In this final section, I study what it means to perform beyond analysis.
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.
himself probably heard these same bells. I like to at least think they were the exact same bells, but certainly he heard some very similar. And quite possibly they were rung the exact same way in his day as that day I heard them: by a rope pulled by a church employee.
Given how much the world has changed in the 200+ years since Mozart lived there, it was quite a wondrous realization that such a sound could connect myself to such a famous figure.
That moment, and that thought, have inspired me since, especially as I explore traditional repertoire again. This music, truly ‘classical’ music connects figures through time in the same way these bells did. In performing the music of Mozart, I have a direct connection to the artistic passions of a man who lived hundreds of years before, who history has decided to remember. But I’m also connected to people who have played this music since. Great artists who have turned simple notes on a page into beautiful, magical art in sound. The excitement one feels sharing a passion with a friend is amplified when you get to share it with a host of people through time.
I’ve been finding this concept inspiring, but also humbling.
This music has survived for so many generations for good reason, and I must try to do it justice. There is a certain amount of social capital involved by joining the tradition of performing classical music. So many beautiful artistic ideas have been cultivated with these scores and I have a responsibility to do justice to this artistry.
But the time which it has survived through is also present when I play it. These bells I heard in Salzburg rang during war, and were heard by all sorts of figures and events that history would rather forget. The music of Mozart has been played and enjoyed by contemptable people as well. The responsibility of playing this music and accepting the history it has is not just a matter of artistry, but also of reconciliation, of a wish to do good in and for the world.
This is one aspect of studying and performing music which contemporary works cannot share in. Non-canonical repertoire simply does not have the accrued temporal history to carry such baggage, both good and bad. As I stated in my previous posts, this is precisely what I was looking for in pursuing the study of contemporary music. But I don’t know a person who doesn’t have some curiosity to understand history. The classical canon gives performers the opportunity to connect through time with sound to history, to worlds long forgotten, and to try and change the world we live in.
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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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.
I decided not to comment on the Chamber Music portion of the finals. A busy few days meant I couldn’t focus a lot of time, and I don’t have a ton of chamber music experience. I don’t know the repertoire, nor does my performing experience really give me the tools to be analytical about what makes a truly masterful chamber music pianist. But I listened to all the performers and thought it was a strong round.
I decided for the final concertos that I would be a little more upfront on my opinions, but only comment upon generalities after listening to the entire concerto performance, instead of as ideas and thoughts came to me!
Favorin played about how I expected him to. Taking the modern Prokofiev inspired, not Rachmaninoff inspired, Russian approach. Color is limited but the playing is brash, in your face. It's not bangy, and there's plenty of virtuosity to spare. Lots of excitement, and careful attention to the melodic lines. But I find it hard to care about this playing. It's like good narrative writing, you want to show the reader something about a character quality or emotional meaning, you don't want to tell them directly. In Favorin’s playing I can hear that I'm supposed to be blown away by it, and because he's telling me, I don't care to listen. I'd rather there be a little mystery, that I have to work as a listener to connect at an emotional level, to bring myself into the performance.
I become more enthusiastic about Kenneth Broberg the further on this competition got. His programming showed off a very romantic virtuosity, but still managed to demonstrate a variety of compositional styles. I thought his Mozart was one of the top two or three, and he had chosen something other than Rach/Prok 2/3 or Tchaikovsky.
And his final performance was not a disappointment. I was consistently drawn to his orchestration at the piano. He constantly varied his voicing so that he created a new tonal color than one typically hears in this piece. He had all the variety from delicate, down to incessant banging, but even that is acceptable as long as it’s in an appropriate place, and not overused. This constant attention to a very clear, direct sound made me trust him, that he’s studied this music and he believes in his own performance, so I’m willing to go along with him and love every choice that he makes.
The 18th Variation was not just heart-on-your-sleeve, but handing your heart over to someone else, exquisitely beautiful. The final rush of variations built into a frenzy, and he handled the cascades of notes very well. Fantastic playing.
Yekwon Sunwoo was largely an enigma for me until I heard his Mozart concerto. Not that it made all of his other playing make sense, but it made the jury’s appreciation of him make sense. Here was one composer where his style of playing resonated with my ears. The Rach 3 performance was back to the enigma. I understand the attraction; he plays Rachmaninoff in a very in-your-face way; loud means turn the dial up high, fortissimo means accent every note. Always playing with bright tone, full chords. It gets tiresome for me, the amount of shape within a phrase falls within a negligible range. That kind of musicality hits me but never goes more than skin-deep.
If the jury chose winners based in the concerto final alone (besides the quintet, Cliburn juries are meant to consider the entirety of the competitors program), Rachel Cheung is suddenly a top contender in my book. First of all, of course I admire her for choosing Beethoven 4 in the “grand” concerto category against the warhorses. I've long considered this concerto as so musically perfect that it really is technically impossible. You need so much physical control to actually play this piece well. And she had that. So much control, so much variety.
Interestingly in her Mozart, I loved her left hand musicality, not her variety of phrasing. Here it was the opposite. I felt like the piece was constantly involving even when the notes and rhythm we're repetitive. Sometimes her left hand sat in the background, but certainly others it was involved in the musical narrative and so I can appreciate the times it was held to the background for variety. Like Broberg, even in the musical choices that I questioned, I trusted her commitment so much that I was drawn into what she did. You get gut feeling with artists, would I pay money to see them again? For Cheung, I would pay for sure.
I couldn't help but compare my memories of Vadym Kholodenko playing Prokofiev. My impression 4 years later are still of carnival like characters mixed together, unrelenting contrasts. I just didn't sense all of that from Tchaidze’s performance. While he had a lot of intensity and drive, it was all of a narrowly focused variety. It paid off well in the finale as the last two minutes do need to go and go, and I thought he ended on a good note. I'd pay to hear him again, but only every few years and I'd take a hard look at his repertoire first.
I've adored Daniel Hsu’s playing from the very beginning. There's something in his interpretations that make me lean in and listen. It's especially noteworthy if the pianist does that with your own favorite pieces, pieces you've played and know well. Throughout Daniel has played probably the most consistent programs if music that I know and love and yet I love everything he does with them.
The Tchaikovsky concerto continued that trend. He played it as if he was doing the world premiere, perhaps having a brother who is a great composer helps with that mindset. He didn't sound ever like he was playing with someone else’s performance in mind. Honestly, that's the biggest compliment that I can give a pianist, and Hsu has consistently earned it.
My predictions: Gold: Daniel Hsu. Silver: Rachel Cheung. Bronze: Kenneth Broberg. My personal choice among the finals would flip Cheung and Broberg but I wouldn't be upset now if she placed higher.
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.
Carl.czerny called Beethoven’s Op. 7, the composer’s Appassionata, not op. 57. My sense was that Pierdomenico never heard this advice and approached this in a typical classical style. Not without reason; Beethoven was not far removed from his lessons with Haydn when this piece was written. And not without success: Pierdomenico doesn't shy away from the explosive moments of the second movement and there is a certain gracefulness even to the energetic first movement.
Program wise I really like Pierdomenico’s whole solo recital repertoire choices. He showcases all the major sides of 19th-century pianism: Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, now Chopin (yes, Rachmaninoff’s pianism is essentially borne in the 20th century!). These Chopin Ballads are like narrative fantasies, and Pierdomenico achieves a believable balance between wandering and drive. Sometimes the tempo spins out of control in such a convincing way (haven't we all been so emotional we don't think straight for a moment), the next moment-and it could be a repeated phrase-it’s virtually steady again.
I was also happy to see the audience applaud after Nos. 1 and 3. I once attended a performance of all 4 Chopin Ballades by a pianist where no one clapped in between; it’s so anticlimactic. Now the pianist was a grouch who shot dirty looks at anyone who coughed during his masterclass the day before, so it was probably just as well. I don’t think Pierdomenico had to stand up and bow necessarily, he could have turned and nodded, but it’s also fine that he did.
I appreciated Broberg’s attention to inner voices in the Schubert. He brought harmonies, counter-melodies, variations out. The latter especially in the c-minor impromptu, when the melody can get so repetitive, he always found something new to bring out of the texture. In the Eb, he paid careful attention to voice the left-hand chords on beat two, bringing out the top note, which didn’t necessarily yield a counter-melody all the time, but created more interesting texture than the bass and right-hand alone can fill.
My former teacher, Paul Barnes, does a lecture-recital on Liszt’s religious connections to the Sonata, and I believe the section at M. 297 (start listening at about 38:50) iis what he refers to as the crucifixion scene. Broberg may or may not know of that interpretation, but he brings it to life nonetheless. The octaves that precede take off in a storm, and a pregnant pause signals an important moment is ahead. The chords at 297 are aggressive and full, dark and painful.
My favorite moment of this Sonata is the climax at 393-397 Broberg played it majestically with plenty of fortissimo and pulling back of the tempo. Throughout, he managed the difficult passage work with ease, still being musical, and without relying on the pedal so that he could use it for color, or revert to a dryer sound to get a lot of variety in one phrase. This was a virtuoso and poetic performance.
Listen to those cellos and violas in the Romanza of Tony Yike Yang’s Mozart concert. Such beautiful interaction with the melody. No wait, it was the pianist’s left hand! Mozart was proficient on the string instruments and no doubt intended his homophonic textures in piano music to be imbued with rhythmic and articulation nuance that the lower string instruments provide in an orchestral or chamber music setting. I also loved his nuances on the climbing 3 eighth note motives that permeates the theme. Not just varying them with ‘here’s a loud one, here’s a soft one’, he created vastly different colors and directions to continue the narrative.
I loved his phrasing of the finale theme. He ‘helped’ the natural call and answer of the opening phrase, to show the drive upward by really going for the sforzando high note, and allowing the harmony to relax on the descent. Consider his sensitive accompaniment color in the D-major coda. His piano playing bubbled along with the orchestral, never hidden, but never taking over, just adding to the excitement.
This would have to be my favorite performance of Yekwon Sunwoo’s in the competition. I think he is thinking of Mozart much more romantically, and I don’t mind. The energetic passages have some bite, he phrases repeated passages in very different ways, (consider the second theme in the first movement) as if in the midst of a great speech, emphasizing a point for greater interest. And he utilizes rubato in his solo passages. Usually just slight agogic delays but it’s very effective. I can’t believe I didn’t hear this kind of playing in his Beethoven Op. 109 this round!
He also took the risk in the second movement of not being the prominent voice even when he had the melody, at least upon the return of the theme. After all, we’ve heard him do it, plus the orchestra, why not hear how the long pedal tones from the orchestra interact with the melody in the piano. He joined the trend of ornamenting the melody line too, very smart. Mozart was never about just what’s on the page!
Overall I don’t have much to say about Hans Chen’s Mozart...His codas were brilliant and showed his intentionality as an artist in the places he went compositionally, and the way he played them musically. I just think you can play Mozart’s writtens notes the same way you improvise upon his written notes.
My two main points in Mozart are 1) involve the left hand and 2) shape repetitions differently, whether or not the notes change and the rhythm stays the same. Rachel Cheung is magnificent on point number one. Point number two as a test detracts from her overall impression. Consider the sequential left hand octaves towards the end of the first movement development. Each stop in the harmonic progression is shaped the same as it was the previous stop, and will be shaped the same way again. Especially in the development, especially in Mozart whose material is so beautiful, sequential development is often all he can do to it, each of these harmonies should be one stop on a journey, instead of running around in a circle. Even if you change your shoes each lap, you’re running in the same spot.
But, I get the enthusiasm I’ve seen online for Rachel Cheung. She does have a lot of honesty in her approach and I do not think there is any impediment to her ability to project her musical intentions.
My Top 6 Predictions:
Tony Yike Yang
The Real Finalists:
I'm 2/6 this time! At this point there are 2 of the semi-finalists who I deeply regret not seeing; and only 1 of the finalists I am not looking forward to. But-luckily there will be lots of variety between the concertos which is awesome for us, a little more work for the Fort Worth Symphony.
"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