do by hand. I may make fully annotated videos in the future, but it’s not a priority at the moment.
J.S. Bach: Contrapunctus I from The Art of Fugue
PS: We are thrilled by the space-ship-traveling-in-time experience, opening up for a 3D experience of music! How can your musical sculptures help us to experience music?
AF: The 3D aspect of the visualizations is cool and people are enjoying the immersive quality, but I don’t think it’s really helping the musical experience beyond what can be done in 2D, yet. Fortunately, the animations are only the tip of the iceberg. As things progress, the 3rd dimension will become indispensable and I’ll be able to apply the designs I’ve been working on to interactive forms easily since a lot of the details have already been worked out.
With the rise of noise pollution and visual overstimulation, people are struggling to stay focused on the purely audible long enough to discover the genius in the details. This makes tying the sense of sight in with the sense of sound incredibly important for music in my opinion, because deeper understanding of sound is getting lost in the din, especially for the general public. With the 3D aspect making music more engaging, I’m hoping people will be more likely to explore compositions they’ve never heard before and listen to pieces again and again. Moving forward, this is the only way I can see general musical knowledge returning to the state it was in when popular music could only be distributed in sheet music form and a larger percentage of the population owned, and knew how to play, a piano.
PS: Do you have plans for a software release enabling the public to try your concept?
AF: Eventually, yes, but not anytime soon unless other people join the project. The source code is freely available, though, so if someone were feeling adventurous they could probably compile it on their own without too much difficulty. It might be tough to learn how to use since there is no documentation, but it’s do-able.
A few people have expressed a desire to make similar kinds of visualizations, but they lose interest when they discover how long it takes me to generate a full length animation after the modeling and effects are finished. If I’m having a good week I can render about 30 minutes of video, but that’s only because I’ve got 12 old computers networked together running 24 hours a day. The same process would take over a month on one computer. When I start rendering with graphics cards instead of CPUs, it will speed things up dramatically, but I’m not at that point, yet…
PS: What can you tell us about your future plans?
AF: Eventually, I’d like to start working with full orchestral scores and live performances like Stephen Malinowksi does with the Music Animation Machine, but I’m also excited about the possibility of making videos based on the Open Goldberg Project’s BĂ¶sendorfer CEUS recordings performed by Kimiko Ishizaka.
Down the road I’ve got some ideas for making interactive apps, and I like to eventually get around to polishing up the sequencer I’ve been coding so others can use it, too. There’s a lot more to come, God willing. Stay tuned!
Counting the beat correctly in one of the world’s most popular piano pieces, FĂŒr Elise by Beethoven, is certainly not a bagatelle…
As every piano teacher knows, students often have problems playing the right number of beats in bars 14 and 37. If you are not a piano teacher, just watching around on YouTube easily confirms this fact.
More surprisingly though, on a recent CD album release on a major classical label with a prominent pianist – at the time of writing no 19 on the UK Classical Artists Albums Chart – what appears to be a striking beginner’s mistake have slipped through the whole production process.
The two notes marked red are skipped in the recording, making this bar a 2/8 instead of 3/8.
Why? Does Lisitsa play from a hitherto unknown manuscript, with a time signature change in that bar, or are the missing notes part of a PR trick or ironic joke? Did she learn the piece from this guy or any other of the hordes of incorrect YouTube “tutorials”? Perhaps more likely, we are listening to the result of a misreading from childhood left unaddressed.
Regardless of the reason, the sky is certainly not falling and Lisitsa’s well-deserved appreciation, not least as a promoter of classical piano music, persists. But her FĂŒr Elise raises several interesting questions about the current media situation and classical music scene.
Lisitsa has had a performance of FĂŒr Elise up on YouTube since 2009 (also skipping that beat), attracting a whopping number of 2.7 million views and receiving over 3,300 YT-comments. Considering her presence on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, one would have wished that at least somebody of her fans could have helpfully pointed her mistake out, so that she could play the piece correctly on her Decca debut.
This may say more about the nature and substance of social media than about anything else.
But there are also several professional reviews of the new album out there already, talking among other things about “admirable lightness of touch and appreciation of rhythmic flow to her FĂŒr Elise”. Nobody mentions that the bar 14 reading is by far the most unique feature of this recording. What does that mean? Does music journalists take the time to really listen to the albums they review? Or is it a “The Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome? Have we already heard so many incorrect versions that we are all immune? Or is this passage in its correct form such a tremendous metric somersault of Beethovenian wizardry that nobody is supposed to know where the downbeats are anyway?
On a side note, in one of his several versions Richard Clayderman skips the entire bar 14! This seems however like a deliberate artistic decision to get the structure to fit his re-arrangement of the time signature in the whole piece from 3/8 into 12/16.
Since listening to recordings do have impact on the learning process, not least for less experienced players, Clayderman’s 1.1 million and Lisitsa’s 2.6 million FĂŒr Elise views on YouTube (not to mention all the incorrect “tutorials”) may indeed inspire many to play piano but can also cause confusion.
So in a plea to make life easier for all piano teachers out there:
If you plan to learn Beethoven’s FĂŒr Elise, please care about who you listen to!
(And teachers, don’t let such mistakes slip through. You never know which of you students will play in RAH, or on YT…)â
A recognised authority in 20th century and contemporary music, Peter Hill turns for the first time on disc to another of his lifelong preoccupations â the music of J. S. Bach. In this exclusive interview for Piano Street, Peter shares his ideas on the world of Johann Sebastian and his praised recent recording of Book 2 of the Well Tempered Clavier on the Delphian Records label.
Patrick Jovell: We have seen you as a keen and important Messiaen interpreter and scholar. What can you tell us about your relationship to J. S. Bach?
Peter Hill: A lot of people have asked me this question! Bach was in my blood very early. As a child I studied the easier pieces plus some of the ‘48′. I was a chorister, and I remember the great event of every year was when the choir sang the big motet, Jesu meine Freude. Also, one so readily gets type-cast! When I was asked by Unicorn Kanchana to record the Messiaen series of course Messiaen took centre stage in my piano playing life, but even then I was doing a broad repertoire, much of it classical. Life is a series of unplanned accidents: so the Messiaen recordings led to a book (The Messiaen Companion) which I recall planning during the editing of the last Messiaen disc. And that book led to others, because of the great kindness of Yvonne Loriod â whom I knew from the days when I was working with her husband on the recordings â who allowed me to research in the archive in the Messiaen apartment. So that led to the biography, then a book on Oiseaux exotiques, and now (in progress) a book on the Catalogue d’oiseaux. So no wonder one gets known for Messiaen.
That said, for years I didn’t play Bach in public. Why not? I suppose, in common with many musicians, I became a little intimidated by the profusion of scholarship that surrounds the early music movement. But I used to lecture about Bach’s music and teach my students harmony from his chorales and analyse the fugues. (At the back of my mind was a formative experience when I was at Oxford and attended lectures by Edmund Rubbra on the 48. They were probably way over my head, but I found it amazing that someone could talk passionately about just a fugue subject for a whole hour!)
And I studied Bach in private: he became my summer holiday composer, keeping the piano playing going during the summer break by learning something different, and something not for a specific concert. I became more and more fascinated by the possibilities offered by the piano in communicating what Bach has to say. Occasionally, my family would make an observation about my practice, and say why don’t you play Bach in concerts? And when I did, I noticed that the Bach made an impression: that’s probably more a compliment to Bach than to my playing, but still it was encouraging.
Finally, when I met Paul Baxter of Delphian to discuss repertoire we talked about all sorts of projects, and just as we were parting I said that one day I’d love to record Book 2 of the 48. He must have seen something in my expression, because he at once said, let’s do that then. A brave move by him, because there’s no shortage of competition. But, of course, every phrase of a Bach fugue opens so many possibilities. I think it was Schnabel who said that some music is ‘better than it can be played’, meaning that a definitive performance is meaningless, an impossibility. So there’s always room for a new version, especially if it can be a fresh look.
What I never do is listen to various pianists and find a different way. I think that’s fatal. No, I gradually evolve my point of view, and with Bach that’s taken many years. If I had to put into words what that point of view is, I’d say it has three strands. The first is that I’m interested to discover what I think each piece is saying. What I don’t want to do is to impose a style â however authentic! â on Bach. Because to me every piece is a new personality and demands its own unique style. What an amazing composer he is; simply the most inventive mind there’s ever been. No two fugues in the 48 are even remotely alike.
The next strand is that to me Bach transcends his time: I think it was John Butt (who ought to know) who said that one can’t take Bach as typical of the Baroque era. Well, Bach is the great time-traveller of music, from the renaissance to the modern (the latter, of course, because so many later composers were profoundly influenced by him). A particular surprise for me in the 48 was to find how much of the spirit of the later 18th century â the rococo â there is in Bach: the wit, irony, charm etc we associate more with Haydn or Mozart. Finally, my attitude to the piano and Bach is to try to articulate the voices and nuances through as many shades of colour as I can. It’s intriguing to speculate how much Bach knew about the first steps being taken in his lifetime to develop the piano. He certainly knew Gottfried Silbermann’s fortepianos, and is said to have offered advice. But that was probably not till the 1730s. (Incredibly, Cristofori’s first instrument dates from as early as 1699.) Knowing how interested Bach was in instrument design and in anything innovative I find it impossible to believe that he was unaware that the keyboard was going to be revolutionised.
PJ: When approaching the music of Bach the polyphonic mastery is always evident. However, modern discussions have pointed in the direction of harmony being tremendously important and for many a performer pure sound aspects and qualities of timbre etc. Can you elaborate on these possibilities when it comes to your own readings?
Prelude no 1 in C major (WTC II) - final bars
PH: There’s a telling example of Bach’s harmonic practice just before the end of the first prelude in Book 2 of the 48. The penultimate chord is ‘coloured’ by a note (A flat) from the scale of C minor, a beautiful nuance in its own right, but with a double pay-off. First, the A flat lends a particular sweetness to the final (C major) harmony; and when the fugue starts the fifth (and most emphatic) note of the subject gets an extra ‘kick’ because it is an A natural when we still have A flat in our ears. Thus with Bach we get not only the expressiveness of the foreign or chromatic alteration itself, but the subsequent expressiveness when the ‘correct’ note is restored. Another example is in the final section of the F sharp minor prelude, where the music of the opening is being recapitulated. Bach sidesteps on to a chord foreign to the key, a chord of G major. This is a well-used expressive device in 18th-century music, known as the ‘Neapolitan sixth’. In this instance Bach lingers on the chord almost for a whole bar; the effect is of an icy stillness, which, when the G natural subsequently becomes G sharp, lends a warmth and eloquence to the lines as they unwind towards the closing cadence.
Harmonic colour also arises from Bach’s use of dissonance. Dissonances are either ‘passing’ or are the expressive ’sighs’ known as suspensions. As the name implies, what happens with the latter is that a note is sustained while the rest of the harmony has moved on to a new chord: a resolution is required, almost always a fall to the note a semitone or tone below. Dissonances are not just colouristic and expressive devices. They also serve to differentiate the contrapuntal lines, so that now one now another stands out. And in the case of suspensions they give impetus to the music, since every suspension inevitably looks forward since it needs resolution. Often the dissonances in Bach, though arrived at through the logical movement of the counterpoints, are strikingly sharp, or may arrive on vertical combinations that are arrestingly weird. A favourite harmony used by Bach, evidently denoting the most intense feeling, is what came to be known as the ‘augmented triad’, heard for example just before the end of the G minor prelude.
Then there is the ‘dissonance’ of Bach’s use of key. Bach’s system of tuning the instrument in the 48 (whatever that may have been) allowed him not only to proceed from one key to another, but more importantly to use the whole spectrum of tonality within single pieces. I say ‘importantly’ because keys and tonalities made possible the vast symphonic expansion of music, from Beethoven to Bruckner and beyond, which may arguably be traced back to Bach’s 48. (Neefe, Beethoven’s teacher, reported that his pupil had mastered the 48 by the age of 11.) A superb example in Book 2 is the fugue in D sharp minor, one of the most profound in the 48, with its majestic development of the subject through a great arc of tonalities. In the G minor prelude just mentioned, Bach begins with three expositions of the main ideas, in G minor, C minor and D minor. The subsequent development takes the music to the major (E flat major), followed by a momentary touching base with the home key (a strategy very commonly found in Bach, with the obvious advantage that it reminds the listener how close or remote the
keys used are to the home key). And then to a cadence in the relatively remote key of F minor, before the music gradually finds its way home. It seems to me, as a performer, that the F minor passage is not only remote but should sound remote, so I try to find an appropriate sonority, and I also like the trill into the cadence to ‘drift’ â a brilliant trill is emphatically not what’s wanted.
Bach may not have known the modern piano, but he would surely have liked its capacity to respond to and to articulate the colours I’ve been describing. Ideally â and this is what I aspire to! â one should have a myriad colours at one’s fingertips, achieved through every subtle combination of dynamic, balancing and articulation, and even with dabs of the sustaining pedal that can give an extra warmth, just as a string player might selectively use vibrato for expressive ends. As a pianist I’ve found it instructive to work at Bach’s music on one of his instruments, the clavichord. In my view the clavichord is the hardest of all keyboard instruments to play because it requires extraordinary sensitivity and control. So it’s a good exercise. But it’s also good because, within a miniscule range of dynamic, the clavichord has so many possibilities for colour: these even include ‘bending’ the pitch (possible because the hammer, or ‘tangent’, remains in contact with the string after the note is struck) and adding expressive vibrato.
PJ: Articulation and ornamentation in Baroque music form the basis for the rhetorics of this era. How do you apply this in BachÂŽs music, as really no information can be found in his own handwritings – what advice would you give to pianists?
PH: Well, entire books have been written on ornamentation in Baroque music! And articulation in 18th-century music has rightly been a particular focus of the period-instrument movement. My own view is that, for all their obvious value, treatises on performance written for 18th-century performers need to be treated with respect but also with caution; above all, any ‘rules’ derived from them need to be applied with due regard to the musical context. Should trills start on the upper note? â Generally, yes, but not if a ‘hiccup’ in (say) a descending melodic line is undesirable. My preference on the piano is to use fewer ornaments than a harpsichordist would, because the piano gives me other means for articulating shape or giving emphasis. The piano also offers a huge range of touch. When notes are detached from one another, one can use the lightest and shortest staccato, or a ‘lingering’ almost cantabile staccato, right through to a way of articulating each note distinctly without actually having any gap in the sound. Should one use the pedal? Of course! â but selectively and expressively. The pedal is great for changing the colour of a note, or for imparting a glow to a final chord, but if used all the time it drowns the flavours and nuances of Bach’s music. Nevertheless, to forbid the pedal because Bach’s instruments didn’t have one seems absurd â neither did they have dampers; and the ultra-dry sound of Bach played entirely without pedal bears no relation to the sound of a harpsichord or clavichord.
One example of articulation that comes to mind is from the D minor fugue from Book 2, whose subject leaps to a high D, then fills in the gap by descending in semitones.
Fugue no 6 in D minor from WTC II - theme
My first idea was to slur the semitones expressively in pairs; but I gradually came to see the fugue as having a greater gravity in its character, with the playful side only fully revealed in the dialogue that occurs about two-thirds of the way through. Seen in this light my treatment of the subject began to seem fussy, and I changed it to a legato line â with a slight emphasis on each pair â intended to make the second half of the subject speak as a single gesture.
Two points are important, I think. The first is that articulation and ornamentation â like everything in the performer’s armoury â are means to an end, which is to respond to and communicate the shapes, interactions and ‘psychologies’ (to borrow Brendel’s word) in the music. So context is everything, just as it was my changing view of the fugue as a whole that prompted me to change a detail in the D minor fugue. The second point is that imposing a uniformity of Bach’s music seems to me to run counter to the inexhaustible inventiveness â one might even say inquisitiveness â of Bach’s mind: whether that uniformity is always playing a fugue’s subject in the same way, or imposing a ‘Bach style’ on the music. (I can’t resist saying that critics set a bad example when they harp on about stereotypes of performing style: so we are told about the ‘Romantic’ â whatever that may mean â approach of Simon Rattle and the BPO in the St Matthew Passion but nothing of what they find to say in the music.)
A final point I’d make is the value of thinking of Bach’s keyboard music in terms of voices or instruments. I’m glad that I once studied the violin seriously and even leaned the D minor and E major Partitas. The way single lines in the ‘48′ often flower into polyphonies (the C major prelude is a good example) is exactly similar to the music for solo violin or cello.
Prelude no 1 in C major from WTC II - introduction
Three fugues in Book 2 are vocal in character: the D major, E flat major and E major â their consecutive placing is surely no accident â and I try to give these the character of choral music, complete with points where the singers are permitted to breathe. And there is no doubting that the D major prelude shares both its key and its exuberance with Brandenburg no. 5 or the trumpets and
drums of the Christmas Oratorio.
PJ: We know that you will continue your recording project and I have heard that the French Suites are coming up. What can you tell us about your next J. S. Bach recordings?
PH: Well, obviously the first task is to complete the Well-Tempered Clavier by recording Book 1. We go in to the studio later in the summer, with a second session in the autumn. We’ll do our best to get Book 1 released as early as possible in 2013. I’d love to record more Bach, and have my eye of the Inventions and Sinfonias (the Three-Part Inventions). I studied the latter some years ago and performed them for the BBC as part of a Bach keyboard marathon involving many pianists; at the time I was in the throes of recording all Messiaen, so Bach made a refreshing change! And you’re right, I adore the French Suites, music which shows Bach at his simplest (if deceptively so!) and most approachable: dance movements transformed into exquisitely sophisticated miniatures that still somehow retain a touching directness of expression. And the Sarabandes must be among the most beautiful music Bach ever wrote: I can never decide which is my favourite.
Before the time of television and the internet, live music performances were a primary form of entertainment. Performances were held in private homes, as well as concert halls. Many rivalries formed among pianists and composers. This created a unique angle for entertainment as individuals could then debate the merits of each musician and choose sides. One of the more famous piano duels was held between Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg.
J. Rosenhain, T. DĂ¶hler, F. Chopin, A. Dreyschock, S. Thalberg, P. E. Wolff, A. von Henselt and F. Liszt
The rivalry first began in 1836 when Liszt had written a critical review of Thalbergâs most recent concert held in Paris. Though the rivalry was a friendly one, a few scathing remarks were made to the press from time to time, most often by Liszt. Meetings of the two were frequent and were always cordial. Liszt even spent time as a guest in Thalbergâs family home near Vienna in the spring of 1838.
The Gazette musicale announced the program on March 26. âThe greatest interest will be without question the simultaneous appearance of two talents whose rivalry at this time agitates the musical world, and is like the indecisive balance between Rome and Carthage.â On the evening of March 31, 1837, Princess Cristina Belgiojoso held a benefit concert for Italian refugees in her Paris salon. Though many musicians performed, the rivalry between Liszt and Thalberg took center stage that evening. So, which pieces were played? Here opinions and sources differ. Some say Liszt began his portion of the concert with his âGrand Gallop Chromatiqueâ and that Thalberg countered with his fantasy variations on Belliniâs âNorma.â Harold C Schonberg mentions Liszt playing his Niobe Fantasia and Thalberg his Moses Fantasia. American pianist Steven MayerÂŽs re-creation of the duel on the ASV label (1993) suggests the following works.
Unbeknownst to the other pianist, each one had prepared a new composition to play as their final piece of the night. Lisztâs âReminiscences de Roberts le Diableâ by Meyerbeer is the more well known of the two compositions played that evening. Thalbergâs new piece was âFantasyâ Op. 33, based on Rossiniâs âMoise.â The evening was regarded as a draw.
Erard Grand serial number 13317 purchased in 1834 by Franz Liszt and given to the Princess Belgiojoso as a present.
In 2001, the piano used for this benefit concert was discovered in a private home near Miami, Florida. Records show that in 1834 Liszt accompanied Princess Cristina Beliojoso on a visit to the House of Erard to purchase a new piano. The piano purchased was an Erard Grand piano with gothic details carved from solid rosewood. Read more about the instrument at palacepianos.com.
2012 marks the 200th anniversary of the Austrian Sigismond Thalberg but why is he almost forgotten today? Chopin said of him: “He plays splendidly, but he’s not my man. He’s younger than I and pleases the ladies – makes potpourris on La Muette – produces his piano and forte with the pedal, not the hand – takes tenths as I do octaves and wears diamond shirt studs.” and Clara Schumann: “On Monday Thalberg visited us and played to the delightment beautiful on my piano. An even more accomplished mechanism than his does not exist, and many of his piano effects must ravish the connaiseurs. He does not fail a single note, his passages can be compared to rows of pearls, his octaves are the most beautiful ones I ever heard.”
The way Thalberg played his instrument was probably the exact opposite of Lisztâs approach. The performance of Liszt was all emotions and dramatic movements, a suggestive experience made even more powerful by his blonde mess of hair and the turbulent waving of his hands. Thalberg, on the other hand, was painfully reserved and hardly moved on his chair â while both of them played equally complicated and challenging pieces. Liszt was often called a âpiano-killerâ: he could almost destroy instruments of a weaker build with his heavy blows on the keyboard. But Thalberg had his own special skills, too, which Liszt had known nothing about before the crucial concert: his unique way of handling the pedals, and the so-called âthumbs-effectâ technique, which consisted of, a principal melody in the middle register, played alternately by both thumbs, while both hands are traversing with rapid arpeggios the whole range of the keyboard, producing ever so delicate, crooning tunes from the piano.