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Andras Schiff, Brahms and the Question of Tradition

Much attention and mention is given Sir Andras Schiff’s latest remarkable recording of both Brahms’ piano concertos with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Schiff’s choice of instrument is a Blüthner grand piano built in Leipzig around 1859, the year in which the first D minor concerto was premiered. Schiff has changed foot in his views on period instruments and the recording can be seen as an ambitious attempt to scrutinize and fully bring out the true characteristics of Brahms’ works.

Several years ago, Schiff acquired an 1820 fortepiano, which was used to make recordings of two double albums with Schubert’s late piano works. Schiff says: ”Playing the Brahms concertos on a modern piano with modern orchestras, there were always balance problems. And I found, especially in the second B-flat Concerto, that it was just physically and psychologically very hard to play. Somehow, with this Blüthner piano, the physical difficulties disappear. The keys are a tiny bit narrower, so the stretches are not so tiring, and the action is much lighter. So there is not this colossal physical work involved.” In recent interviews, Schiff has criticised the increasing homogeneity of piano performance, with modern Steinways used for repertoire of every era.

In the album’s liner notes Schiff describes his aim of this ECM label New Series project: “To liberate it from the burden of the – often questionable – trademarks of performing tradition.”

The ambition has been to get back to the sound and scale of the performances that Brahms himself would have expected. Among Brahms’ favourite orchestras was Hans von Bülow’s band in Meiningen, which had just 49 players. Schiffs’ previous collaboration with the period instrument ensemble Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the Schumann piano concerto in London, led to a natural choice of ensemble for this recording.

Listen to a sample from the album:

David Weininger in New York Times asked Schiff in which passages the use of these instruments allows the music to come across with unusual freshness, and Schiff replied:
“For example, in the first movement of the Second Concerto, the development section can sound, in modern performance, very muddy and not clear, because there is so much counterpoint there. I’m very pleased to hear all those details. But also, take the opening of the third movement, with the cello solo. If it’s played with these instruments, next to the cello solo you hear all the other lower strings: the cellos and violas, and then later the oboe and bassoon. I just hear these layers of sound instead of a general sauce.”

András Schiff on the many facets of Johannes Brahms

András Schiff on performance tradition and choice of instruments

”He has gone back to the original manuscripts to check details of his performances, discovering, for instance, that Brahms had attached a metronome marking to the first movement of the D minor concerto that is significantly slower than we usually hear today, but which was omitted from the printed editions. It’s a shock to begin with but Schiff makes it convincing, gradually building the tension through the movement as the sound of his Blüthner – with its much less overpowering lower register than we are used to hearing from modern Steinways – blends beautifully with the soft grained OAE strings, while in the slow movement, it’s the wonderfully mellow woodwind that come into their own.” – The Guardian

“Schiff’s whole point of doing it this way is to strip the music of all of its accumulated performance traditions, and what the Blüthner piano may lack in oomph is more than made up for by the mellow smoothness of its tone and the clarity of textures across the various registers of the instrument…This warmth is pleasingly complemented by the orchestral playing…I was really surprised by how much this recording changed the way I both heard and thought about these concertos.” – Presto Classical


Igor Levit – Reaching Out, Looking Inwards

On “Encounter”, Igor Levit has recorded a selection of the pieces he played in his spontaneous, live-streamed performances during this spring’s lockdown. The result is an album marked by a desire for human and spiritual love and togetherness.

When all live performances were cancelled, Igor Levit decided to take matters into his own hands: he started streaming recitals from his living room. And since he doesn’t do things half-heartedly, he decided to livestream a new recital every day. These concerts became hugely popular and were watched globally by thousands, until after 52 days he declared he needed some silence.

“The restricted isolation in the weeks since mid-March 2020 was often difficult for me too. As an artist, however, I have never felt so free, so open in my life as on those days when I often only decided half an hour before the live stream what I would play in my house concerts.”

Discovering the benefits of isolation

Being able to make music without any compulsion, choosing pieces freely after his current state of mind, he found that his playing achieved a level of freedom that he had never experienced before. And after ending his long streak of live streamings, it felt right to record these pieces, “because they did good to me – they helped me.”

The program includes rarely played arrangements of J.S. Bach and Johannes Brahms by Ferruccio Busoni and Max Reger, as well as Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari. “What combines these pieces, says Levit, “is a sense of encounter with something or someone – with God, with yourself, with fear, with love…”

A journey inward

The program is like a long diminuendo, moving from the rich sonorities of Busoni’s Bach arrangements, to the extremely spare textures in Morton Feldman’s final work for piano. For Levit, this represents a kind of gradual shutting down of the outer world, until in Palais de Mari “all that is left is the space – no message, no content, just you in a sounding room.”

The album and liner notes are available on Piano Street/Naxos for Gold Members:


Ten Days, Five Concertos – Bezuidenhout’s Beethoven Challenge

Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado and the Freiburger Barockorchester have made an exciting period-instrument trilogy of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos that looks likely to become a landmark recording. All five concertos were recorded during an intense ten-day session.

The idea was born during Bezuidenhout’s tour with the Freiburg Orchestra in 2015, playing Beethoven’s C minor concerto . At some point it was proposed that they record all five of these enigmatic pieces in one shot. Kristian explains:

“On the face of it, I was seriously attracted by the idea of spending so much time with Beethoven – after all, I had done a similar thing with the solo music of Mozart and have become convinced that true immersion in the language of a composer (particularly in the recording studio) is only really possible when one has no distractions. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the plan and the entire experience now seems utterly deranged, lunatic, nigh-impossible and physically exhausting at times to the point of despair. Yet, somehow, and with equal power, an experience of such magic, and deep spiritual enrichment.”

Released and Upcoming Albums

The two albums released so far have attracted high praise from critics: Patrick Rucker of Gramophone wrote of the first instalment: “I doubt that Beethoven, at least recently, has sounded quite so original or so much fun.” Concertos Nos. 1 & 3 are due in 2021.

– Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 5
– Piano Concerto No. 4 / Coriolan Overture / Prometheus Overture
– Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3 (coming soon)

Selected albums available on Piano Street / Naxos (for Gold Members):

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Concertos 1-3 – Live in Melbourne

Bezuidenhout has a long and fruitful relationship with Freiburg – as their Artistic Director since 2017, he often play-directs programmes with the orchestra, as in this performance of Concertos 1-3, Melbourne, March 2020.

Beethoven’s 5 Piano Concertos – Digital Sheet Music:

About Kristian Bezuidenhout

Kristian Bezuidenhout first gained international recognition at the age of 21 after winning the first prize, and audience prize, in the Bruges Fortepiano Competition. His rich and award-winning discography on Harmonia Mundi includes the complete keyboard music of Mozart (Diapason d’Or de L’année, Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik, & Caecilia Prize); Mozart Violin Sonatas with Petra Müllejans; Mendelssohn and Mozart Piano Concertos; and songs by Beethoven, Mozart, and Schumann with tenor Mark Padmore.


Claire Huangci’s Complete Perspective: The Rachmaninoff Preludes

Pianist Claire Huangci, winner of the Geza Anda Competition 2018, just played in New York celebrating the launch of her new Rachmaninoff Preludes album on Berlin Classics. Like her complete Chopin Nocturnes album before that – for the same label – the complete Rachmaninoff 24 Preludes has been received with great acclaim internationally. Piano Street asked the ever touring pianist a few questions about her latest release.

Patrick Jovell: Claire, is it a coincidence that you manage to get such overwhelming response on two albums containing complete works in a compositional genre by two immensely popular piano composers? The Chopin Nocturnes ranges from Op. 9 to Op. 72 and the Rachmaninoff’s Preludes Op. 3 to 32. The musical life span you have to grasp as an interpreter must be enormous and very challenging?

Claire Huangci: That’s exactly the reason I record these great ‘cycles’ of works. For me, deciding on what to record is completely different from deciding on a concert program. I really want to be able to tell a story, give a detailed impression on my take of a composer or a particular theme and the best way to do that is follow their compositional evolution through a specific genre. It is a challenge but I find it immensely rewarding!

PJ: Can you tell us about the preparation process for the Rachmaninoff Preludes recording? What happens during such a journey?

CH: It’s basically immersion therapy; in the weeks-months prior to the recording, i found myself listening to Rachmaninoff constantly-all but the preludes. I was glad to discover motifs from his concertos, symphonies, hidden away in the preludes. It was about understanding his compositions on a grander scale, seeing how his style evolved. Something else I always do is try to understand the life of a composer and in this case, I found a great book, called Rachmaninoff’s recollections told to Oskar von Riemann. This is basically an autobiography and it showed me a new side of Rachmaninoff as a person that would greatly influence all my future interpretations. From the purely technical side, playing the preludes takes immense stamina; playing them at least once through each day was a challenge in itself. After the recording, I couldn’t feel my arms for a week (laughs).

PJ: Many know you as a creative and versatile Chopin player and you are used to different concert assignments everywhere you go, but we all know that Rachmaninoff had very big hands. How do you deal with this technical reality in his music?

CH: This was a particularly difficult challenge… Rachmaninoff’s span was almost twice mine! But he was also a very pianistic composer and his music allows room for a lot of flexibility in terms of sharing things between the hands, re-aligning and rolling larger chords. I had to really get creative to ensure that I played all the notes!

PJ: So, in your opinion, which are the fundamental differences between Op. 23 and Op. 32?

CH: I believe that the two sets of preludes express the best of Rachmaninoff’s compositional styles. While op. 23 is a ‘hit parade’ with lush melodies and swooning harmonic changes, op. 32 is full of daring experimentation. Rachmaninoff began to make first steps into ‘modernizing’ his music as well as making forays in the baroque direction and with Sicilian rhythms. Both sets are unique and together, they show just how versatile a composer Rachmaninoff was.

Free Piano Score to Download and Print:

PJ: Rachmaninoff’s audiences called him ”C-sharp minor” and his farewell composition before leaving Russia was a prelude in D minor (not published until 1973). His contemporaries wrote preludes everywhere – and not only in sets of 24. What makes this musical form so attractive for composers in this era?

CH: The Prelude is a mysterious form, there’s no clear reference for what is a prelude exactly. I think this freedom is what appealed to composers. The idea of documenting a certain mood or atmosphere in a short form, is certainly easier and perhaps even more spontaneous and personal than other forms. When one writes a diary entry, it can be a sentence, or a thought that stimulates. Sometimes, brevity is beauty!

PJ: Like many a noteworthy pianist you were trained at Curtis Institute and with the great Gary Graffman. After that you went to Hannover. How has this ”German connection” affected you as a pianist and musician?

CH: For me, once I moved to Germany, I discovered my own personal voice in music. A lot of this has to do with being independent, moving to a place on your own and forming your own circle of friends. I found that this new and sudden freedom also spurred me on to reveal new musical interests and curiosity in many other genres in addition to just piano music. Living in a country where there is such a rich history of composers and having the chance to visit cities where they lived really changed my perspective. I went from being the ultimate lover of piano transcriptions and other virtuosic masterpieces to favoring Schubert, Bach and Mozart more than any other. This change came through living in Germany; finding my own peace with pace. I’m still living mostly in Germany today, between Hannover and Philadelphia and can’t ask for a better mix of the best of both worlds.

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Read more about the recording:


Igor Levit’s Eternal Transcendence: “Life”

Igor Levit’s acclaimed album “Life” has attracted a lot of attention and its selected works have also been included in Levit’s recent recital programs worldwide. This is a profound, versatile and firm reaction to the death and loss of his best friend reflecting inner calm elaborating on an existential level.

Bach/Brahms: Chaconne in d minor, piano score

The double CD album was recorded during spring 2018 in the famed Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin, well-known for its acoustics, on an excellent new Steinway D. The choice of venue rhymes well with Levit’s chosen works which are a mix between both the spiritual and the secular. The elaboration on life take different forms but will not offer an answer – rather a human contemplation and search for the eternal. Thus, Levit’s journey of styles and moods offers a wealth of discoveries.

Every piece Igor Levit has chosen travels a spiritual path from the earthly to the hereafter. Each work questions the ultimate realities in its own way. Some picks:

No one can arrange symphonic works like Liszt did and Wagner’s “Solemn March to the Holy Grail” from “Parsifal”, is both intense and sublime – the solemn ritual of the Good Friday Music and magically performed through Levit’s calm and transparent playing. The transcription of the “Liebestod” from the same composer’s “Tristan und Isolde”, suspends time and displays the quietly luminous with extraordinary sound control.

Bach’s church melodies in the hands of omni-genius Busoni turns into a sorrowful “Fantasia”, composed as a memorial to the composer’s father.

A discovery and also a marvelous musical experience is Busoni’s seldom heard Berceuse.

The longest work, and maybe the most adventurous, is Liszt’s colossal “Fantasia and Fugue” on the Chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam”, transcribed by Busoni. A true marvel of masterly piano playing and artistic spirit.

The “Ghost” Variations by Schumann from the very end of his life, leaves us with the last variation speaking of possible consolation.

Brahms’ famous arrangement of Bach’s “Chaconne” for left hand only, entices us to hold on to life in spite of any possible limitations.

Bill Evans, a jazz pianist hero among classical pianists, has a clear alignment to both Debussy and Messiaen. “Peace Piece” was created in 1958 in a recording session. Levit stays true to the repetitious original yet with solemn and strong integrity.

Frederic Rawitzki’s “A Mensch”, composed in 2012, in memory of performance artist Ben Israel and his quote: “To be a mensch! That is the answer”, distills the spiritual essence of this whole album.

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