Daniel Hsu happened to be about an hour away this past Sunday afternoon, at a concert hall I'd never seen before, in Findlay, Ohio. Beautiful hall and beautiful Bosendorfer piano. Daniel Hsu was my favorite Cliburn competitor last spring so I had to make the trip.
I still loved his playing these many months later, probably more than before. I was rereading some of my comments about him (see the rest of the Cliburn Competition Reports categories) and during the finals, I commented that it was as if he was playing the premiere of the Tchaikovsky concerto. His playing just has so much freshness but also naturalness.
My favorite had to be the Chaconne. It sounded more like a set of variations than I'm used to hearing, and that's a very good thing. Every single variation felt like an original composition with it's own unique voicing, subtleties of rubato. But it still held together and was clearly a single narrative. I've rarely ever heard the piano sound so much like an organ: layers of sound all emanating from the same source (I say this to differentiate from sounding 'orchestral' at the piano), but beautiful layers that were phrased individually and as a whole.
He had some beautiful things elsewhere, of course. I was particularly drawn to lyrical melodies in the opening of the Chopin Fantasy. Where Chopin added a countermelodic harmony in the right hand, Hsu voiced them so subtly as just a tinge of color, instead of a full fledged second voice. I've been teaching about spectral music in both my piano repertoire class and with a private student, and specifically how these composers seek to alter our perception of the piano's timbre by specifically voicing complex, dissonant chords. It is a remarkable affect that does work, and Hsu seemed to capture an element of that: not letting the countermelody compete with the principle one.
I found him focusing a little too much on the "dance" side of Chopin's famous 'concert-dance': his agogic accents were a little redundant for me. But overall his playing is imaginative, clean and energetic. Pictures sounded nowhere near its 30-minute length, and everything from the most bombastic to the most simple was given a thorough, thoughtful musical treatment.
On March 23rd, I had the pleasure of seeing a recital by Joel Schoenhals, a pianist I’ve happily gotten to know this year. He’s embarked on a couple remarkable projects: performing all 32 Beethoven Sonatas in 8 programs over 4 years, and now the Bach Partitas and Brahms short pieces on 4 programs over 2 years. This concert was the last of that latter series.
I’d encourage you to check out the write ups that he has linked on his website about learning the Beethoven cycle (here and here). I love his dedication to the music and sharing it in both intimate and large environments.
I also appreciate that he has focused on presenting complete and unedited performances of these concerts online. He sure doesn’t make many mistakes-whatever that term even means!-but the musicality and personality from doing it live is so engaging. I’ve never done studio recordings where every mistake can be rerecorded and spliced in, but I love the magic, the humanness of live performances.
Check out the back catalogue of all of his recitals. What I love about Joel’s playing is that I’m always drawn in to what he’s doing that it never occurs to me to question or criticize his playing. I’m not actively thinking about reviewing or analyzing his playing as a musician myself. There’s something in his playing that invites trust in the work that he’s done and the performance journey that we’re on together. The music exists and for whatever period of time that he’s playing, it needn’t exist any other way.
This was especially evident in the Brahms Ab Waltz that he played as an encore. You can check out his performance of the whole set here.
Years later and I love all kinds of contemporary music, and I've listened to Dawn Upshaw singing all kinds of things, and I've discovered this incredible pianist Gilbert Kalish who has done so much for legitimizing modern music through a historical context. Last night, I was able to hear these two iconic artists together in recital.
I have been unable to put much on my blog the last several months, but given that this week I have 3 marvelous concerts I get to go to, and my performing obligations are winding down for the year, I wanted to reflect on some of this music that i'm hearing. I'm less interested in giving concert reviews, than turn to some short-form thoughts and impressions from these performances.
Rarely will I ever get to hear such remarkable artists live. The communicative effort of both Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish was clear from the very first notes either of them gave in the recital. Their collaborative partnership is clearly affectionate and respectful.
I was explaining to my Dad-who accompanied me-what it was that made someone like Gilbert Kalish a better pianist than me. It seemed that the best thing I could suggest was that he has such wisdom in his playing. He's able to communicate his interpretation so clearly and so naturally, that I feel no need to consider any other interpretive choices. I could fully entrust his musical decisions. I don't know how much of this comes from someone who has performed, recorded and taught as much as he has, and how much of it he had when he was my age, but I can only hope to gain such wisdom as I continue to work.
Dawn Upshaw...Well, it was a dream to hear her voice live. I'm amazed at her clear language: She sang (and memorized!) a set of songs by Bartok, and between her diction and acting, I might have convinced myself that I understood Hungarian, were I not following the original and translated poetry in the program. Like Kalish, the musicality and poetry are so present. She rarely had to use her full voice in this program, but that didn't mean every note wasn't stunning and expressive. For all our talk as pianists of having a 'singing tone', she was able to utilize such direct softness in her tone, which still filled the room.
In this first part of the article, I discuss Nyiregyházi the man, and what it means to be a performer of the Golden Age of Piano Playing
In light of my last couple of posts about listening and recordings, I thought I would point you towards this interesting article I had on my 'to read' list for several months, that just happened to fit the subject perfectly. It's called "Learning from Listening" and the author holds some of the same opinions I do, and some differing ones. Taken as a whole, I thought it would be worth sharing several excerpts, annotated with some of my own commentary.
There are many benefits in listening to the repertoire you are working on, on disc and in concert, as well as “listening around” the music – works from the same period by the same composer, and works by his/her contemporaries. Such listening gives us a clearer sense of the composer’s individual soundworld and an understanding of how aspects such as orchestral writing or string quartet textures are presented in piano music, for example.
I've always had problems with "you have to", when it comes to interpreting music. As in, "You HAVE TO know the Beethoven quartets to understand his piano music" or "You HAVE TO know Schumann's love letters to Clara to play the Fantasy". In a blind listening, no one can say definitively that 'yes', I clearly know and understand Beethoven's late quartets. But I like this "listening around". Especially when it's expanded to other composers of the time period. Composers always notate their music with certain assumptions that performers would understand the written symbols. Seeing and understanding works of the time could give a fuller picture of what was implied or taken for granted in musical notation.
Conversely, hearing a performance which I may dislike is never a waste of time. When I heard Andras Schiff perform Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (in A, D959), a work with which I have spent a long time in recent years, I found myself balking at certain things he did to the music – not that anything was “wrong”, it was simply not to my taste. But one thing I took away from that performance was his pedantic treatment of rests in the first movement (Schubert uses rests to create drama, rhythmic drive and moments of suspension or repose) and this definitely informed my practising when I next went to the piano to work on the sonata.
I confessed in my last post that I don't really care for Martha Argerich. Obviously, many people, including many musicians I love and admire, do care deeply for her music making. I don't necessarily dislike her music, and there are moments in her performances that I like but...On the whole her playing doesn't excite me. But I would be remiss if I ignored her completely. If great artists value her work, I should try and pinpoint what her attraction is to others, and perhaps add some lessons into my own playing. Just because I want to discover my own artistic voice, does not mean I'm excluding any opinions from outsiders!
Most of us are limited by our own imagination, experience and knowledge and great performances and interpretations can broaden our horizons, inspire us and inform our own approach to our music. But listening at concerts, and particularly to recordings and YouTube clips does have its pitfalls too.
There may never again be a time when performers will make a living off of recordings...But all the same, unless you are watching videos from an artist's personal page, or from the official page of a record label, please do not listen to recordings on YouTube. We want to ensure that videos are monetized for the proper people who created the content, and that is very difficult to do on YouTube. (My own videos have received copyright claims for being performances of Menahem Pressler, and Lili Kraus, and while I'm flattered, I clearly am not either). We can be sure that whatever money is coming in through streaming is getting to the right people if we use Spotify or Apple Music.
Recorded performances capture a moment in time and while they can certainly inform our playing, they can also become embedded in our memory and may influence our sense of a piece or obscure our own original thoughts about the music. This may lead us to imitate a magical moment that another performer has found in a note or a phrase – a moment over which that particular performer has taken ownership which in someone else’s hands may sound contrived or unconvincing.
What a magical way to say what I've tried to convey so often. Perhaps we can take general approaches to artistry, but not exact interpretations. But how often do we try to get inspiration from how someone else has interpreted a piece. Much better to focus on people as unique individuals, rather than gods of detective work.
The other problem with recordings is that some performers may take liberties with the score to make certain passages or an entire piece more personal. This tends to happen in very well known repertoire, where an artist will put their own mark on the music to make it their own, while not always remaining completely faithful to the score. They might take liberties with tempo or dynamics to create a certain “personal” effect. Thus, some recordings may not truly represent what the composer intended, yet these recordings have become the benchmark or “correct” version.
I suppose I have made similar arguments before. However, I don't like the term "composer's intentions" and always recoil when I hear it, no matter the context. In the New Year, I will deal with this term extensively!
So when we listen we should do so with an advisory note to self: that recordings and YouTube clips can be helpful, but we should never seek to imitate what we hear. It is the work we do ourselves on our music which is most important, going through the score to understand what makes it special, and listening around the music to gain a deeper understanding of the composer’s intentions so that our own interpretation is both personal and faithful.
And here we come rather full circle. I recently discovered the Mendelssohn Octet. What an INCREDIBLE piece of music. I don't know why I never listened to it, I've known about it for at least a decade, but just this weekend I decided to give it a listen. This music spoke to a part of my musical soul, and woke that soul up in such a way that I didn't want to play this exact music in particular, but I just wanted to make music. So yes, listen to artists that inspire you, listen to works of great composers, but have the right intention. Be inspired not to copy them, but to follow them in making beautiful, inspirational and artistic music.
Sometime in the midst of my master’s degree, after I had read Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age, I came up with a study that I think might demonstrate the effects that listening to recordings has on individuality in one’s artistry. At this point in time, I was very frustrated with the general state of piano playing. So many people seemed to love Martha Argerich, and I didn’t get it (I still don’t get it but that controversy is for another post). All this I ruminated on in my last blog post.
As I entered my doctoral degree, I thought I might have the chance to work the study into my program, but as graduate work goes, I got too busy, ended up going another direction in my research and lost the chance to have plenty of student pianists nearby to test my hypothesis. I thought it might be relevant to share the general outline of the study. Maybe someone will one day take it up and test it!
The procedure is simple enough: have two groups of pianists, likely undergraduates though their technical capabilities by no means need be similar. Each group would be given a score of some obscure work, likely from the early classical period, with relatively intermediate technical challenges. The score would make no reference to composer or style. I would recopy the score on notation software myself and include only the essentials: notes, rhythms, tempo indication, and meter. Dynamics, articulation, phrasing, metronome marking would all be absent.
The test group would be given free rein to practice and prepare the score for performance in a given time period. The only stipulation is that they may not consult with any other person in their preparation of the score.
The control group would also be given free rein to practice and prepare for performance in the same time period. They also may not consult with any person in their preparation, but, they are given a recording of the score which they must listen to every day. In the recording, which I would make with an attempt to sound stylistically appropriate, they would hear distinct choices in terms of tempo, articulation, dynamics, phrasing, rubato, etc.
All participants would, after the same amount of preparation, record a final performance. These recordings would be sent to adjudicators. These professional musicians would be aware of the score, plus an edited score representing the distinct choices I made in the recording. Adjudicators would be asked to grade how closely each group adhered to distinct, observable and (relatively) measureable interpretive choices in the recording.
My hypothesis is that the control group would make interpretive choices similar to the recording, more often than the test group would. As my goal in the recording is to not make controversial interpretive choices, I suspect that students in the control group would, without realizing, adopt the logical interpretive choices that I had made. While the test group may also make several interpretive decisions similar, given stylistic conventions, inevitably, something such as exact metronome marking, or articulations in a melody, or dynamics, will vary given complete freedom.
Upon further thought, it may make sense to make one controversial interpretive decision in the recording and see how many of the control group go along with it.
Secondly—What I would include in the score could change. I think it’s important to have as blank a score as possible, so that people’s artistry would be observable on a nearly blank slate. Perhaps I wouldn’t even need a tempo marking, “Allegro” for instance. That would be one way to see who in the control group would resist the pull of recordings enough to question what they were hearing. For instance-imagine having no tempo marking for the opening of Mozart’s Sonata K 545, and hearing it played adagio. One could feasibly, if you never heard this work before, yet intimately understood the style, not question the choice of tempo at all.
Thirdly, it would be interesting to run this study with proficient high schoolers making up both groups, as well as only graduate students, even run it with only professional musicians. Then compare the rate of variance at all 4 levels. What if, on the whole, the control group’s interpretations adhered to the recording at the same rate greater than the test group, whether or not we are dealing with high school musicians, or professional musicians?
I think the results of such a study would be fascinating. None of this is meant to discredit professional musicians, or students. The simple aim is to observe the roots of our artistry, and to find one way of explaining how our general sense of style in interpretation might have a fundamentally different basis than that of artists when the composers of the classical canon were themselves writers of ‘new music’.
I discussed my trepidation about being affected (or infected) by the sound of other interpretations in posts about Liszt and Beethoven. I fear making decisions in my playing that aren’t derived from my own authentic voice and so often I try to avoid listening to recordings of pieces that I’m working on.
But that’s hard to stay true to…
I often want to check tempos that others have performed at, especially when the composer writes a specific metronome marking. Was anyone else successful at getting up to speed when I can’t seem to?
I’m a Suzuki piano teacher and a huge part of our system hinges on listening to the pieces before learning them.
Someone might say of my own playing “well it sure sounds like you’ve never listened to a professional pianist play this”, or put a nicer way, “perhaps you should listen to _________ or _________ for some inspiration.” No one has said the former to me, though who hasn’t heard the latter in one way or another?
It has been suggested that listening to recordings is a source of information, a way to solve problems in interpretation. By not listening to recordings that others have done, I’m forsaking my duties as a performer, akin to not studying the basics of performance practice and historical styles.
But who says those professional artists have the right answers? Nowadays, being so easy to put a recording out to the world, who even says these artists are truly professionals, or even artists?
Besides objective, tangible things like tempo markings, areas such as phrasing, rubato and degree of articulation can and will vary from performer to performer, hall to hall, piano to piano. It’s the combination of these varying elements that gives performers their own unique voice. At some point, artists ought to be able to make these choices for themselves.
There is a difference between listening to recordings by others, and knowing the performance style of the time a piece was written in. Very few would ever suggest I not do the latter, so if I do that well, why would I ever need the former? How am I to know if a professional recording I’m listening to has made intelligent decisions?
As I’ve written before, this was one of my goals in pursuing contemporary music. There is great freedom in not having an aural basis to your interpretation, or I should say, an aural basis besides the one that you create for yourself. A piece rarely, or never, played by anyone else can be approached with a completely blank slate and who knows how varied the result might be when intelligent musicians approach a score they’ve never heard before.
I had this experience recently, at a recital by pianist Angelina Gadeliya. Amidst a beautiful program with Bach, Beethoven and Liszt, she performed two works by Richard Danielpour, one of which was just commissioned by her, the other being his Piano Fantasy, a piece I have played a few times over the last 3 years. This was a sort of dream piece for me, a friend of Danielpour’s had introduced it to me in 2010 and I bought the score but between being intimidated by its virtuosity and not having a good program to fit it on, I only learned the piece the summer of 2014.
It’s a gorgeous piece, a set of variations on a Bach chorale, and it has everything, an organ-like opening, a toccata, something of a nocturne, a fugue, and right near the end, the chorale itself, whose phrases are punctuated by various interruptions, and cloaked in a Debussy-esque harmonic aura. More than anything, it’s a true show-piece full of beautiful expression.
I’ve only known of a few other people to perform this piece, and Angelina’s recital was the first opportunity I had to hear it performed live by another person. I hope everyone gets the experience at least once, to hear a piece you know so well, which you’ve only ever heard performed in your own voice, come to life by another person’s artistry.
That may not always be a pleasant experience, but for me it was. Every artistic goal—the scope and large-scale architecture of the piece—that I have had in performing the piece was present in Angelina’s playing, yet clearly this was not an exact aural image of my own playing. It’s like if you had two canvases of the same pointillistic painting by Georges Seurat side-by-side; standing back ten feet, the images look exactly the same; when you stand just 5 feet away, you notice an incredible amount of variety as you see the construction of the dots more closely; 1 foot away, the paintings look the same again because you’ve zoomed so far in, it’s hard to compare individual differences.
Examining the score from a distance, her interpretation and mine were relatively close to one another. Examining the score under a microscope, we played the same notes and rhythms. But our own voices came out upon that middle examination. More than one hears contrasts between artists in the standard repertory, not having any outside influences brought about a variety of musical decisions. The colors evoked by voicings in individual chords. The balance with a texture. The pacing of dynamics. The sweep of rubato.
All this is not to say that I don’t hear variety between artists in standard repertoire. I do, and I love the artistry great pianists bring to old music again and again. But I know that without the persuasion of recordings, I am going to inevitably bring a different voice to music than I would with them. In my next post, I’m going to tell you about a study I’ve always wanted to do, where I think I could prove this point.
Faure-like introduction leads to a larger Liszt-like section.
That was it, but the juxtaposition of Faure and Liszt made me want to see the score. I sought it out, and a recording, and was enamored, but feared it was too difficult for me to learn at that point. Plus, I was already dreaming about performing too many other obscure works that there was no room to fit another into my program. The year after I had to consider having enough standard works for masters auditions.
The years went by and I always to work on this piece. But during my masters, other points of focus, whether for technical study, or to fill gaps in my repertoire list of important composer’s I’d ignored to that time. Then of course through my DMA I was focused on contemporary music.
I began to look at it in the spring of 2016, solidifying it more or less that summer. After having no time for solo repertoire during the 2016-2017 year, I revisited it this summer and knew that I needed to not just perfect my playing of it, but find concert programs I could include it in. I’m looking forward to finally, 10 years after discovering the piece, performing it. It’s extra appropriate that I would get around to finishing the piece this year, just as the 150th anniversary of her birth rolls around (doubly so as my home and native land, Canada, also celebrates the same landmark).
I’m not sure why this piece has always stuck with me as a special, and unjustly neglected one. I don’t particularly agree with Hinson’s assessment of Faure-influences. The opening resembles Chopin-esque piano writing more than anyone else, and the harmonies are not so advanced to suggest a later composer. I understand the Liszt reference because it has several vertical textures towards the end, big orchestral chords and octaves.
But it’s not a referential piece. It can’t really be mistaken for Liszt or Chopin. It has a unique melodic expressiveness, and the virtuosic moments aren’t unnecessarily so. The music sings, the harmonies float forward, and there’s plenty of room for one’s own voice through rubato and phrasing.
I’m of course drawn to the piece for the same reasons I was drawn to contemporary music, which I expanded on in my last post. Namely, I’ve wanted to develop my artistic voice in the context of works without an established performing tradition. I’m still weary of working with commonly played pieces for fear that I will not think critically about my interpretation but rely on reproducing what I’ve heard others do in past performances and recordings. (I’ll write about this problem in a future post.) Amy Beach’s Ballad was especially exciting, more than most contemporary music, simply for its rather traditional, romantic approach. So few pieces this standard are played so rarely, I’ve always treasured it as ‘my little secret’.
But of course, I want more people to know it; it surprises me how few of her works are well known. I’ve heard some perform her shorter character pieces, and a few songs, but most else gets ignored. Her Piano Concerto, Op. 45 is an incredible work with lots of power and virtuosity, on par with any of the commonly played romantic piano concertos. Her songs take the expressive tradition of German lieder to the English language, without wordiness bogging down the lyricism or needlessly dense piano parts that you find amongst many English art song composers from her time (I’m thinking Roger Quilter style here). Plus, there’s some great chamber works and large solo piano works from later in her life.
Working on this piece has been encouraging to hear and see demonstrative proof of my growth as an artist. When I first looked at this score, I thought it was rather difficult. It’s not without its challenges, but the Ballad is manageable, technically. It does test the innate musicality and poetry of a performer, and I’ve been pleased to listen to recordings of myself with it and to hear the singing shapes that I’ve been aiming for. Even a few years ago, when I had the mechanical facility to play this piece, I still would have had difficulty doing the artistic things I wanted. I’m grateful that I never tainted this piece by working on it when I was younger, and now would have to undo bad habits and learned weaknesses.
This year I am focusing on as much traditional repertoire as I can…but music I’ve heard almost no one perform ever, attempting to bring as pure an ear to these pieces as I can. Theoretically, this will be the best space for me to solidify my own artistic voice, which in future years, I will be able to apply to all sorts of music—contemporary or standard, well known or obscure-without fear of being an imposter.
This last week I’ve teased a few clips of the Beach Ballad. Check them out in the videos below. Keep an eye out in the next few months as I will be sure to release an exclusive complete performance of the piece. Best to ‘like’ my Facebook page, and sign up for my mailing list to make sure you don’t miss it!
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You’re supposed to follow your own path, which I guess means building your own road. Plough your own field. Build your own castle. But I don’t know how to build all these things from scratch, and I don’t want to leave my friends and family behind.
Why study history, learn manners and language, social decency and behavior? If we’re supposed to think outside of one box, one area of our lives, why not all others? How do I know when difference becomes a virtue and same becomes a burden?
‘Think outside the box’ is lazy advice and false logic. It’s hard to create something meaningful without having some preexisting knowledge on which your meaningful creation is based. People crave context, as well as innovation and these two things need not be mutually exclusive.
Thinking outside the box values an unknown other just because it’s on the outside, without acknowledging the value of the box itself. After all, if you were in the box, and able to create something outside of it, doesn’t the box have something left to offer? Should we just throw away the box completely?
I’ve never been comfortable with throwing out all the rules. I’ve never been comfortable with disregarding history, objective study and demonstrable knowledge. There’s a reason we study the music of the classical canon; not because that’s where we need to focus on all our time, but because the levers of history, as prejudiced and exclusionary as they have been, have deemed some repertoire vitally important. In order to look at what’s been excluded, or what’s possible in the future, we need to know what general consensus call important now, and by what criteria we measure that by.
All musicians want to be creative, but only the most nihilistic art can be created outside the box, and even then, there’s no guarantee that your audience will understand your performance outside of the box themselves. So where does creativity come from?
Social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has answers. Known for his concept of ‘flow’ in expertise (I highly advise studying his book on that subject as well), he also pursued an in-depth study on the state of creativity. How to experts who truly create something new discover and invent new ideas in their domain? Do they truly work outside the box, or in it?
To study this, Csikszentmihalyi and his team performed an elaborate long-term study of individuals at the top of their domain, be it the arts, government, business or science. These individuals have been in their field for decades and are intimately and actively engaged in it. After selection, these individuals were interviewed and their body of work analyzed to cull hints at the source of their creativity. In doing so, he created rules and relationships which point towards the source of innovation, not just for the most genius in the world, but all artistic practitioners.
“…creativity results from the interaction of a system composed of three elements: a culture that contains symbolic rules, a person who brings novelty into the symbolic domain, and a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovation.” (page 6)
Lesson 1 is that nothing new is created in a vacuum. One cannot create without being an expert in a domain, to know the ‘rules’, the state of knowledge, the acts and practices on which all operate.
Lesson 2 is that after demonstrating this knowledge, one can add something to the existing knowledge that is new, original and genuine. Creativity is always tied to what came before, an outgrowth (think of creativity like a giant scrabble game!).
Lesson 3 is that your creative creation must be recognizable to others in the field. Scientific study is predicated on, among other things, replicable tests. If your method of testing cannot be repeated and the same results attained, you cannot say your conclusion is truth. Replication in any field is necessary so that your creation can be useful to others.
Lesson 3, then, circles back to lesson 1. Someone else might take over the body of work in your field, including your creation, and add more. In my doctoral studies, I finally realized that the more you learn, the more you know what’s left to know. Being an expert isn’t about having all the answers, it’s about knowing how to ask the right questions that expands creativity, then, knowing how to pursue answers to those questions.
I once heard the tubist and podcaster Andrew Hitz amend the ‘think outside the box’ statement to something closer to ‘expand the box instead’. Csikszentmihalyi would agree.
As musicians, this has any number of applications. For Hitz, his focus on entrepreneurial ventures for musicians means that we don’t have to create brand new avenues for our music to be heard, but we should try to find better utilize the avenues that already exist. We don’t have to create new audiences out of thin air, but we should be focused on bettering the experience of those who already listen to us.
My focus with this blog is to study what makes great, individual piano performances. But an intentional pianist isn’t ignorant of performers who came before, and doesn’t play interpretations that can’t be defended with intellectual honesty. My goal isn’t to be different then everybody else. Become an expert and know the expectations with a piece you’re learning. Then you can be creative.
Think for yourself. If you come up with a way of playing a piece that you absolutely believe in, do it your way. If you trust your musical instincts are based on listening, reading, and years of playing with the correction of creative masters, then you can rest assured that the way you want to play is justified. You can know that you’re being a true creative pianist, expanding the knowledge and creativity that came before.
Next week, Influential Books hearkens back to my Extraordinary Recordings series, by studying The Great Pianists.
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His discography details an intentional identity. Two volumes of Scarlatti Sonatas, a volume of Haydn, collections of Scriabin and Chopin, along with concertos by Tchaikovsky, Medtner, Scriabin, and Rachmaninov (choosing the rarely heard original version of the 4th concerto, itself already obscure). Even in a solo volume of Rachmaninov, Sudbin plays the less famous Chopin Variations, instead of the better known Corelli Variations to couple with the 2nd Sonata. Sudbin (with the exception of Medtner) plays the most standard composers, yet he tends to champion their lesson known works with equal vigor as the masterworks. In the famous pieces such as Tchaikovsky’s first concerto he manages to find his own voice.
There is something to be said for forging your own path. Sudbin said that he not only began playing, but also improvising at the age of 4. He still does his own arrangements, often song transcriptions for solo piano.
Beyond that, Sudbin is an active writer on music. All of his recordings that I’ve perused have been accompanied by his own liner notes which provide historical context and clues to his interpretations. In all ways, Sudbin takes an active part in the creative process.
I decided to focus on Sudbin’s Scarlatti recordings, in particular the C Major Sonata K. 159 from the second Scarlatti volume in 2016.
In the liner notes to the original Scarlatti recording, Sudbin describes the draw to Scarlatti’s oeuvre (he also reveals-unbeknownst to me, that Scarlatti’s 555 brilliant sonatas were only begun when the composer was 50 years old!). He says that Scarlatti’s compositional voice stands alone in music history: there is no distinct, singular origin or contemporary parallel. Of course, to come to this conclusion, one need only compare Domenico’s keyboard works to the vocal works of his father to see that little musical genetics were shared across generations.
Furthermore, Scarlatti wrote these Sonatas protected and perhaps isolated by royal patronage, which in my mind elicits comparisons to the future works of Haydn: “Probably because he (Scarlatti) composed all of his sonatas for the Queen, who by all accounts was a brilliant performer, and because he wasn't seeking popularity or commercial profit, he could allow his imagination free flow.”
Sudbin does not see these works as necessarily fixed by the limits of technique, instrument or musical creativity known to Scarlatti: “Both the Queen and Scarlatti were extraordinary harpsichordists and had great improvisational skills. It is very plausible that for each of the notated sonatas, there were 50 or so other versions.”
He later speculates that due to the diversity of the sonatas, their immense creativity, that Scarlatti had an inkling that a better instrument (the modern piano) would exist in the future, and that musical styles would continue to evolve. The last two points are a defense to suggest that Scarlatti would not have been surprised to hear his works played differently as time moved on.
So Sudbin allows himself certain luxuries in his interpretations. He utilizes the binary form that Scarlatti composed in to play the material once through largely as one would expect. The A section in K. 159 is unoffending the first time through but with an immense and joyful character: brassy fanfare in the right hand and a dancing lilt in the left.
But listen to what he does in the repeat! The opening is played softly and with the pedal for the first 4 measures, before contrasting with the fanfare texture the next 4 measures. The next two phrases continue this trade off. No student could get away with this muddy texture because it’s not traditional. “Scarlatti didn’t have the damper pedal!”
But it makes sense. Sudbin still has clarity, he’s just opening up the strings of the piano to vibrate more openly as the strings on a harpsichord (which doesn’t have dampening at all) would. It’s a color, not an obfuscation of the texture.
He also allows himself all kinds of ornamentation upon the repetition (as he does in his Haydn recordings). Improvisation, afterall, was an essential part of one’s musicianship during the time that Scarlatti wrote, and one can easily argue that for any composer from the 18th, even 19th centuries, what is on the page need not be a limit to what one does in performance (you could even hear his liberal use of the damper pedal as simply an ornamentation).
In the fourth system of the first page (I’m looking at this score), a leaping motive is enlarged to over an octave. For the last one, jumping up to D, he ornaments the approach with a glissando, adding to the spritely spirit.
On the second page, in the second system, he holds the low Gs, perhaps with the sostenuto pedal, then reorchestrates the parts. Both parts as written are taken in his left hand, and the right hand doubles the melody an octave higher. He treats the piano momentarily like an organ as pedal stops, different manuals and octave coupling create a variety of color.
He adds simple ornaments, trills, appoggiaturas and doubling octaves. But he goes as far as to add notes. He fills out the bare octaves at the very end of the pieces with an ornamented third. Not a big deal, except ending on open octaves is a common thread in Scarlatti’s music.
All of these changes are just a gateway into understanding the beautiful artistry Sudbin brings to Scarlatti’s music. Each one sounds like the work of a different composer, and each individual sonata is full of variety. Listen for his ever evolving variety of articulation, ornamentation, or sudden surprises in the left hand voicing, etc. While K. 159 is a fanfare, K. 208 is a dramatic operatic aria and K. 213 in d minor is a dark lament. Sudbin plays both the famous and the obscure sonatas with an equal admiration and careful crafting to show the ingenuity, virtuosity and artistry of Scarlatti.
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"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