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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

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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


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.


Cyprien Katsaris – Beethoven in a New Light

Beethoven – a Chronological Odyssey is a set of six surprising CDs that must count as one of the most original new releases in the Beethoven year. Cyprien Katsaris has gained renown as a Beethoven interpreter not least because he is one of the few pianists to have recorded Liszt’s transcriptions of the symphonies – and also because he has a solo piano version of the Emperor Concerto in his repertoire. But to this French master of Greek Cypriot origin, adding a further complete recording of the piano sonatas to the seventy that are already on the market did not seem to be a good idea. Instead, with his Beethoven Odyssey, Cyprien Katsaris takes us on a fascinating foray through the composer’s output – which we may know rather less thoroughly than we had imagined.

While musical life is suffering profound disruption as the coronavirus crisis causes havoc, Katsaris works at home in Paris with his piano. He is in good spirits and can even see the positive sides of this enforced house arrest: less pollution, less CO2, good air quality. ‘It seems that nature has taken on the task of restoring balance.’ Fortunately pianists – with their many hours of practice per day – are used to social isolation in the company of their pianos, and this applies to Katsaris too, who does not partake of holidays or weekend trips even in normal circumstances. ‘I’m always practising, except the day of a concert, because I want to be fresh and natural. You might compare it to a rendezvous, a dinner with a much admired, beautiful lady; you wouldn’t meet up with another woman earlier the same day.’
Our interview is highly stimulating – and, with the exception of a conversation I had long ago with the (now deceased) Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers, the only one out of many hundreds in which I myself had to answer questions. We frequently deviated from the topic of Beethoven, touching on the coronavirus, mutual acquaintances such as Eliane Reyes and the Liszt specialist Koos Groen, and also Frits Philips, who passed away at the age of 100 on the very day that Katsaris gave a concert with the Brabant Orchestra in his Philips’ birth town, Eindhoven.


For a long time Katsaris had no idea what contribution he could make to the Beethoven year. Finally now he presents a very personal selection from Beethoven’s complete works, arranged chronologically from his first attempts up to the very last notes he committed to paper. Here sonatas, bagatelles and variations alternate with a total of fifteen transcriptions, mainly of chamber music – either by Beethoven himself or by contemporaries or later colleagues such as Liszt, Wagner and Mussorgsky. Over the years Katsaris has collected so many scores that he himself lost track of what was piling up at home. ‘It started twenty years ago. Michael Ladenburger from the Beethovenhaus in Bonn gave me a photocopy of Czerny’s solo piano transcription of the second movement of the Kreutzer Sonata. it sounded good!’
Concerning the piano sonatas, specifically the Appassionata, Katsaris remarks that many virtuosos are tempted into making errors. ‘They play the third movement much too fast. Beethoven writes Allegro ma non troppo; only the coda is Presto!’


The most interesting Beethoven transcriptions are still Liszt’s arrangements of the nine symphonies. ‘Young pianists might not regard it as helpful, but whether they believe it or not: you understand Beethoven much better if you start with the symphonies rather than the sonatas. In an interview from 1988, Horowitz called the symphonies the “greatest piano works ever written”. Of course they are very difficult; I myself worked for ten years on my Teldec recordings from the 1980s.’
The new CDs also include Wagner’s arrangement of the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony. ‘Liszt’s arrangement is in every way superior, but I wanted to include Wagner if only because nobody would have expected to find him here. Beethoven was Wagner’s idol even when he was a child. Wagner claimed Beethoven and Shakespeare appeared to him in a dream when he was a teenager. He copied the scores of the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies and his piano arrangement of the Ninth retains the singers and choir in the finale, as does the one by Friedrich Kalkbrenner, which was recorded by Etsuko Hirose, one of the finest pianists of her generation. Nobody knows these transcriptions, but there is so much repertoire out there! A Berlin musicologist once told me that we modern pianists play only two per cent of the music that was composed in the nineteenth century!’


Should a transcription make you forget the original? ‘No, an arrangement is something totally different. It’s like comparing a black-and-white photo with a colour one. I myself can better understand an orchestral work by playing it on the piano. Arrangements are as old as the hills; the fables of Lafontaine are often nothing more than adaptations in beautiful French language of fables by Æsop, the poet from ancient Greece.’
Busoni once said that every composition is actually a transcription – of the original idea that was in the composer’s mind when he conceived the work. ‘For me there’s hardly any difference between my approach to an original piano composition and the way I tackle an arrangement. Perhaps I feel a little freer if the composer himself was a great improviser. It’s all about the spontaneous creation in the moment. Chopin never played repeated passages in exactly the same way. It’s a question of remaining true to the composition whilst at the same time contributing something personal to it. If I, as a jury member in a competition find someone’s playing convincing, then I agree with him inwardly, even if I myself wouldn’t play it the same way.’


The fire, the enthusiasm and the grandeur with which Katsaris plays Beethoven are reminiscent of his old mentor György Cziffra. ‘I never heard him play the symphonies, but he played Beethoven’s and Mozart’s sonatas very beautifully and elegantly. I once presented his very refined recordings of Scarlatti sonatas on French radio without saying in advance who was playing, and everyone was surprised, because they know him only as a virtuoso. Nowadays his genius is finding greater recognition. We appear together in some TV show from 1975 – you can find it on YouTube if you search for “Cziffra Katsaris”. He gave me his original arrangement of the Flight of the Bumble Bee. It’s even harder than the official version. Cziffra was the greatest pianist I have ever heard.’


The new edition was recorded on two Bechstein grand pianos. Is there a connection with Artur Schnabel’s historic recordings in the combination of Beethoven and Bechstein? ‘I don’t know; in any case before World War II Bechstein was out in front – Rachmaninov, for example, composed his first two concertos at a Bechstein. What I find very good with Bechstein is that they never sound hard, even if you play very loudly. In any case, though, I have never confined myself to a single type of piano. I want to maintain the absolute freedom to be able to play on all good pianos, and I’m keen to help all the major manufacturers – Steingraeber, Steinway, Yamaha or Bechstein. The first grand piano I had at home, when I was a teenager, was a Steingraeber. For 35 years now I’ve owned a Steinway D. I also enjoy playing on a Yamaha CFX, especially when I’m in Japan. In general the piano technicians are better there too. I don’t agree with those who say that in principle you need to use a different instrument for Debussy than for Haydn. You have to be able to make music on every piano. A lot of what we believe is largely in our minds, in our heads. A blind test often produces surprising results.’


In the course of his career Katsaris has worked with a large number or famous conductors: Leonard Bernstein, Mstislav Rostropovich, Neville Marriner, Simon Rattle, Myung-Whun Chung, Christoph von Dohnányi, Charles Dutoit, Antal Doráti, Iván Fischer, Kent Nagano, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Charles Mackerras, to name but a few. Exceptional even in this illustrious company was his collaboration with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with whom Katsaris played Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, which of course they recorded with the composer himself. They had first become acquainted a year earlier at the first CD recording of Liszt’s Concerto in the Hungarian Style, a work that was completed by Tchaikovsky. ‘I’ll never forget that. A day before the recording, Ormandy invited me to his apartment, for a single rehearsal on his piano. When I told him that I was intimidated he answered he had the same feeling when, as a young man, he had to conduct Rachmaninoff with the Paganini Rhapsody and during the concert Rachmaninoff had a memory problem. Ormandy thought that he caused the mistake, and looked at Rachmaninoff who was very angry and who told him in his deep bass voice: “Play!”
Afterwards Ormandy, terrified went to Rachmaninoff in his dressing room, who told him: “I was not angry with you, but with myself!”
The famous New York Times emeritus critic Harold Schoenberg later told me how Ormandy once, in Beijing at a rehearsal of the state orchestra there, was asked by the conductor to lead to orchestra for a few minutes and without him even needing to utter a single word, the orchestra suddenly sounded totally different. I believe in this magic, in spiritual communication at a high level. Why can someone who plays perfectly leave you cold, and why is the playing of Horowitz or Cortot – who also made mistakes – so fascinating? It’s a mystery, something spiritual, something that is detached from the physical world. There’s something similar between composers as well. Franz Xaver Mozart composed Polonaises mélancholiques that remind of the early polonaises by Chopin, but Chopin was only five years old at the time. The same with the scherzo from one of Czerny’s sonatas, that sounds like Schumann, although it was written while Schumann was still a child.’

Respect and tolerance

A lot has been said about Beethoven’s humanitarian message. ‘Of course that all culminates in his Ninth Symphony. But the idea itself underpins many of his works. All these sforzati are like a protest against social injustice. In his time wars were raging incessantly and, alongside the protest, we hear the clarity in many works – the full gamut of emotions from fear, rage, strong interest and enthusiasm all the way to the ultimate, to serenity, to zen.’
Katsaris regards himself as a citizen of the world. ‘Beethoven wanted us to become brothers and sisters, but that is the message of every great composer: respect and tolerance. Without any chauvinism, I can see a parallel to the great philosophers of ancient Greece. They have the same universal and humanitarian message that people of all cultures, all over the world, can perceive and understand, whether they are in Korea or Argentina. People everywhere have tears in their eyes when they listen to music by Mozart, Chopin or Beethoven.’

Author: Eric Schoones
Photo credit: Jean-Baptiste Millot

Ludwig van Beethoven | A Chronological Odyssey
Cyprien Katsaris, piano – 6 CD | PIANO 21
Listen to samples at willowhaynerecords.com

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: www.pianist-magazin.de or www.pianistmagazine.nl


A Scottish-Viennese Odyssey

When Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam was in Sweden in September to play two piano concertos with Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, we talked with the performer in the midst of rehearsal. The concert was recorded for Helsingborg Concert Hall Play series and – according to Brautigam – Sally Beamish’s 1st piano concerto named ”Hill Stanzas” and Mozart’s 17th, make a very fine musical combination in a concert program.

Piano Street: You are here in Sweden to perform two piano concertos with Helsingborg Symphony and conductor David Nieman. We are all familiar with piano concertos but not so much with one of its composers; contemporary British Sally Beamish. What has nourished your interest in her music?

Ronald Brautigam: I Met Sally in Manchester when I was playing with the BBC Philharmonic with Andrew Manze who used to be the conductor here in Helsingborg, and they were playing a premiere of a piece she’d written and I liked her music. I knew her music because a lot of it has come out on the same company where I record with, and it’s a sort of music that appeals to me and especially the fact that she is Scottish and my wife being Scottish too. I’ve always had a very strong relationship with the country. That was actually why I contacted her and asked if she was interested in writing a piano concerto for me, and she immediately said yes, and we met up. She came to Amsterdam, we met and talked about what sort of music and what kind of ideas I had and in the end we both came up with the idea of something inspired by the landscape of the Grampian Mountains which is the central part of the Scottish Highlands where I spend lots of time during the summer, and she went there and composed the piece in the middle of this nature between all the birds and the deer and waterfalls. And so a lot of that is incorporated into the music.

PS: So it’s basically nature based?

RB: It’s actually based on a book by a Scottish author, Nan Shepherd, who writes about her walk through the Cairngorms, and she incorporated this into the music. And in the third and fourth movement, we are suddenly tucked into Scottish Folk history and folk stories about ghosts, violinists and things. When you walk in Scotland and you’ve had a few glasses of whiskey, this sort of horror stories come naturally to you.

PS: Beamish has composed concertos for other instruments such as viola, cello, trumpet and flute and has herself a background as an orchestral (violist) musician. How would you describe this quality when it comes to writing for the piano?

RB: Well, apart from being a viola player, I think she’s a very capable pianist, although she would deny that herself, so she knows exactly what’s possible and what’s not possible. It’s a challenging piano part but all playable. I think she even tried to play it herself and that’s always a good sign. She knows how to write for the piano and after this concerto she has written two other piano concertos. There are three concertos which were written in quite a short time, a triptych where one is about the waters of Scotland, their storms and danger spots for ships and fishing and the way you can really go down. The other one is more about Scottish cities. So it’s a Scottish triptych, these three piano concertos. Nature, the water and the cities.

PS: The piano concerto you’re playing today, did you make it in a collaboration or in conversation?

RB: I always find you should let a composer do whatever they want to do and don’t interfere, just play what they write. Sally knew my playing and I think she mentioned somewhere my lovely sound and beautiful touch, and a lot of that is to be found in the music, so it’s written with the performer in mind.

PS: We mostly know you in the Viennese Classical repertoire – both on period instruments and on modern. Which are your personal thoughts on the second concerto this evening; Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17.

RB: I find it being one of Mozart’s most spectacular piano concertos. It’s so beautiful. The first movement is this almost like it’s got a bit of shyness the way it starts. As if Mozart opens the door and says is it safe to come in… If you compare that to the final part of the last movement which is pure joy, and almost like slapstick throwing pies at each other. I mean it’s got all his character traits in one piano concerto, a very serious slow movement. So it’s great music to play. I absolutely love it!

PS: Is it often played, this concerto?

Not as often as for instance the big A major or the C and D Minor Concertos. Those are the war horses on stage. There’s such an enormous amount of Mozart Concertos to choose from. This was actually the same piano concerto that I played at all the premiere concerts and the Beamish Concerto in combination with this Mozart piano concerto makes a very nice combo.

Watch the recorded livestream:


An Uncancelled Beethoven Celebration – Interview with Konstantin Scherbakov, part 1

2020 is not only a fascinating year for the musical world and the worldwide celebrations of Ludwig van Beethoven, but also gives us a chance to get closer to noteworthy performers in order to share their ideas and experiences of the grand master of western classical music. In this interview with Konstantin Scherbakov, the phenomenal performer generously shares his experiences derived from a lifelong relationship with the composer, on stage, in the recording studio and as an influential tutor. In this first part of the interview we get to learn about Scherbakov’s year of celebration and complete sonatas recording project.

Patrick Jovell: Konstantin, we know you through your large discography and your broad interest in different kinds of repertoire but this interview will focus on your relation to Beethoven. How did it all start?

Konstantin Scherbakov: The Beethoven Year 2020 rounds up an important circle in my biography. It is not only Beethoven’s 250 Birthday. It also happens that I play piano since 50 years. And it is absolutely no coincidence that I celebrate this double anniversary by playing only Beethoven’s music: I associate my personal Beethoven story with my life in music in general. It began when I, six years old, played his “Marmotte”, and continued through the next fifty years when I played in concerts almost everything Beethoven has written for the piano, and beyond – his solo piano works, all the Concertos and all the Symphonies. I also recorded quite a bit of this – initially for the Soviet Radio, then for Naxos (Diabelli-Variations), Two Pianists label (Eroica-Variations, Sonatas), the largest and most significant project being to-date the Complete Symphonies in Liszt’s transcription. The 2019/20 concert season was exclusively dedicated to Beethoven: the Complete Sonatas and Symphonies cycles in various countries and at some important festivals, of which the most notable was, of course, the Beethovenfest in Bonn. Besides the solo repertoire, I was also to perform Beethoven’s concerti. Towards Beethoven’s supposed birthday at the end of 2020 the release of the Complete Sonatas CD-box (which I am currently recording and will continue recording during the next months for the Steinway label) is scheduled with the release of the set of nine CDs in October – November 2020.

PJ: How has Covid-19 affected your concert and recording schedule?

KS: Yes, it was an unexpected turn of events, (for everyone everywhere!) which cost me, as any other artist, lots of engagements, concerts and which ruined all plans. You realize this especially painfully when it’s a cycle of concerts which is spread through the whole season, when your work is precisely scheduled every month at different venues: these sonatas in January, this set in February etc. Indeed it is very misfortunate when you schedule your work years in advance and everything is lost at once. Except recordings, however: in spite of the Corona crisis, the Steinway label is working strictly in accordance with the schedule we made up one year ago. Every month there has been a release of yet another set of Sonatas.

Here the pandemic situation turns out to be a life elixir! When in the past thirty years did I have the time to enjoy working – in peace – on one program for one whole month? The experience which mixes playing late Beethoven’s music all day long, endless walks in various Swiss regions, and reading Proust, is nothing short of a revelation! In the absence of any disturbing factors like traveling, getting hurried or distracted by other things, you realize this is nothing but sensational, unheard of, and for that reason extremely precious and wonderful time. That is what I am through right at this moment. However dreadful the situation is for the world I am grateful for the opportunity to experience something I was never able to experience before. Many things in life will look different from now on…

PJ: It is said that Beethoven – after composing 15 sonatas – told his editor Breitkopf & Härtel that he was planning to compose sonatas in a totally new way. How do you as an interpreter and recording artist schedule your Beethoven recitals in terms of coupling sonatas? Is there a chronological factor working in this sense?

KS: Of course everyone planning to perform or record the complete Beethoven Sonatas inevitably thinks about how to program them in concert or on CD. So did I. I had done my homework but decided to research how others did theirs before me. I consulted recording catalogues and googled for concert cycles featuring Beethoven’s Sonatas. Strangely enough, I found more programs where the sonatas were distributed in some ways, different from a simple chronological order. Among them there would not be two similar programming ideas. And every idea seemed to me strange and suspicious, highly questionable and subjective. Why this or that choice of sonatas in one concert? What stands behind this particular combination? How would such a program sound in a concert? I did not have any answers as it all seemed too personal, too speculative and thus difficult to understand or agree. My research however proved to be very helpful. The conclusion to program my Beethoven Sonatas cycle in chronological order was reinforced and my opinion about such a decision strengthened. Indeed, what can bring a more satisfying experience than a journey with Beethoven through his life, every period of which left a significant trace in his piano sonatas, from beginning to the end? Moreover: from such a perspective, 32 sonatas appear much more as a cycle with its obvious concept and well structured content.

PJ: Brahms’ opening of his first Sonata – paraphrasing Beethoven’s ”Hammerklavier” – is such a striking example of the latter’s enormous impact as a role model for the sonata form, for composers and pianists to come. There are endless attempts to explain Beethoven’s Sonatas in form and psychological contents. Can you tell me why the 32 have become a bible among pianists?

KS: There are many reasons. To name them all one would need to write a book. I’ll just try to focus on the most obvious ones, from my perspective. One of them was the fact that Beethoven’s titanic and tragic figure was the icon that represented the spirit of the time. After all, the living legend Beethoven, was the most well-known personality of the time next only to Napoleon… It is no surprise therefore that Beethoven was regarded as a symbol of the epoch also by those who composed music. Of course Beethoven’s prodigious gifts were apparent anywhere, in all forms and genres. However, his genius needed the sonata form to develop and bring to realization the whole wealth of his abilities. It is primarily due to sonatas, quartets, and the symphonies that we know Beethoven. The historical development of the sonata form has reached its peak in Beethoven’s compositions. Deriving from examples of earlier sonata forms in the works of C. P. E. Bach, Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven brought the genre to totally new heights and established a new model which ought to serve as a pattern to follow and as a catalogue of rules, methods and ideas. It was the sonata form that explains the attracting power and strong influence of Beethoven.

PJ: Clearly Beethoven displays both willingness and boldness when it comes to experimenting with contents and its construction. Can you elaborate on that?

KS: Beethoven’s method of composition at first sight seems to be uncomplicated, straightforward, simple and easy: one takes a microscopically small musical pattern and grows huge constructions using its semantic potential. This universal method is indeed like in biological life where anything grows from a single cell. However, such a method requires a genius spirit, melodical gift, perfect sense for formal balance and logic, sophistication and precision of a mathematician’s thinking. Without any of these qualities any attempt to copy or even just follow the method would fail. Many composers didn’t escape the attraction of Beethoven’s method and tried it with various success: the names of Brahms, Bruckner, Schumann and Schubert spring to mind, Mahler would not be possible; many representatives of national schools couldn’t avoid the influence either, such as the Russian Tchaikovsky, Finnish Sibelius or Czech Dvorak. The perfect blend of counterpoint and melody, the use of plain harmony patterns, rhythmical urgency, logic in the development, an enormous scope of artistic ideas and subjects and the ability to say much using few words – that all made Beethoven’s scores an example to study, worship, marvel, and to follow.

PJ: Which values – or challenges for that sake – arise for you as pianist and interpreter while working with this incredibly rich material?

KS: Also from the pianist’s perspective there are a few reasons why Beethoven’s music is so attractive. The first indeed is the fact that this is undoubtedly the best music ever written. There are thirty-two wonderful piano pieces; each of them makes any concert program attractive for audiences. Due to their different musical nature, they can be integrated in any programming context. It also happened that Beethoven was the first composer to write music for the grandfather of the modern piano which we know and play today. Finally, it was in the sonata form where he not only formally completed the development of the genre but opened the new era of pianism with new rules, principles, new basics and unheard-of means. In order to serve the new music ideas which Beethoven introduced in yet another sonata, the piano technique had to be revolutionized; the modern understanding of articulation was introduced (Legato, before all), the use of dynamic range of ever changing and growing instrumental possibilities, the use of pedal(s) etc.

However, for a thinking, reflecting pianist, playing a Beethoven Sonata remains, above all, the challenge of highest artistic criteria; it is kind of a maturity test, because in a Beethoven’s Sonata one’s musicianship becomes apparent. Why so? The answer is in the nature of Beethoven’s language in general as the language of one of the greatest humanists in arts history. It looks to me the following way: in his music, Beethoven sums up the experience of the humanity, forms it in a particular musical idea, encrypts it in a pattern (motif, theme) consisting of a few notes and speaks by its means to humans, in his own name or in the name of God (“Seid umschlungen Millionen!”). His genius makes possible an easy and clear recognition of the meaning of such a motif by everyone. Its expressive power and obvious message is underlined by its shortness. The famous “Fate motif” from the 5th Symphony is a perfect illustration of this thesis. Thus, the task of a performer is to catch, identify, decode and bring the message over. Here the interpretation (pronunciation) has ideally to have the equal expressive power; any failure in properly formulating the idea would be recognized and cause dissatisfaction. In the ideal case, we get two kindred musical spirits acting in harmony – the composer’s and the performer’s. In the worst scenario, we simply experience the dutiful text reading. To illustrate these words I ask you to think about this: how many times were the expectations that always arise in anticipation of a concert featuring, say, the Sonata Op. 111, justified by the actual experience? That is what makes pianists attempt to climb those peaks of piano literature: on one side, the challenge which in case of success would be gratified by recognition, on the other – the urge to prove to oneself where one stands as of now. And above all – the ultimate beauty of the music which is matched only by its depth.

About Konstantin Scherbakov

A worldwide performer, Scherbakov had a career that took him to play with 70 orchestras and to record some 40 albums, including the complete piano works by Shostakovich, Godowsky, and the nine symphonies by Beethoven in Liszt’s transcription. Over the course of his career, Scherbakov has performed all of Beethoven’s piano concertos around the globe and is perhaps the only pianist in the world that has an active repertoire featuring all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, all piano concertos and the Liszt-Beethoven symphonic transcriptions (the latter on five discs 1998-2004, Naxos). The recordings were met with enthusiasm: “Scherbakov is in many ways the artist whom these works have been waiting for,” International Piano wrote. Stereoplay echoed: “This CD should be prescribed at least 50 conductors for educational purposes! Since 1998 Scherbakov functions as Professor at the Zürich University of Arts and many of his students received prizes at international piano competitions, most notably Yulianna Avdeeva; the winner of the 2010 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Scherbakov has also been nominated by the International Classical Music Awards (ICMA) for his Liszt/Lyapunov Transcendental Studies CD (Steinway label, 2019).

Scherbakov Sonatas Project 2020

FREE SAMPLE: Beethoven Complete Sonatas Vol. 6 (Steinway and Sons label)


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