Last month I gave some of my personal history with Mozart. I wrote about hating him as a high schooler, and how i came around to loving him. There's a few steps I missed.
In my master's degree, I had a chance to study with Ann Chang at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She had studied plenty of fortepiano, but specialized in transferring this performance practice knowledge to the modern piano. So while there was a fortepiano there, and I got to epxeriment plenty on it, we worked on Mozart and Beethoven on a modern Steinway. I came to understand the language of notation that was familiar, presumptuous, in Mozart's day, how translation of that language became transmuted over time, and how we can capture aspects of the fortepiano on today's instruments. I even got to play in a masterclass by fortepiano and classical performance practice specialist, Malcolm Bilson; a true class by a master if there ever was one. He told me at the time that I understood the rules, but I wasn't a very good salesman for the cause; I had work to do to make these ideas convincing.
These were very influential ideas for me. Combined with my discovery of the Golden Age of piano playing, I veered towards contemporary music, because I was so dissatisfied with how pianists interpreted that music of the historical canon.
Then I became a contemporary music snob. My DMA is literally "in contemporary music", and I loved the program I was in. I've written plenty about how I believe in the importance of even the most difficult, abstract contemporary music (see all the posts under the 'contemporary music' category in the archives). But in becoming a advocate of this abstract music, I began to discount tonality entirely. I looked down on the tonal system as one of idiotic simplicity.
This attitude stemmed from my budding appreciation for complex atonal languages that composers of the 20th century have developed. My intellectual curiosity (as well as musical satisfaction) was piqued by composers who used very simple musical material to derive all kinds of music aspects: harmony, rhythm, form, etc. Of course this is not dissimilar to how classical composers created themes and developed them throughout a movement, or in the case of Beethoven, using motives to connect across movements.
But it was all so obvious in tonality. Especially with Mozart. Glenn Gould evidently said that Mozart could never write a proper development section, especially since he never had anything worth developing. I grew into that view the more I grew into contemporary music. Mozart's music was so easy to like that it wasn't worth liking.
I'm not sure what changed that attitude. I finished my DMA in May of 2015 and by that fall I was reworking Mozart's Sonata K 333 to have some good recordings of standard repertoire. Over time, I think I allowed myself to enjoy something whether or not it was intellectually satisfying.
And then the further out I've been from my DMA, the more I see the intellectual underpinnings of tonal composers, especially Mozart. I've been reading Charles Rosen's The Classical Style (which will be the subject of future posts!) and he is able to make incredible connections between obscure aspects of Mozart's music, for instance, how the accompaniment in a piano work becomes the melody later on. Or subtle shifts in Mozart's Sonata forms which revolutionize the sense of drama.
Just because something is 'easy on the ears', doesn't mean the music can't have deep intellectual underpinnings.
(note: I've linked above to the entire album that this recording is on...the Beethoven begins on track 24, but you should take some other time to listen to more of Korsantia's recordings!)
The bass theme is played very strictly, with more separation, which I do like. Much like a Baroque style bass. I really admire how consistent he keeps this articulation in the following duets.
Oh-I love the cadences in the B section: I never thought of treating these so freely, or like a cadenza! What a fascinating mix of classical and baroque styles.
His a quattrois a masterclass in itself in style contrast.
I love his shaping of the repeated LH chords in the theme, there’s so much music and character in this subtle voice.
Variation 1-Great shading and subtle phrasing to differentiate constant 16thnotes. Variations with a single variation!
Variation 2- the variety in the first variation makes the perpetual motion of this one so exciting and energetic, not at all dull.
Variation 3- he really nails the style I was after in this variation, showing off the change in register
Variation 4-His LH articulation sounds like it should get annoying fast for its machine-gun like precision, but he has such long shaping in mind that it’s never dull
Variation 5-Again, he’s so subtle in his voicing, that you don’t realize he’s bringing out the polyphony until it’s happened, and you realized that although he began with a very narrow focus on the upper melody, he’s opened up the tapestry of texture.
Variation 6- I am so glad to hear a great artist be so flexible with the tempo…It’s not free, he’s just allowing himself to make music.
Variation 7- And again, he follows it up with a variation played very straight. I haven’t commented on all the cadenzas, but it’s worth mentioning here how impressed I am that he finds ways of extending nearly every single cadence in the style of the variation he’s in. Not to mention how he seamlessly works back into Beethoven’s text.
Variation 8- I spoke how I was aiming for a 3rdmovement of Waldstein color here, and he has that…There’s some smearing of the pedal but it’s very tasteful.
Variation 9- Props to focusing so much on the left hand where the melody obviously is…instead of the very difficult right hand. It may be easier that way!
Variation 10- this kind of near rhythmic dislocation is exactly what I’m after! Also, one of the most fun cadenzas, it sounded like we were headed to some modernism.
Variation 11- So here he’s rewriting the rhythm; the last eighth note of the first measure (and subsequent ones), is supposed to be two thirty-second notes, and a sixteenth rest, but he shifts the first 32ndnote to the end of the third eighth note of the measure…I love it though. It’s completely in line with the puckish character.
Variation 12- again, like variation 9, a master technician at work, this time particularly for how little pedal he uses. I do like a wash of pedal for the whole harmony.
Variation 13 I’m relieved that his tempo isn’t any faster here, but again, he makes so much music: the moving line, especially in the left hand is so well shaped. And props that he still chose to do a cadenza in such a difficult variation.
Variation 14- I love the voicing here.
Variation 15- in this and the previous variation, he a little more held back, just letting Beethoven’s notes do the work. That’s not a bad thing, nor is it bad that we get a greater dose of “Korsantia” in the preceding variations. I think it’s a true mark of artistry to show both sides in a performance: the performer’s own personality as well as the composer’s.
Fugue-relieved again that his tempo isn’t too fast. I’m probably a little slower, but in the ball park. I like how he lets little motives sneak into the fore, the spotlight is never in one place.
Post-Variations- I love the terraced build here, so when the 32ndnotes come the last couple pages, it really builds to a climax. That’s one apparent flaw of Beethoven’s in the piece…You get this crazy difficult fugue which ends in these climactic chords…but it’s not the end of the piece. These post variations can almost seem like a let down, but Korsantia does a remarkable job making this a true ending.
All in all, I’m astounded by this performance. So much individuality from the performer; it sounds so much like Beethoven, but I cannot imagine anyone else reproducing this performance. No amount of textual study to determine the composer’s intentions will create such a thrilling variety of musical moments. None of the variations feel like the one before, and the rather dull bass theme nor the repetitive form gets old, no matter how many times the same structure gets repeated.
I’m inspired by this kind of playing, not to reproduce it, but to find the depths of a piece so that I can put so much of myself into this piece as Korsantia did.
Following on the heels of my last two posts (one about how practice doesn't make perfect, another analyzing a recent Beethoven performance), it's worth noting one more thing:
All of our successes are a culmination of our entire lives up to that point, including successes and especially including our failures.
I mentioned in the Beethoven post that I'm quite terrified of performing fugues; that's a genre you can't get away from playing the piano. Here's the source of my terror: towards the end of my B.Mus in piano performance, I went through a string of performances where I had memory lapses in fugues. It didn't seem to matter what I did at the time, no matter how prepared I was, no matter how often I played without problems in the practice room, or for my teacher. I could not get through fugues.
Now, I know of several strategies to do better memorization work. The point here isn't how to do better practicing.
The point is that no matter how much better prepared I am today, I will still be worried about performing fugues in public. That makes every successful performance of a fugue that much more of an accomplishment. That makes every remembered note, every beautiful phrase or voicing that much more powerful to me. I think that playing on that knife’s edge allows me a certain kind of musicality that I wouldn't otherwise have. I would play differently if I didn't have that string of rough performances. Not better or worse, just differently.
The “failures” of my past make me, me, the pianist that I am today. That's the most valuable, distinctive, tool in my musical arsenal.
This past year I learned and twice performed Beethoven's Variations and Fugue in Eb, Op. 35, commonly known as his Eroica Variations, as the theme of the variations is the same theme as the finale of his 3rd Symphony, also titled Eroica. This was never a dream piece of mine per se. A friend of mine had played it in our undergrads, and I heard Jeremy Denk do it live once. But it's not a piece I knew much about, nor one that I could "hear" in my ear (besides the theme). I knew it existed, but beyond that, my mind was a blank slate.
So last summer, I decided to learn it, and keep my mind free of the interference of other interpretations. (I discussed the problem of being influenced by recordings in my Artistic Messages blog series last fall, particularly #4.) I thought this would be an ideal piece to see exactly how much my artistic voice would differ from that of others: this is a significant, virtuosic piece by an iconic performer, but one relatively unknown to most people.
While learning the variations, I listened to just a couple people start the fugue to get a sense of their tempo, that's it. I didn't listen very long, and I tried to ignore all other details of their playing, beyond what I needed to satisfy my discomfort with my own tempo choices. Otherwise, to this day I haven't had any influence from other recordings of this piece. (Though full disclosure, I have played this piece once for my former teacher Thomas Rosenkranz, and twice for my coach Louis Nagel. Both mentors gave invaluable help and advice, yet neither works with me in such a way as to fundamentally change my interpretations. I see their influence as clarifying my vision of the piece or helping me reach that vision more efficiently).
Here's the very first performance of that piece, from my Choosing Joy recital in February.
Bass plus one voice: 1:20 area-I debated a lot whether to bring out the bass, or the 'new' section-the duet. Here I'm not consistent enough with either, though I do like bring out the difference: the duet.
Bass plus two voices: 2:10- I like the dialogue here!
Bass plus three voices: 2:45- I had a memory issue of a different variety in my 2nd performance of this piece too.
Theme: 3:25-I'm pretty happy with the phrasing here, though some of the passagework needs cleaning up. You need this jolly feeling here, but the arrangement and texture is really heard!
Variation 1: 4:05- It's so easy to over rely on the pedal here, but I'm glad that I'm not!
Variation 2: 4:45- of course Beethoven would make one of the hardest variations the second one. I'm quite happy with the tempo and cleanliness of the A section especially. I don't love arpeggios, but am glad it's in the key of Eb, and not C or F#. The mix of black and white notes helps a lot.
Variation 3: 6:09- there's a really tiny memory slip I'm proud to have played through.
Variation 4: 6:30 area- I've debated about playing different tempos in these variations, even with such consistency in sixteenth notes in these first four. But it seems to me they're so completely different in character, that I just need to "help" their differences a little bit.
Variation 5: 7:05- Tempo especially different here, I want to milk these juicy intervals in conversation.
Variation 6: 8:00- Just the week of the performance I was having major memory problems in this variation, so I'm glad I rectified it here. I'll take some unclean broken octaves instead. And again, success in not over-relying on the pedal.
Variation 8: 9:20- A precursor to Waldstein Sonata's finale. Everyone kept telling me to use more pedal here. I like the sound, but maybe will experiment with going further in this direction.
Variation 9: 10:08- for me probably the 3rd hardest variation. Playing these chords, with such short articulation, but still making them beautiful. Not a very successful performance, though the B section was better than the A.
Variation 10: 10:50. Actually one of my favorites. Besides the false, I like how it went. I'm trying to displace the meter as much as possible, each hand disrupting the other.
Variation 11: 11:30 ish. Another favorite. Such a mundane melody, simple accompaniment. I actually had a lot of memory problems in the B section while learning it.
Variation 12: 12:20- I guess tied with 9 for the 3rd hardest variation. My hands don't like to adjust to new hand positions so quickly, but then to play broken chords too, this could have gone worse.
Variation 13: 13:06- it's up for debate whether this or #2 is the hardest variation. I'm still not convinced about how to use the pedal here. I'd take this kind of accuracy; I only completely missed the right hand note once, and a couple other times it was a little messy. I could have slowed down a tiny bit more and no one should complain, but gosh I really want to keep the energy going like I did here.
Variation 14: 13:45ish- I wish I'd changed the mood more here. This should have been slower. But I like the voicing, and how I hold onto dissonances.
Variation 15: 14:42- Very hard to memorize, and to phrase. And to count. I think I found a nice balance in the A sections between the short phrase articulations from Beethoven, but still maintaining a longer line.
Fugue: 20:19- There's nothing so intimidating to me than performing a fugue from memory. My Master's recital had 3, including a 5-voice fugue. Listening to it now, it's been nearly 4 months since I last performed this piece, and I've read through the fugue maybe once or twice. It feels like a foreign piece! I can't 'feel' myself playing it as I listen, as I can with most of the variations. I'm impressed with the speed I have here, but I'm worried that relearning it is going to be very difficult! I'm very happy with a lot of the voicing and articulation, and besides a couple slips, the memory is quite good. This fugue is also difficult because it's so easy to play it all fast and loud. You want the feel of eroica, but without banging. Pacing is so important, and I feel like my performance doesn't get monotonous.
Post-variation 1: 22:42- I never feel like I have great trills, but I really liked the sparkliness of those at 23:27.
Post-variation 2: 23:38- My left hand melodic chords get very rhythmically monotonous, every repetition of the rhythmic device gets the exact same stress. When my right hand moves to 32nd notes at 23:53, I like the phrasing of the left much more.
Overall, I like this performance a lot more now, than when I did a couple of weeks after it happened. I think I capture the distinctiveness of the variations so that this doesn't feel like a long piece. There's enough sloppiness that I'm eager to fix and it's nothing that a 3rd and 4th performance of the work won't fix!
I'm generally no fan of labelling "historical eras". Really, what does late Monteverdi, Giulio Caccini, Henry Purcell, and J.S. Bach have in common? Next to nothing, in fact, in terms of texture, many of them have exactly opposing ideals. Yet we call all of it 'Baroque' music.
I find the "classical era" label most cohesive and appropriate. There is consistency of style and musical ideals from composers as wide as C.P.E. Bach, J.C. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
But it's the "romantic era" label that really gets me: Romanticism does not mean expressive. I need to say that again, in different words: just because some music is expressive, does not mean that it is romantic. Expressive music doesn't automatically mean romantic music.
I could go on as to why, but I'll point you to two resources. One is an interesting article contrasting the historical philosophy of the enlightenment and romanticism. This isn't easy reading, but this extended quote is contributive:
Whereas the existing neo-classical paradigm had assumed that art should hold a mirror up to nature, reflecting its perfection, the Romantics now stated that the artist should express nature, since he is part of its creative flow. What this entails, moreover, is something like a primitive notion of the unconscious. For this natural force comes to us through the profound depths of language and myth; it cannot be definitely articulated, only grasped at through symbolism and allegory.
Charles Rosen doesn't really define what romanticism, especially as it relates to music, is, but he does a great job discussing music that he considers romantic, and how these composers contrasted their work with the preceding classical era. Reading The Romantic Generation is a big commitment, but it is the most enlightening musical text I have ever read. Who are the composers who make the cut and earn the label 'romantic?': Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, a little Mendelssohn, Bellini, Berlioz and Meyerbeer.
I have no problem removing the 'romantic' label from Brahms, and Schubert, and even Mendelssohn. I'm hesitant to give it to Chopin (Rosen makes a strong case that Chopin contributed innovations to romantic sound, but I'm not sure he would suggest that Chopin is a purely romantic composer, like Schumann was). I don't think it's at all appropriate to Rachmaninoff.
Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninoff all wrote very expressive music. But to make not of this fact is simply to make note of its expressivity, not allegations of romanticism.
And so as I adjusted my performance to align to a quarter-note pulse, the piece changed from the brooding, introspective piece to a very angry, agitated one. The piece drives forward, barely relenting, until you reach the climactic diminished 7th chord right around 0:58. Then the picardy third that follows isn't so much a ray of sunshine as it is a sarcastic "well, whatever", still angry.
I think it fits the piece really well. My teacher wanted certain harmonic tensions and resolutions in place but he was willing to go along with it. I played it this way in a couple competitions, as well as for other teachers in studio classes, lessons, and a few commented on it, a few didn't. Anyone who was very familiar with the piece clearly noticed the difference. If I encountered any resistance, I maintained that it wasn't really 'faster', my performance, it was just in the proper meter. Tap along to the quarter note, and it isn't a speedy beat!
This 5-voice fugue was quite difficult to learn, but I'm rather happy with how it sounds. It sounds very busy, but there's quite a lot of clarity in this performance. This performance would come from October of 2010.
that some of the more virtuosic elements of the piece (simple as they seem to me now) were a struggle. I could tense up in the big chordal or octave sections and I imagine my rhythm suffered terribly, as did sound and voicing. I think it's also the reason I hit some clunkers; say in M. 5-6, I'm holding a fixed hand position as I shift positions and never establish the new positioning.
But this piece is a particularly dangerous one if you can't sing at the piano. It's almost made to be played "beaty", that is, EVry SINGle BEAT sounds the SAME. The first two phrases share the melody between the hands, and the homorhythmic nature, AND the range of the melody lends itself to be played so badly, so easily.
I know that we worked so hard on creating a singing line, and instilling an organic rubato. At this point, even though I'd been playing it for several years off and on, you can hear the artificiality of some of my musicality.
Consider the beginning. First of all, the tempo is too slow (perhaps to aide some technical struggles later. You can hear that I speed up for beats two and three, and I bet that was something we were trying intentionally, to move the phrase forward. Secondly, I make a HUGE agogic accent on the F in measure two. I'm sure my teacher was trying to get me to highlight the highpoint of the phrase, but it sounds so fake here.
I do like the section that follows pretty well. I think I have a nice staccato to accent timing in measure 9 and 11. I wish measures 10 and 12 would drive just a bit more, but overall I think the musicality is natural.
I remember in the "nocturne" that follows, M. 14-20, we worked a lot on rubato...I think I spend a little too much time "enjoying" the pic-up measures and they become monotonous. But, I like the sound here.
Something I'm quite pleased with is the laying of voices in M. 65-82. Here in the development, takes the technique of the opening, but changes the monotonous rhythm so that the principle melody is dotted half-note and quarter-note, leaving the hand crossing in place as a filler voice. I think I highlight this rather well, and am glad I don't try to "correct" Brahms by playing the melody as if it were written the same as in the exposition.
My favorite part of this piece has always been the closing theme in the exposition, and especially in the recapitulation. There's something about that surging left hand that sounds so triumphant, even in the minor key. I know my teacher warned me not to playing everything too loudly. I'm sure I was just banging, but following the advice, you hear me pull back in measure 112, again, so artificially. If I encountered a student banging in something like this, I'd encourage them to think more lyrically within forte/fortissimo, leaving the relative dynamic level untouched.
So it's interesting, the first old personal recording I had, I probably remembered as worse than it actually was. I would have thought that this oft-played piece from my late teens or early twenties would have come off better. But I'd take my playing in that Haydn any day over this Brahms.
(I should rerecord this Brahms!)
One writer I really admire is a guy named James Clear. He's the source of the read 20/pages a day system that I mentioned in an earlier post. He writes extensively on habit formation and strategies to formulate creative excellence.
I happened upon a podcast interview with him where he expounded on a lot of ideas in this article: The Difference between Professionals and Amateurs. In short, the difference that he discovered is simply a willingness to commit to regularly engaging in one's chosen work:
Being a pro is about having the discipline to commit to what is important to you instead of merely saying something is important to you. It's about starting when you feel like stopping, not because you want to work more, but because your goal is important enough to you that you don't simply work on it when it's convenient. Becoming a pro is about making your priorities a reality.
I know that I myself have always had trouble committing to seeing repertoire or a recital program through to complete, professional-level mastery. When I was getting tired of practicing the same pieces, my undergraduate teacher would extol the virtues of theater actors: "They have to perform the same play with the same lines and the same actions day after day. They can't afford to get tired of it, and neither can you."
It's true, the point is well taken. These professional artists had to commit to the artistic merits of their production. They had to invest their own talent to bringing a play or a musical to life day in and day out.
I had the opportunity to ask a singer on tour with a Broadway musical how they achieved this professionalism. He said that in such a large ensemble, everyone's individual approach in a given night allowed for subtle variety which could only be noticed by the actors. A scene where the cast casually socializes, free of choreography, would allow for different interactions every single time. The actors could test each other's commitment to character by pushing different boundaries in an attempt to make others laugh. Even the most systematic and planned blocking allowed for variations night in and night out.
I really took this insight to heart. It is the sign of a true professional to withstand seeming monotony and find artistic variations within the repetitive routine.
Pianistically, we have set choreography of notes, rhythms, articulations and dynamics. We even have more subtle elements imposed upon us by performance practice, and the expectations of our teachers or colleagues.
But beyond this there is still a wide margin for variation. The balance between our hands can shift between phrases to show different nuances of a story. Rubato can ramp or ease up to highlight dramatics arcs. We can explore the extremes of individual articulations; staccato does not just mean detached.
A professional pianist shows up with regularity to explore these variations while the amateur pianist explores a piece only when, and until their inspiration lets up. Even the pianist who moves on to pursue something else, even if practicing consistently, but not consistently pushing one's understanding of certain repertoire, will never reach the same kind of professional artistry that others who show up and dig deeper will.
I love school, whether as a teacher or as a student, but I love summer holidays more. There's something about the combination of the environment coming alive around me while ideas and knowledge are mingling in my brain, birthing creative energy that I'm all too eager to let out.
Summer and holidays, time away from school, are inextricably linked in my mind to developing relationships with people. Maybe it's because I have met so many great friends at summer music festivals, or maybe it's because I fell in love with my wife, and knew that I wanted to marry her, in the summertime.
It's mingling that makes me feel most alive. Mingling with people. Mingling with ideas. Mingling with the peaceful outside world.
But interpreting a piece of music is another form of mingling.
People change and our relationships to them change. Sometimes that means they leave our lives, but I wouldn't want it any other way. I'm going to grow and change as a person and the way I interact with everyone will, too. The depths of how I knew my wife on our wedding day seems almost superficial today, but it felt profound then. There’s nothing I would trade for the profundity of our relationship today, and I expect to say the same thing every year from now on.
Music is similar. The longer we study a piece, the better we know it, the more profoundly we understand its depths. Yet, unlike people, it’s never changed, only we have. It stays the same, and we understand it better.
We can constantly mingle with a piece and explore its depths. It will never change but it can still provide that sense of wonder, profundity and exploration that summer time or mingling with people does for me.
That’s why, paradoxically, though the beautiful nature of late spring and early summer is so inspiring to me, it often inspires me to go inside, to practice, and explore. We get to learn so much about ourselves and our relationships with other people because a musical piece acts as a mirror, showing us how we’ve changed and grown.
Months ago, I wrote about my love of Amy Beach and her Ballad, Op. 6. I was finally working on this great piece after dreaming about learning it for many years. Back in February, at my first Choosing Joy performance, I was relatively happy with how the piece went off. I won't go too deep into analyzing the performance. But I figured I would share it-wrong notes and all-as a special treat to those who read my blog. Check it out:
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act