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Beethoven Celebration in Retrospect

For Nikolas Sideris, editor-in-chief at Editions Musica Ferrum, the Beethoven year 2020 was more than just a great anniversary. It also represented the final stage of a mega project started seven years earlier – the Mount Everest of all LvB 250 homage projects. In cooperation with Susanne Kessel, a pianist from the city of Bonn, 250 composers from 47 countries were invited to compose piano pieces referring to Beethoven and his work, in such diverse genres as new music, jazz, pop, film and more. The premieres of the piano pieces were held in Beethoven’s birth city, Bonn and in other cities as well. Radio recordings (WDR) and CD productions accompany the project. All 260 pieces have been published by Editions Musica Ferrum in ten volumes. Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell talks to Nikolas Sideris about how this gigantic and thought-provoking project turned out.

Piano Street: Since we last met for an interview in 2016 on your project ”Beauty and Hope in the 21st Century”, you already then mentioned a mega project you had entered with pianist Susanne Kessel to be completed 2020, as a part of the LvB 250 celebrations. Tell me how it all started?

Nikolas Sideris: Yes, I remember when we first met in 2016. Thank you for that initial meeting and interview. I met Susanne Kessel through a common friend and composer, Nickos Harizanos. He introduced us and then we immediately hit it off, feeling, both, that we were a great fit for each other. I had just published Nicko’s “Monographs II” which is filled with graphic notation and that was the evidence needed to persuade everyone that Editions Musica Ferrum was ready to tackle such a gigantic – and exciting – project. Soon the pieces for the first volume started coming in, which is when all practical issues came into play and the real adventure started for me. The rest is… history.

PS: Your project contains 260 pieces in ten volumes and 250 composers have submitted compositions. How did you manage to find and engage all these people and what was required in order to qualify as a composer?

NS: For the anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven in 2020, pianist Susanne Kessel invited composers from around the world to compose piano pieces which refer to Beethoven and his work. Since 2013, she issued personal invitations to composers of new music, jazz and film music. The premieres of the piano pieces were held in Beethoven’s birth city, Bonn and in other cities as well. Radio recordings (WDR) and CD productions accompany the project. All the pieces are published from Editions Musica Ferrum and are available for the international music world.

PS: In December the last volume 10 was published. Congratulations! In volume 8 though, the pieces were written by young composers. Can you tell us a little bit about this encouraging idea, the people involved and their pieces?

NS: It contains 18 new pieces and 2 pieces from older volumes which were composed by composers younger than the age of 18. Volume 8 was perceived early in the process of the project by Susanne Kessel who was keen to include as many people and genres as possible in the project. The voice of the young should not be excluded from such a wider project. So around 2018 both she and a composer and dear friend, from volume 1, David P. Graham started scouting for young talents in various music schools worldwide. As with every volume, we ended up with a variety of styles, ideas, and nationalities true to the spirit of the project. From Germany, to the UK, to Estonia, to Japan, to China, and elsewhere.

PS: From April 2020 you presented a ”250 pieces for Beethoven Marathon” which started on April 1 and ran until December 15. Every day a new composer and piece was introduced. Can you tell us a little about this initiative and how it took place?

NS: Volume 9 (second to last volume) went to print in the end of January, and it was supposed to ship in the end of February to both London and Bonn. London to reach the Editions Musica Ferrum warehouse, and in Bonn to reach Susanne Kessel and be present on the 13th of March on the official publication date of the mentioned volume.

Unfortunately things did not go as planned. By the beginning of March the signs were rather negative in terms of the Corona-virus and as thus the concert on the 13th of March, in Bonn, was cancelled, but Susanne herself was present to offer a glimpse of a few copies that arrived there in time. The rest of the copies never left Greece. They were stored in a secure warehouse, until the lockdown and traveling restrictions were lifted. A lot of further concerts were cancelled, or suspended, and it was unclear on what will happen for the remaining of 2020. So Susanne threw the idea of making an Internet based “250 piano pieces for Beethoven Marathon” where all pieces were to be presented, one per day. With photos, links to the recordings of each piece and links to the individual sheet music of each piece, both the recording and the score for purchase digitally. The Editions Musica Ferrum website was updated to host digital individual files and serve automatic sales, while bandcamp is hosting all the recordings of the pieces for this project that have been recorded. The pieces are presented by volume, and in the same order as they appear in the printed score and on the 26th of April, the 2nd volume resumed the marathon.
https://www.facebook.com/250pianopieces/

PS: Such a marvelous way for the public to get acquainted with the material! As a pianist and/or piano teacher, is it possible to get guidance on the difficulty level of the pieces or which is the best way to get a feeling for what to pick or start with from such a grand project?

NS: This is something we are starting to work on and it is something that I’m keen on adding in the Musica Ferrum website, as extra information for all works. It is missing and I do feel that it is vital, not only for this massive project, but for all the other works as well.
We are also planning to release an extra volume, or collection if you will, with a choice of some of the more approachable, yet educational works in the near future.

PS: You are fortunate to have the whole view on the production of pieces. Can you tell me the different paths the composers have used to strike a connection to or being inspired by the project theme Ludwig van Beethoven?

NS: This has certainly been a wonderful trip and happened all the way until volume 10 came out! In order to answer this question one needs to consider how different each composer is. So the same material can result in drastically different results. For example quite a few composers took inspiration from some of Beethoven’s works, which we also have been able to list. But the approach of each one resulted in such a different work that it becomes difficult to tell the initial inspiration in the end. In particular, from the top of my head. I can remember the 3rd movement of the Tempest Sonata in D minor. One composer counted all the notes, used the same rhythm and order, but changed the pitch series completely, resulting in something rather unexpected. Another composer used the main rhythm to use, playing inside the piano with timpani mallets and so on. Other composers used his name as a starting point. BEetHovEn (H being B natural in German). Some took away parts of his letters, or his philosophy, his life and so on. And this is the magic of this project. It is such an open project that you can expect anything really, while at the same time having this guarantee that there is a link to Beethoven, being the Master that he was.

PS: The whole project started seven years ago from a basis with you being an editor-in-chief AND a composer. With this massive output and vast relationship with the material, how and in which ways have your personal views on Ludwig van Beethoven changed or become nurtured during this period of time?

NS: This is a very interesting question, as it links works already well known (to me and to everyone) and the new filters provided by the contemporary composers. It’s a fascinating theory and actual fact that my understanding of Beethoven’s music and life changed vastly through the 250 piano pieces for Beethoven, and through the playing and thoughts and whole leadership of Susanne Kessel. It’s with newly found interest I started looking again with works that I’ve already performed, or heard, and paid attention to different aspects of the old works, in comparison and connection with the new works, leading me to form new thoughts and establish new ideas about them. It’s a life changing project and one that changed me completely.


Musica Ferrum kindly offers three free scores from the collection to all Piano Street members. Login to your account and visit this page to download the scores:
https://www.pianostreet.com/members/free/250-for-beethoven-scores.php

List of Beethoven works functioning as musical and thematic inspiration for composers of the project:
http://250-piano-pieces-for-beethoven.com/noteneditionen/werkliste/

The composers:
http://250-piano-pieces-for-beethoven.com/en/composers/

Project Webpage: http://250-piano-pieces-for-beethoven.com/


/nilsjohan
 
     

State Of the Art Innovations – The 102 keys Stephen Paulello Grand Piano

For more than 30 years, Stephen Paulello has systematically studied all the components of the piano, including the instruments of previous eras. But as a pianist dreaming of more complex and expressive sonorities, he doesn’t content himself with a cult of the past. Instead, he has often used his findings to challenge generally accepted ideas. His unique grand pianos are constructed to order in his workshop-laboratory 100 kms south of Paris, where there is also a recording studio. Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell has interviewed Stephen Paulello about his visions and achievements.

Piano maker Stephen Paulello

Piano Street: Many a professional and famous musician have spoken of you, and your instruments are frequently used for recordings. Vienna has ordered one Opus 102 instrument from you. What can you tell us about this ”sounding” part of the Stephen Paulello, for those who cannot come and visit your workshop in Villethierry outside Paris?

Stephen Paulello: An Opus 102 was sold to a Viennese dealer who would like to sell it to a great concert hall or recording studio in Vienna. The Opus 102 has a great equality of sound in all registers, a great power, a great dynamic, an infinite variety of colours, great clarity, very deep bass, very bright treble, an exceptional sustain that allows a true legato. However, it is difficult to describe the sound of a piano in words. It is better to come to us and taste this instrument. This experience usually does not leave one indifferent.

Stephen Paulello - 102 keys grand piano

PS: Instrument makers are artists with an additional dimension. They do not only know what they are looking for sound wise, but they also know how to achieve it in terms of construction. All artists are driven by an initial source or inspiration. Which was your trigger in wanting to create your own piano brand?

SP: I made my first concert grand piano (2m87) thirty years ago. At this time, I was a concert pianist and piano teacher and there was no question of creating a brand but of making an instrument that would allow me to do what I could not do with usual commercial instruments. I used to play this instrument for my concerts and recordings and often lent it to some of my friends. In 1996, I developed a new way of stringing pianos – “hybrid stringing” – by creating my own plain steel wires, which are now marketed all over the world. In 2004, I decided to give up my career as a pianist and piano teacher in order to devote myself to the manufacture in very small series, extremely meticulous, of non-standard instruments. I wanted to rethink piano building in all its details.

PS: The construction of your grand instrument with 102 notes stresses the use and importance of parallel oblique strings and a barless frame. What can you tell us about this specific relationship including the extra 4th?

SP: Our three piano models (SP190, SP230, SP300) have 102 keys: 9 extra notes in the low register (a sixth) and 5 extra notes (a fourth) in the high register. Several reasons led me to add notes to the usual 88-note keyboard:

    The evolution of piano making ceased when the range of the keyboard stopped expanding. Extending again the keyboard, is a symbol that piano history moves ahead again
    The additional notes, especially in the low register, enriches the whole piano sound.
    Today’s composers have at their disposal an instrument that broadens their scope. Until today, more than 10 works were written especially for Opus 102, including extra-notes.

Regarding the barless frame, the aim was to avoid the change of sound quality that is usually noticeable around each frame bar. Removing them brings additional homogeneity and equality to the whole. Parallel strings significantly increase the legibility, intelligibility and articulation of musical phrases especially in the lower-middle and bass ranges. I made them oblique so as to allow as long speaking lengths as those of a cross stringed instrument.

In the piano workshop

PS: Many a discussion on piano construction and re-thinking comes down to the wooden case – quality and best sound design – as well as the strings. Which are your thoughts on this?

SP: As I mentioned earlier, I have developed another way of stringing pianos by producing and marketing SP strings. The plain strings of our pianos are covered with an electrolytic nickel coating. The bass strings are spun with nickel-plated soft iron and nickel-plated bronze. The soundboard, the bridge, the striking line, the action, the keyboard deserve according to me a priority attention before taking care of the wooden case and external finish, even if we worked on it as well.

One recent recording made in Studio Stephen Paulello is an album of Bach Toccatas played by Laurent Cabasso, who says of the instrument:

– The first time I tried Stephen Paulello’s Opus 102, I was immediately struck by three things, three qualities which we rarely encounter together in a piano: an exceptional length of sound, perfect clarity of the registers due to its parallel strings, and a clear, bright tone… A tenacious doubt often plagued me whenever I played Bach on the piano. This sensation is radically different on Stephen Paulello’s instrument, which brings a remarkable clarity to the polyphony and the tone, so essential to this music.


/patrick
 
     

Lowell Liebermann’s Personal Demons

In this exclusive digital encounter with the praised and enigmatic composer Lowell Liebermann on his premiere recording as a solo pianist on the Steinway & Sons label, Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell meets the pianist behind the composer and the composer behind the pianist.

Clearly, Liebermann’s latest album release is in a way an attempt to measure a time span and it’s not only a 60-year celebration but a very personal way to – and by means of the piano – let us follow the composer’s ways into his musical universe. The album contains music “he wish he wrote” and also offers music that he actually has written. Liebermann follows Stravinsky’s dictum; “my music is about the notes themselves and nothing more”, but it still leaves us with the question about the communicating qualities of the composer’s music.

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Personal Demons – album content:
Liebermann: Gargoyles, Op. 29
Kabeláč: 8 Preludes, Op. 30
Liszt: Totentanz, S525/R188
Liebermann: 4 Apparitions, Op. 17
Schubert: 13 Variations on a theme by Anselm HĂĽttenbrenner in A Minor, D. 576
Busoni: Fantasia contrappuntistica
Liebermann: Nocturne No. 10, Op. 99


Piano Street: Thank you for letting us talk to you about your latest recording “Personal Demons”. Your album contains composers rooted in tradition yet with a strong urge to develop contemporary concepts. They are all solitaires, I wouldn’t say misfits, but persevering despite a lack of understanding in their times. Schubert, one of many working in the total shadow of the great LvB, Busoni, the omni genius without a homeland, Kabelac, rejected by the Czech communist regime and AbbĂ© Liszt, exploring inner, spiritual development and thus new harmonic territories – away from the extravagant superstar showmanship of his early years. In a way the mentioned composers carry personal demons too (Busoni “cannibalizing” on Bach for example) and suggest that this is a way how music can develop through time.
Lowell, you are a pianist and have therefore played vast amounts of music. If you were to extend your list of fascinations – not necessarily demons – which would these be and why?

LL: You are right that the composers on this album are all, in one way or another, outliers, and that is part of their attraction. There are certainly other composers, more mainstream, who have had an even greater influence on my development as a musician. It was Bach who first made me fall in love with music. I was actually first exposed to Bach’s music through “Switched On Bach,” the synthesized versions by Wendy Carlos that have held up remarkably well, I think. But perhaps the most profound influence on my musical growth was Beethoven. My first composition teacher at Juilliard, David Diamond, had me follow a Beethovenian model of keeping sketchbooks and rigorously working out musical materials. And my piano teacher, Jacob Lateiner, was a Beethoven specialist. It was through working on the Beethoven Sonatas with him that I first fully appreciated the interconnectedness of every element of those scores: that the articulations, dynamics, etc, were inseparable from the musical content and development, and not to be altered at a performer’s whimsy. And then there is Ravel, who set a standard of musical perfection that is something to strive for.

Liszt’s Totentanz

PS: Let’s turn to the macabre part on your album and Liszt’s Totentanz, a work he re-wrote as a solo piece from originally being composed for piano with orchestra.
The work is variations on the gregorian chant Dires Irae (the Day of Wrath), a theme used by many a composer. For instance, it appears in Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody where it merges with the original theme. You also wrote a Variations on a theme by Paganini for piano and orchestra along with three piano concertos. What do you win or lose when composing for piano with orchestra compared to piano solo?

LL: Of course, when composing with orchestra one gains all the orchestral colors and an enormous amount of creative flexibility that comes with all those added instruments. And I think there is also a special dynamic in the dialogue between a solo piano and orchestra that creates a unique kind of musical tension that also opens up all kinds of possibilities.

PS: What did Liszt gain in the solo version?

LL: Going from the orchestral version of Totentanz to the solo piano version is a very special case, I think. I think the piece gains a certain kind of austerity in the piano solo version that is entirely appropriate and beneficial. At this point, I prefer the solo version. Liszt made a cut in the coda in the solo version which takes some getting used to one is familiar with the orchestral version. Several pianists have reinstated this cut, transcribing those few measures themselves. I can understand the impulse to do so, but I prefer to leave the work it as Liszt saw fit.

Performing own compositions

PS: It’s a joyous favor being able to talk to a composer who is also the performer and history has given us so much amazing music from creators with this combination of function and skill. On the album you give us two of your own works; the immensely popular Gargoyles Op. 29 and your chosen 10th Nocturne Op. 99 (out of eleven, first Nocturne composed in 1987). This poses the question about person vs. persona. When performing your own repertoire, which works do you choose and – to add an even more pathologic dimension – are you interpreting the work or are you performing/projecting yourself?

LL: The composing and performing are two very different functions that require different focus and utilize different parts of one’s brain and psyche. There is a real danger in performing one’s own works that one thinks one knows them better than one in fact does. The kind of learning that you need to do as a performer is much different from the knowledge and memory you have of a piece from having written it. A very high percentage of the memory needed for performance is muscle memory rather than intellectual memory. And so, when learning one of my own pieces for performance, I have to forget that I wrote it, and approach it as if it had been written by someone else. And that includes studying all the dynamic and expressive markings anew, because one can forget one’s own intentions and get sloppy. And this also brings up what I think is a bit of a clichĂ©, that a composer’s music is a direct reflection of their personality, or a reflection their emotional life at the time of writing the piece. This is simply not true. A composer can write a tragic piece at the happiest point in their life and vice versa. It is often more like acting via music rather than writing an autobiography in music.

A desirable pianistic style

PS: You are one of the few contemporary composers who can out the big names and take place in traditional pianist recital programs worldwide. What makes your music so desirable for pianists? Would you mind if I ask for a pianistic self-analysis?

LL: I’ve always felt that it is important for me, as a composer, to keep in contact with the act of performance. It informs my writing in so many ways, even just experiencing the sheer physical joy of playing certain things. I think keeping awareness of the fact that music is an act of communication in real time is very important, and it is easy to lose track of that when one has one’s head buried in the notes. One aspect of my music that, perhaps, has helped its popularity is that, no matter what is going on harmonically, my music is almost always melodically based. My music mixes tonality (usually not in a traditionally functional sense, though), atonality, octatonic or other synthetic scales, etc., basically anything that I feel fits the material at hand. Some critics have called my music neo-romantic (a label I disagree with) and I think what most of them are reacting to is the fact that it is melodically based. It’s just an element of music that I find has to be there to keep my own interest.

Composing for flute

PS: Melodic quality must be a key for any composer but after a look in your works list we very often see works for or/and including the flute. What is your story with this instrument?

LL: My very first commission for flute was a Sonata for Flute and Piano, which was commissioned by the Spoleto Chamber Music Festival for Paula Robison and Jean-Yves Thibaudet back in the late 80s. That piece “took off” in a really big way and started to be played all over the world. One flautist who included it in his repertoire was James Galway, who asked if I would orchestrate it for him so he could perform it with orchestra. I told him I would much rather just write a new Concerto for him, and that led to the commission for my Flute Concerto. Things escalated from there, and there were further commissions from him and other flautists: a Flute and Harp Concerto, a Piccolo Concerto, Flute Trios, etc. The flute community as a whole is one of the most enthusiastic groups of instrumentalists out there, who are constantly on the lookout for new pieces and perform them frequently. They share information and share new pieces. Flute works have indeed become an important part of my catalogue but, contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, I do not play the flute myself.

The post-pandemic period

PS: We wish to congratulate you on your 60th birthday which took place on February 22! In terms of time spans and trajectories and in reference to composers in retrospective, will you now enter a new compositional period?

LL: I think those questions of composer’s “periods” are best left to musicologists after a composer has died, and I’m not intending to do that for a while! What I can say is that, although I don’t know what period I will be entering, I do feel that there will be some sort of tectonic shift in my composition, not so much because of this particular anniversary, but because of the circumstances we have all been living through. At the beginning of the present pandemic, all of my commissions were put on hold, which enabled me to focus on my piano playing and this new recording “Personal Demons”. But this has meant that I have not actually written anything new for the better part of a year, the longest amount of time I have ever spent without finishing a composition. Now that there are flickers of light at the end of the tunnel, the commissions are being rekindled, and I do now have to start writing again. But I think the time away from writing will have a natural effect of reassessment. How that will manifest itself, I can’t really tell until I do start writing again, which should be any day now…


/patrick
 
     

The Transcription – Zlata Chochieva

Zlata Chochieva is one of the most interesting musicians of her generation, with her breathtaking technique and musicality as well as with her choice of repertoire. “(re)creations”, her latest CD, offers an exquisite collection of transcriptions by her great heroes, Rachmaninoff, Liszt and Friedman, and in the title lies the secret of this special art form, so closely related to the piano.

Please tell me how you are coping with these challenging times…

It is very difficult not being able to communicate with your audience, but it would be even more pity not to use that time as productive as possible. And I am happy and lucky to say that I have been busy! I took part in several online-concerts, and projects such as “Concerts in Quarantine” of the great film director Jan Schmidt-Garre, from the Schinkel Pavillon in Berlin, saved us, musicians, from silence. I also had a chance to focus my mind on my new CD project starting my collaboration with the Accentus label. It is always different and special to work in a recording studio, which is a completely different world, without audience. You are alone playing for microphones. In that moment you realize how important is to have another pair of ears behind the wall – the sound- producer. As you work on creating the sound together, as well as developing the most powerful and interesting interpretation. Working with Tonmeister Philipp Nedel became one of the most remarkable experiences I ever had.

Do you feel the arts in general are appreciated enough for the vital role they play in our society?

Not by many unfortunately. Especially nowadays culture has being put in a sleeping, silent mode. But one of the organizations which doesn’t allow musicians to feel forgotten is the Funk Stiftung that made my CD-project happen and generously supported the Berliner Klavierfestival digital edition where I was invited to play online in the Konzerthaus Berlin last May. Especially to Robert Funk I would like to express my deepest gratitude, as with his such a sincere and dedicated work he brings to music its true meaning and importance into this world.

The lockdown seemed to have influenced you also in the choice of repertoire.

Yes, this is an uncertain, lonely time when we became even more fragile and sensitive than we ever were before. I found my inner voice with the Schubert songs transcribed for piano by Liszt and it became the main impulse for creating a program which became very special to me. There is a stereotype that transcription is rather a virtuoso brilliant piano piece. But I wanted to show the genre Transcription from all different sides, and mainly as a re-creation of an original work that we know from before, putting it into a new concept that would make us find something different in it.

Transcriptions should sound like an original written for piano?

Yes, I want transcriptions to sound that way, because the piano has its own magical sound, and it would be a sad not to fully express it. There is no intention from my side to copy the sound of original works. Rather to make it sound as a true piano piece. You can compare it with poems in translation – Shakespeare, Pushkin. It will sound different but the meaning will remain the same.

With songs it often seems as if the expression is stronger in the piano version.

Yes, that is my feeling too, the vocal line always remained in the transcription, but the meaning of the text is being replaced by the musical expression itself. For instance, Rachmaninoff with the Tchaikovsky’s lullaby enriches the original accompaniment on such an extent that it becomes a magical solo, that sounds even darker in atmosphere than the original song.
The human voice has always been your starting point, and you make Siciliano by Bach, original for flute, sound like a song.
Indeed, the voice has always been the most important teacher for me. For Horowitz, one of the pianists I admire most, the cantabile was one of the qualities he wanted to convey most, and he was greatly inspired by the great singers of his time.

Do transcriptions influence your interpretation of original works for piano, of Chopin or Beethoven, for example?

In transcriptions, you almost automatically develop a feeling of being like a composer. There is more room for imagination and you learn a lot about the pianism of the transcribers. I have recorded all of Chopin and Rachmaninoff’s etudes, but I can hardly recall anything as difficult as Liszt transcriptions of Schubert’s songs or some of Friedman’s or Rachmaninoff’s transcriptions such as for example Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer night’s dream. There are so many layers, each with its own color, sense of timing and we have just two hands to make it all sound as rich but light and natural as possible.

It sounds fantastic on your CD, and you take very fast tempo!

She laughs. It’s funny, in that Scherzo I’m only two seconds faster than Rachmaninoff himself. So I do have an alibi for that pace!

Tell me a little please about Liszt, Friedman and Rachmaninoff, the three transcribers on your CD.

All three have their own characteristics. Robert Schumann considered Liszt’s transcriptions as “new” works. But in his adaptation of Schubert and Mendelssohn songs Liszt tries to preserve the special authentic world of the songs. His work on Schubert’s songs is extremely delicate, as the power of that music lies in its vulnerability. Here Liszt is very faithful to the world of the original, whereas with the most of his transcriptions he usually presents himself more as the main character.
Friedman in his transcriptions was profoundly influenced by Busoni, to whom he even dedicated his transcription of the Tempo di Menuetto from Mahler’s Third Symphony. And especially in his transcriptions of baroque music, for example the Brandenburg Concerto on the CD, you can clearly hear the shadow of Busoni in the manner Friedman symphonically expands the sound and the ideas of the rather minimalistic original. Whereas Rachmaninoff modifies original works much more than Friedman does, he is more a coauthor and the chemistry between himself and a composer of an original is always very strong. He is never too massive but refined, as his pianism also was.

The last piece on the CD, a waltz by Eduard Gärtner in the piano version by Friedman, sounds like a nostalgic farewell.

As I mentioned before this program shows transcriptions from different sides and sometimes as an inner intimate piece. Also this program is very much related to what is known as the Golden Age of the Piano, when the piano world was so different from the general aesthetics of our time. Ignaz Friedman was as one of the greatest representatives of that special era that personally deeply influenced me too. This waltz would be one of the Friedmans typical encores and with its special warmth and nostalgia it reflects a very special way of story telling – when every listener feels the piano “speaks” privately, intimately to him only.

Author: Eric Schoones


Click the album cover to listen to the complete album.
This feature is available for Gold members of pianostreet.com

Play album >>

Read more:
www.zlatachochieva.com
www.accentus.com
www.funk-stiftung.org

This article is a contribution from the German and Dutch magazine Pianist through Piano Street’s International Media Exchange Initiative and the Cremona Media Lounge.


Pianist_FC_LPianist Magazine is published in seven countries, in two different editions: in German (for Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxemburg and Liechtenstein) and in Dutch (for Holland and Belgium).
The magazine is for the amateur and professional alike, and offers a wide range of topics connected to the piano, with interviews, articles on piano manufacturers, music, technique, competitions, sheetmusic, cd’s, books, news on festivals, competitions, etc.
For a preview please check: pianist-magazin.de or www.pianistmagazine.nl


/nilsjohan
 
     

Beethoven as Improviser? – Interview with Konstantin Scherbakov, part 2

In this second part of our interview with Konstantin Scherbakov about his Beethoven celebrations during 2020, we talk about Liszt’s Symphony transcriptions and the improvisational aspect in Beethoven’s music.

Read the first part of the interview here >>

Patrick Jovell: We often picture Beethoven in a large sonata – and in a minor key. However only 9 out of the 32 were in minor and 23 in major…

Konstantin Scherbakov: It is true that Beethoven’s music is often associated with the iconical C-minor key. However Beethoven of, say, F-major is as much of a genius as Beethoven of D minor or A-flat major. There is simply no tonality where Beethoven wouldn’t leave a benchmark in musical history: C major, E major, even otherwise obscure F-sharp minor (slow movement of the “Hammerklavier”-Sonata), F-sharp major (Sonata op. 78) or B major (slow movement of the 5th Concerto). You name it!

PJ: You play all the concertos, sonatas and also Liszt’s symphony transcriptions. Which was your way to build an understanding for the composer over the years?

KS: My understanding of Beethoven’s world grew parallel to my musical consciousness in general and with my ability to play the piano in particular. Initially, the problem of playing chords at the beginning of the slow movement of Op. 7, paired with unattainable meaning, represented an unsolvable problem. The problems I am trying to solve today lie rather in understanding his musical, aesthetical and social goals and, as a result, in the search of the Ultimate Expression. Here the comprehension of Beethoven’s world through his works mirroring his life goes hand in hand with my own life experience. Of course, playing most of his output in cycles, like complete Symphonies or Complete Sonatas, has had an immense influence on the process of understanding and adds to my ever growing astonishment, which I also gained through the experience of getting very closely acquainted with the music of other composers, such as Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Godowsky, Respighi, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin or Medtner.

PJ: You belong to the few acclaimed pianists who recorded and play the Liszt transcriptions of the symphonies. How do you treat the orchestral/choral material and dimensions in comparison to interpreting his piano compositions? Is there a Scherbakov formula?

KS: This question arises as soon as a pianist approaches the Symphony in transcription for solo piano, and it is perhaps the most important question to answer. How to play a Symphony on piano? It is necessary to stress that Beethoven conceived his piano music as music which could not be played by other instruments. He thought in pianistic terms, he heard this music being played on piano. Likewise, while writing quartets he was thinking and hearing music in quartet terms. The same is of course valid for the symphonies.
So, from the composer’s point of view there is nothing or very little in common between a symphony and a piano sonata. The creative method might be similar but the means chosen are totally different. There have been other transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies made by lesser composers and the results were modest. It needed the genius of Liszt to complete the task. Liszt alone made the impossible – to translate the large-scale format into the language of piano: an independent piece came into being where just the means were necessarily reduced. And here is the core problem: it is impossible to imitate the orchestra on a piano. All attempts would fail. Piano will always remain piano. However, one can use the mighty resources of it to emulate the symphonic nature and maintain the spirit of a symphony. So, I made a decision. For me, the transcription of a symphony on a piano should be a PIANO PIECE. In return, after having studied the symphonies one inevitably hears so well-known sonatas in a different, enriched and more detailed way. That’s exactly what lets me have a new look at them at this important nine-months time period when I am playing and recording the complete Sonatas.

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PJ: Tracking down Beethoven always leads us to investigate the improviser. His elaborations on the Fantasia concept and all Variations open up to a discussion on how to interpret the material with an ”in the now” quality, so to speak. Which are your thoughts on the improvisational aspect in Beethoven?

KS: Throughout Beethoven’s entire legacy we see his interest in Improvisation or Variation. However, he used Variation rather as a method of organization of music material. For various reasons this is especially noticeable in his piano works, of which not the least is the fact that Beethoven was one of the most outstanding virtuosos of his time. The ability of playing the instrument implied then first of all the ability of a pianist to improvise. The nature of improvisation which brings together the pianist, his mind and spirit with the instrument in a spontaneous expression was an ideal field for liberation of Beethoven’s titanic talent, fantasy and temperament. However, improvisation itself was for him not the goal but just another means of exploring and understanding the material, its expressive capabilities, its potential in terms of changing and transforming. In this sense, improvisation as a principle of organisation or method of composing pervades a huge amount of his piano works. Beethoven wrote variations throughout his life, and it is quite symbolic that one of the last piano works he wrote was a magnificent cycle of variations (Diabelli).

However, it is necessary to distinguish between variation in Beethoven’s output as a genre layer, and variability as a way of processing the material. In the most general view, Variation can be conditionally divided into a) the way of thinking, b) the way of organizing the material. In the first case, we can talk about the motivic and figurative development of the material, in the second – about the influence of such on structure and form. Generally speaking, all his life Beethoven wrote variations on one favourite theme: the Tonic (I) and the Dominant (V) and their relation. Like no one in the past, Beethoven used the colossal potential of these two harmonies, explored all the musical and formal possibilities that this theme offers, together with the philosophical and aesthetic aspects of such a confrontation. He found his Philosopher’s Stone, which served him throughout his life as a truly inexhaustible source of inspiration, giving him the opportunity to rise to magnificent musical heights which have become since then the property of mankind: the beginning of the 5th Symphony, and the main theme of the 9th Symphony’s Finale being just two most famous examples. One of the most exciting examples of bringing together structure and improvisation, variation and motivic development we find in the 1st movement of the 6th Sonata in F major, Op. 10, where the T-D-T end of exposition unexpectedly becomes the base material for the development section! Figuratively speaking, T-D is the “eternal” Beethoven topic and most of his works are just variations based on that theme.

From this perspective, Beethoven developed variation as a composing method. He even brought this method to work whenever he approached the Sonata form. The illustration of this thesis is best shown in the transformation of the idea of a sonata form which underwent an unimaginable change during four decades, from the first sonata to the 32nd, from the first symphony to the 9th. Indeed, you just have to put the Hammerklavier-Sonata – the true symphony – against the most concise but perfect sonata form of the first movement of Op. 101 against each other to find out how much Beethoven varied the sonata formal principles (and how capable he was to do that)! What can be more contrasting in the use of those? Beethoven improvised upon the sonata form! Having said this I would have to conclude that performing Beethoven’s music would inevitably involve improvisation. Instead I would insist that it does not need improvisation as the expressive tool due to the nature of its semantics. Beethoven’s ideas are so clearly defined that they would not tolerate even the slightest uncertainty, whose momentum, due to the nature of the very concept of improvisation, would otherwise violate the rigor and grandeur of his thoughts. This uncertainty will inevitably be expressed in temporary freedom. Playing “in time” perfectly matches the idea of ​​the “absolute” in Beethoven’s music. I am deeply convinced that the problem of time remains decisive in the execution of Beethoven’s ideas, in their proper formulation. The slightest changes in time (or dynamic or articulation) will lead to liberty of reading and, thus, away from Beethoven’s generalizations, from the transpersonal, supremacist nature of his music. Generalization is the central means of expression in Beethoven’s musical aesthetics and philosophy. He rises to his true heights when he reaches a generalization of the absolute level.


/patrick
 
     



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