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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.


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The End of an Era: Keith Jarrett’s Return to his Roots

Keith Jarrett, one of the greatest musicians and profilistic pianists of our time, has recently announced that he will no longer be able to hold up his career as a performer. Now 75, he suffered a pair of draining strokes two years ago that left his left side paralyzed and resulting in an unability to play the piano. The recently released “Budapest Concert” – a return to his grandparents’ native country Hungary – is likely one of Jarrett’s final recorded public solo piano recitals.

Jarrett said to New Your Times in October: “I was paralyzed. My left side is still partially paralyzed. I’m able to try to walk with a cane, but it took a long time for that… took a year or more. And I’m not getting around this house at all, really.” He goes on to reveal that despite efforts to play with just his right hand, “I don’t know what my future is supposed to be. I don’t feel right now like I’m a pianist. That’s all I can say about that.”

Improvised Solo Recitals

As a performer, belonging to the global top segment of jazz pianists, Jarrett covered a multitude of genres throughout the years. He stands out as the inventor of the improvised solo recital with a series of unmatched recordings in this genre displaying wanderings in territories such as traditions of jazz and other genres like Western classical music, gospel, blues and ethnic folk music. In 1973 the ECM label organized an 18-concert European tour, consisting solely of Jarrett’s solo improvisations. The result was the landmark recording, “The Köln Concert” (1975), a double album with worldwide sales estimated at 3.5 million copies. Even if ”The Köln Concert” from 1975 has become a reference known by everybody it was actually precursed by the solo albums “Facing You” (1971), “Bremen/Lausanne” (1973).

Since his “Köln Concert” in 1975, which is the most sold jazz record ever, the solo recital wizardry continued with albums such as “Sun Bear Concerts” (1978), “ Dark Intervals” (1988), “Paris Concert” (1990), “Vienna Concert” (1992), “La Scala” (1997), “Tokyo ’96” (1998), “The Carnegie Hall Concert” (2006), “Paris/London – Testament” (2009), “ Rio” (2011), “Creation” (2015) and “A Multitude of Angels” (2016).

The European Tour 2016

His most recent tour took place in Europe in 2016 and included a concert in the Bela Bartok National Concert Hall, Budapest. He described the “Budapest Concert” (released in October 2020) as the “gold standard” by which all of his solo concerts to date would have to be measured. Together with the “Munich 2016” album, recorded at Munich’s Philharmonieon on the last night of the same tour, it will likely symbolize a final tribute to his outstanding capacity as a solo pianist in a genre which he created and which has become the trademark of his career.

The embrace of folkloric music by Bartok and other Hungarian composers further nudged Mr. Jarrett toward a dark quality — “a kind of existential sadness, let’s say, a deepness” — powerfully present in the concert’s first half. The second half, as admirers of “The Köln Concert” will appreciate, features a few of Mr. Jarrett’s most ravishing on-the-spot compositions. Those ballads, like “Part V” and “Part VII,” spark against briskly atonal or boppish pieces, gradually building the case for a mature expression that might not have been possible earlier in his career.
— NY Times

He is “like a centaur – half man, half piano,” the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently wrote about Jarrett’s solo concerts, adding that he “melted into the instrument and bent the keys to make them wail like an old blues guitar.” According to his biographer Wolfgang Sandner, he is the “greatest piano improviser of our time.”

Jarrett as a classical pianist

As one of the most unique profiles in over half a century of jazz, Keith Jarrett’s output has been profound as well as versatile. As a classical pianist with explorations of the baroque organ, clavichord, harpsichord, string quartet, Jarrett has recorded some seventeen albums ranging a broad palette of music history: Bach, Händel, Mozart, Shostakovich, Harrison, Pärt and Barber offer wide and interesting interpretational journeys widely appreciated and very often discussed.

Listen to Jarrett’s classical discography available on Piano Street / Naxos (for Gold Members):

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Read more about Keith Jarrett:

NY Times: Keith Jarrett Confronts a Future Without the Piano

The Köln Concert

Interview with Keith Jarrett

Listen to the complete Budapest Concert on YouTube.


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A Jazz Piano Christmas 2020 – In Spite of Everything

This year we are presented an unexpected and longed for Christmas celebration. Now a part of the yearly seasonal signs is NPR’s ”A Jazz Piano Christmas”. With strict distancing protocols at the Kennedy Center’s majestic Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, its staff with support from Washington, D.C. city government and NPR Music went ahead to carry out this years edition.

Set list:

“Sleigh Ride”
“Holiday Feeling” (REDWOOD)

Cory Henry
“Christmas With You” (Cory Henry)
“Misty Christmas” (Cory Henry)
“Someday At Christmas” (Stevie Wonder)

Kenny Barron
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”
“Silent Night”
“Little Town of Bethlehem”

Masked 50 people sat 30 feet from the performance stage in order to form a gathering sharing the healing powers of music. The pianists this year included the up and coming talent REDWOOD (Sequoia Snyder), who has her finger on the pulse of her generation’s sound, the piano and voice of Cory Henry which reveal his roots and passion for music of his childhood time spent in church and the elegant presence of Kenny Barron, considered one of the most influential mainstream jazz pianists since the bebop era.

There was an undercurrent of reverence to this year’s performances. Seems the weight of the world wide pandemic – as well as the emotional movements for social justice – fueled many heartfelt moments of quiet contemplation, not to mention the soul-stirring vocals that seemed to cry out for a collective, heartwarming hug to fend off the real world challenges we all face.


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34 Works by Beethoven Added to Piano Street

We’ve spent the months leading up to Beethoven’s birthday preparing a number of his scores that have been missing from our sheet music library. As part of this week’s celebrations, we’re happy to announce that our Beethoven section – comprising 130 works – is now complete.

Many of the new pieces are very accessible to the intermediate piano student. Most of them are lesser known works, which for various reasons were not published during the composer’s lifetime. A majority are listed as WoO (Werk ohne Opuszahl, or Work Without Opus number). There are several Bagatelles that didn’t find their way into one of the published collections; minuets, ländler and other dances originally composed for orchestra and later arranged for piano by Beethoven; sonata movements, rondos…

Included is also a short Sonata for four hands, as well as two rarely played variation works for the same setting. Finally, we’re pleased to add two great pieces from the standard repertoire, for the advanced or professional pianist: the Triple Concerto for violin, cello, and piano, op 56, and the Choral Fantasy, op 80, for piano, chorus, and orchestra.

Listen, download and print:
Beethoven – complete piano music

List of recently added pieces


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Beethoven 250: Krystian Zimerman performs the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos

Renowned Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman joins forces with the London Symphony Orchestra and its Music Director Simon Rattle at LSO St Luke’s for a three-concert cycle of the five piano concertos. The stream will take place on DG Stage, a new video music service for classical concert streams from Deutsche Grammophon.

Streamed on the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, this opening concert begins with Concerto No.1, written after No.2 but published first. Brimming with bold melodic and harmonic writing, No.1 reveals the emergence of Beethoven’s own inimitable voice. Second on the programme is Concerto No.3, in the key of C minor, associated in Beethoven’s work with a sense of drama and foreboding.


Ludwig van Beethoven
– Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, op.15
– Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, op.37

Krystian Zimerman, London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle

Stream starts Thursday 17 December, 19:00 GMT and can be watched on demand until 2020-12-19

Get your ticket on www.dg-premium.com (9.90 EUR)

The remaining three concertos will be streamed on December 19 & 21.

Free tickets for Piano Street’s members

Deutsche Grammophon cordially invites the Piano Street members to this unique online concert experience on DG Stage. A limited number of free tickets are available for Gold members.

Log in to your Piano Street account and visit this special page to get your free online ticket for DG Stage. First come, first served!

The new platform DG Stage

DG Stage – The Classical Concert Hall, is a new online platform featuring exclusively produced classical concert streams by the world’s leading artists. The pioneering online venture, developed within the DG Premium platform, expands Deutsche Grammophon’s commitment to great music, inspirational artists and new technology. International audiences will be able to watch a broad range of classical concerts, including piano recitals, chamber music sessions and orchestra and opera performances, exclusively produced live on tape for DG Stage.


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