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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But this follow-up I disagree with: “he somehow obliterates his own enormous musical personality by his occupation of the territory of the author he plays.” I’ve never done a blind test, but I would wager that I could tell Sokolov apart from other pianists if I did. It’s precisely because his musical personality shines through the notes left by the composer that I enjoy his artistry so much. He has a unique gift to reconcile a composer’s voice with his own.
And then one more statement I do agree with: “Sokolov’s first concern is always his relationship with his instrument.” He is first and foremost a pianist, in the best sense possible. He knows how to express music through the piano.
It’s well known that Sokolov doesn’t collaborate, whether in chamber music or concertos, at least not anymore. He’s often said that it’s too difficult to find a musical partner with similar musical sounds, not to mention, the economics of rehearsing an orchestra long enough to have a unified musical message.
So he plays solo, exclusively touring Europe with one program each year. Clearly he gets to know his program so well that once he’s performing publicly, he knows exactly how to make his music heard perfectly.
But that requires the perfect instrument. Sokolov is also known for working as his own piano technician. Spending hours alone in the concert hall before a recital, he will adjust the piano so that it responds exactly as he would like it to.
That might sound like ‘cheating’, manipulating the playing field so that he’s always playing with home-field advantage. But if you make that much effort not just to understand the technical work of adjusting piano mechanisms, but to know exactly what you want out of an instrument, why not utilize it?
So he’s truly someone engaged with what a piano is capable of musically, chooses a program which engages the piano best, and masters the small repertoire to create incredibly moving performances. To go a step further, all of his commercial recordings are live, unedited recordings. I don’t know if he’s ever stepped foot into a studio or had an audience hear a recording of his playing that was spliced together from multiple takes.
It was difficult to decide what recording to focus on, but I decided to look at Chopin’s 2nd Sonata, Op. 35. Chopin, being a pianist’s composer, and Sokolov, being a pianist’s pianist, sounds like the perfect combination.
Chopin of course took ample inspiration from the world of Italian bel canto opera, and wrote in such a way to best approximate the singing style on the least-singing instrument. The best Chopin singers surpass the piano’s percussive nature to create the impression of singing legato with the requisite balance of phrasing, dynamics and rubato. I’d like to suggest that Sokolov is uniquely qualified to find this balance because of his total engagement in the piano as an instrument.
Of course he sings throughout the first movement. The left hand is not overwhelming in the opening agitato theme and his nocturne impulses shine in the secondary theme. The second movement is as playful as the music allows, making the most of the changes of register, and the motivic repeated notes are never hammered. In the famous third movement he acquires the necessary bleak character, and even manages to make the piano sob at the sforzandos, or the left hand trills in the march section. He makes sense of the strange finale by adding color with the pedal and draws our ears closer by alluding to motives in his voicing.
I’d like to look most specifically at one spot in the Development section of the first movement, M. 137-153, heard at 5:24 of his recording. Here the agitato theme in the right hand is combined with the opening descending sixth octaves in the left hand. If you listen closely, there’s a slight hesitation in the right hand to give a moment longer to listen to the left hand. In that way, the left hand sounds full in tone because the sound has a moment to bloom, and we get to listen to the combination of the two themes.
Without that regular hesitation, the piano would sound completely homogenous, instead of heterogenous. Sokolov understands and hears how the sounds he makes at the piano will be perceived at his attack, and exactly how it will decay, and he manages every other musical decision around those basic realities. And because he works so closely with his instrument at each performance, he is able to guarantee the response that he wants. In this way, Sokolov ismuch unlike Glenn Gould who prized structure over the sound.
For me, her Mozart—like many other pianist’s—is too neutered: the left hand too insubordinate and dull, the slurs smoothed over. Uchida said in an interview that she would love to express what’s ‘inherent in the score’, but says ‘it’s not possible’. We are too influenced by our culture, our upbringing and our listening to other artists. I couldn’t agree more on the latter point. It just seems that she focuses too much on the score in Mozart. (I wonder if that was a younger Uchida.)
Her unique upbringing will inevitably would have led her to hear music differently. She often states that growing up in Vienna influences her connection to the music of great Viennese composers.
She describes her ideal approach to musicality another wayin a more recent interview. Uchida says that she tries to approach each composer and each piece, with a blank slate. Her work, whether privately in practice or publicly while in performance, is an attempt to discover the music without outside interference, or even from yourself and the way you did it the day before. Approaching music this way we will inevitably strike a balance between performance traditions and our own honest musical selves.
Schubert is of course best known for his composition of lieder, revolutionizing the art song with piano accompaniment. Whether it be for allowing the text to guide the composition, or for including the piano as a collaborative element, more than accompaniment, his vocal works are rightly celebrated to this day.
I think the reason I love Uchida’s Schubert so much is that she sounds like she’s playing lieder. Coupled with the blank slate approach, and her playing begins to take on qualities of storytelling: always fresh, always vibrant. Schubert in her hands sounds like long narrative songs without the words.
I’d like to focus on her performance of Schubert’s second-to-last Piano Sonata, the one in A major, D. 959, although her complete Schubert set is worth listening to extensively.
The first movement begins full of majesty. Each new harmonization of the As in the right hand have a color and direction of their own. Her left hand continues its active role in measures 10-13. Try isolating your listening to only hear her left hand. There is so much shaping there, an entire phrase, even though it is the background texture. The transition from measures 28-39 has so much drive, it sounds like she’s accelerating, but check a metronome and she’s staying unusually steady. I think this phenomenon has something to do with the crispness of her right-hand articulation.
She slows down the tempo for the second theme, even though it’s unmarked. I discussed the need for this in the previous entry in this series.
Uchida herself has an interesting discussion about tempo in the Steinway interview linked above. She says that a metronome marking could be perfect in one performer’s hands, horrible in another’s, depending on what else they do with the piece. There is no right tempo. This seems intuitive of course, but why shouldn’t we intentionally apply this concept to individual musical themes? Especially in a single Sonata movement, where the form often pits two contrasting themes against each other.
This choral is where we first hear a truly song-like melody. She plays it very simply at first, from measures 55-63. When that melody is developed starting in 65, her tempo is again largely the same, but he addition of the left-hand accompaniment creates a greater sense of motion. Not only that, but the left hand is shaped such that the eighth notes on beats 2, 3, and 4 are voiced as a countermelody to the soprano voice. If the whole pianist is a collaborator in lieder, the left hand must be the collaborator in the piano sonatas!
To hear a great lieder-like collaboration between her left and right hands, look no further than the beginning of the finale. The right-hand sings impeccably while the round shapes of each half note space in the left hand follows the rise and fall of the melody’s phrasing.
Even though I like her shifts in tempo, I am most amazed with how steady she is between tempo changes. Yet it doesn’t sound steady in a perpetual motion sense. Her control of her sound to make a phrase is something to behold, study and be inspired by. Sound influences time so much in her hands, and as someone who allows time to control everything in my own playing, I am enamored with this skill when played with Uchida’s perfection.
A final interesting thing to note, since I criticized her neutralization of slurs in Mozart, is her voicing in measures 90-105 of the finale. Since no slurs are present in the urtext edition, most people would likely play the right hand as one steady voice throughout this section. Uchida turns the right hand into a duet. A lower voice in 90-93 begins, then is interrupted by a higher voice, the upper octave that measure and the next. Then the two voices trade off beats 3 and 4 of one measure and 1 and 2 of the next. It’s a minor detail, not brilliant save for the fact that, by making a choice of voicing the right hand slightly differently, a textural dialogue that is absent in the score, is discovered, magnifying our listening to the piece.
She concertized as a young woman around Europe, but settled to raise a family, continuing performing during World War II. Moving to the U.S.A. after the war, she never gained a significant performing career, even though at her age she still played with impeccable technique and musicianship. The recordings we do have from her exist from this late part of her life. (See this website for my sources, and more, on this incredible life story.) Typically I believe in supporting artists by, at the very least, streaming their recordings from legitimate services like Spotify or Apple Music. Unfortunately, most of Freund’s recorded work is unavailable anywhere, even secondhand CDs. YouTube is the best way to make her art visible.
I’d like to continue my focus on Brahms. Seeing as how he adored Freund’s playing, it is noteworthy to hear her approach to his music. What old performance practices, perhaps things decried today as outlandish techniques, do we hear from this legitimate, audible record of the composer’s intentions?
To see, let’s briefly walk through just the first movement of Brahms Sonata No. 3 in f minor, Op. 5. My hope is that illuminating some of the techniques in her performance will give you a greater appreciation for her extraordinary intentions in music making. This is quite a different approach than I took in the first post about Glenn Gould! I’d recommend listening to the first movement in its entirety with the score, read my post and check out the specific spots, then take some time to listen to the Sonata in its entirety, perhaps without the score. You’re in for a treat!
Significantly, throughout the performance, we hear plenty of unmarked arpeggiation of chords, or anticipation of the left hand. These unmarked forms of subtle rubato are so common amongst early recordings by pianists trained in the 19th century and are so often vilified as ‘sentimental’ today. You can’t perform asynchronously what is marked to be played synchronized! And yet, they do. Consider measure 7, (hear it here). Asynchronization of the hands is tricky to hear, so much that you probably need headphones on to hear it properly, but the left hand is slightly agitated, often anticipating the right.
You’ll also hear this technique in nearly every lyrical area. Consider the second theme in the first movement (measure 39). The left and right hands are so asynchronized that one would almost hear this as Chopin.
Often times these techniques are closely related to polyphonic playing. Pianists create more layers by arpeggiating or asynchronizing the hands, allowing our ears to catch up to hear melodic lines that we otherwise would not be aware of. In doing so, the harmonic structure and natural counterpoint is laid so much to the fore.
Freund is incredibly sensitive to the polyphony Brahms himself wrote in. Consider the c# minor section of the development (heard hear). Each voice is matched perfectly to itself, and balanced with each other so that the canon is easily audible. At the same time, the general harmony of the phrase has drive and direction. Contrast that with the searching melody which happens at the key change to 5 flats. The syncopated right hand chords are played as triplets, rather than eighth notes but this lilt provides rhythmic anticipation which suggests the harmonic stability is an illusion, pointing us towards the true, unstable, development which will break out momentarily.
Consider her tempo. The first movement begins at a quarter note around 70. The second theme is actually played faster, beginning in the 80s and accelerating (even before the un poco accel) to the 100s. I’ve heard it argued that all tempos in such classically minded composers must “live under the same roof”, that is, to be very closely related to each other, considering that they share the same foundation. I’ve also heard it argued “you don’t feel the same in the living room the same way you do in the kitchen or bathroom!” Freund, and pianists of her generation seem to feel closer to the latter: themes have their natural tempo which must be taken to promote the true character.
The un poco accel at the ended of the exposition are treated as significant events, there’s nothing ‘little’ about them! Furthermore, they are more a sudden change of tempo, rather than gradual. But she slows down significantly for the cadences, especially the final resolution on the repeated Db major chords. She’s extremely mindful of the structural significance of every measure she plays.
Listen to the last 23 measures (heard here). This is the first theme heard in the parallel major, and the tempo is just a little faster than the opening of the movement, mid-80 beats per minute. The Piu Animato jumps to nearly 100 beats per minute, which is fair enough. But the hemiola section 5 measures later is suddenly at 170, without provocation.
Would you have noticed that if I didn’t point it out to you? I’d wager you wouldn’t, and that’s the key. Unless you’re counting along with a metronome like I was (for analysis purposes!), you aren’t consciously aware of these vast changes of tempo. Our primary focus ought to be on the transformative artistic picture which she is creating. The tension her changes of tempo create are more important than the means used to create the tension.
I’d like to point out one more minor detail which sets mature artists apart from mortals like myself. In the development, 8 measures before the key signature returns to 4 flats, the left hand begins with a dotted sixteenth, 2 thirty-second note rhythm (heard here). She voices the thirty-second notes very clearly, instead of throwing them away. In fact, it’s almost like the first short note has a slight accent, which typically is a big no-no. But she has a specific reason for paying attention to these short notes: in the fifth measure of this motive, the thirty-second notes are followed by an eighth note, jumping up a tenth. Given her attention to the short notes preceding, we can hear the stretch of that interval. It sounds like one voice, where as so often, this motive sounds pointilistic, like two different instruments, which given Brahms’s phrase marking, is not the intention.
On a closing note-there are several other Etelka Freund performances out there, other Brahms and a few other composers including Bach, Lizst and Bartok. Check them out. They all sound like Etelka Freund, which is a mighty fine accomplishment. If we inevitably are influenced by music around us, as I will always argue, we’re never going to present a sound authentic to only the composer. Rather than sounding like a neutered version of someone else’s impression of the composer, we might as well make an intentional effort to sound most consistently like ourselves.
In this approach, the composer doesn’t matter so much as the construction of the piece. How the notes were put together mattered more than the sounds they made, perhaps in the same way that a building would be judged whether it was functional, not how it looked. Says Kevin Bazzana in his book Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work, ““Gould was concerned with musical expression but was motivated by musical structure” (page 13, first emphasis mine, second in the original) The function could be innovative, but only because the structure was, first and foremost.
Bazzana quoted fellow Bach specialist Rosalyn Tureck as saying: “In Bach’s music, the form and structure is of so abstract a nature on every level that it is not dependent on its costume of sonorities. Insistence on the employment of (period instruments) reduces the work of so universal a genius to a period piece…In Bach everything that the music is comes first, the sonorities are an accessory.” (page 21).
This universality I think is essential to understanding Glenn Gould’s performance. It is a universality which truly opens the performer up to playing with extreme sensitivity to musicality and expression that’s inherent in the work. That sensitivity may not be inherent in the standard practice of a piece, thus the uniqueness of all of Gould’s playing (see his recording of Beethoven’s final 3 Piano Sonatas for an example of something strange that, I believe, ‘works’).
So Gould, “could ‘let loose’ in performance only with music whose structure met his standards of idealism and logic, music that he could first justify rationally.” (page 35) Chopin, not focused on structure will never sound truly revelatory and natural in someone like Gould’s hands.
And that brings us to Brahms. Glenn Gould recorded 10 Brahms Intermezzi early in his career, in 1960. (Later in his career, indeed one of his last recordings, he also recorded the Op. 10 Ballades and the Op. 79 Rhapsodies). These Intermezzi, I do believe, constitute the most perfect musical recordings in existence, and they are often overlooked in Gould’s output. At first, Brahms seems not the quintessential Gould composer, especially given his controversial performance with Leonard Bernstein of the first concerto.
But when we remember Brahms’s classicist bent, his love of Bach and Renaissance polyphony, his dedication to absolute music, it makes sense. These short forms (as opposed to the earlier Brahms Sonatas and Variations which Gould decried as “pianist’s music”) fit his temperament perfectly.
On these pieces Gould himself says, “I have captured, I think, an atmosphere of improvisation which I don’t believe has ever been represented in Brahms recordings before…total introversion, with brief outbursts of searing pain culminating in long stretches of muted grief…” Or, in his words, these are the ‘sexiest’ recordings ever made (these quotes from the liner notes of this other volume of the recordings).
Call it sexy or not, the Intermezzi are performed with incredible attention to expression of the melodic line, harmonic shaping, rubato and structural drama. I truly believe that Gould could hear with better detail than your typical musician, the way he shapes and connects melodies or layers the polyphony. Like Gould’s Bach, every line in these pieces sounds independent and musical. I point your attention to the counter melody on the repeat in the B-section of Op. 118 no. 2 and when the melody returns in the minor a few phrases later. But I hesitate to analyze much further because of the perfection I hear, these recordings just speak for themselves.
He has a way of balancing different lines to make us listen to something different every few measures, without losing what we were listening to before. He magically forces us to listen polyphonically. Clearly Gould was not a dry, mechanical performer, but was capable of intense romanticism in his playing. We hear it clearly in these Brahms recordings, evidently just because by looking at the structure first, he could see the beauty inside the functional, rational architecture that he simply doesn’t see when the elements are reversed in something like Chopin.
"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