I'm generally no fan of labelling "historical eras". Really, what does late Monteverdi, Giulio Caccini, Henry Purcell, and J.S. Bach have in common? Next to nothing, in fact, in terms of texture, many of them have exactly opposing ideals. Yet we call all of it 'Baroque' music.
I find the "classical era" label most cohesive and appropriate. There is consistency of style and musical ideals from composers as wide as C.P.E. Bach, J.C. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
But it's the "romantic era" label that really gets me: Romanticism does not mean expressive. I need to say that again, in different words: just because some music is expressive, does not mean that it is romantic. Expressive music doesn't automatically mean romantic music.
I could go on as to why, but I'll point you to two resources. One is an interesting article contrasting the historical philosophy of the enlightenment and romanticism. This isn't easy reading, but this extended quote is contributive:
Whereas the existing neo-classical paradigm had assumed that art should hold a mirror up to nature, reflecting its perfection, the Romantics now stated that the artist should express nature, since he is part of its creative flow. What this entails, moreover, is something like a primitive notion of the unconscious. For this natural force comes to us through the profound depths of language and myth; it cannot be definitely articulated, only grasped at through symbolism and allegory.
Charles Rosen doesn't really define what romanticism, especially as it relates to music, is, but he does a great job discussing music that he considers romantic, and how these composers contrasted their work with the preceding classical era. Reading The Romantic Generation is a big commitment, but it is the most enlightening musical text I have ever read. Who are the composers who make the cut and earn the label 'romantic?': Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, a little Mendelssohn, Bellini, Berlioz and Meyerbeer.
I have no problem removing the 'romantic' label from Brahms, and Schubert, and even Mendelssohn. I'm hesitant to give it to Chopin (Rosen makes a strong case that Chopin contributed innovations to romantic sound, but I'm not sure he would suggest that Chopin is a purely romantic composer, like Schumann was). I don't think it's at all appropriate to Rachmaninoff.
Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninoff all wrote very expressive music. But to make not of this fact is simply to make note of its expressivity, not allegations of romanticism.
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.
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.
Rarely does a major piano competition go by than we see social criticisms of the results. Check out recent discussions about the 2017 Rubinstein, the 2015 Leeds, and the 2015 Tchaikovsky. In the first and last case, we even had jury member Peter Donohoe wade (with some disdain) into the commentary (see, in particular, his exchanges in the Rubinstein link). Someone is always going to be upset about the winner’s style of playing, will wax poetically about the insufficient jury’s decision to choose a ‘consensus’ candidate instead of another finalist, the individualist, who some loved and others hated.
I’ll admit to having these criticisms myself. I thoroughly loved that the 2015 Tchaikovsky competition discovered Lucas Debargue, and while I was upset he didn’t win, he has clearly won himself an audience and likely a successful career. I wasn’t excited by either of the 2009 Cliburn winners, but I predicted in the first round of the 2013 contest that Vadym Kholodenko would be the winner. I never thought much of Allesandro Deljavan, the competitor many loved and thought it a travesty when he was eliminated. Before the medal announcement, I also rightly predicted the 2nd and 3rd place winners. With the 3 medalists, I thought the jury found the perfect balance between virtuosity, musicianship and unique choice of repertoire that wouldn’t turn off the die-hard or casual classical fan, and an individuality, an intentionality to each performer’s pianism.
This spring appears to be the season of major competitions with the Rubinstein and Montreal just completed, running virtually at the same time, then the Cliburn a few weeks later. Due to professional commitments I didn’t listen to much of either of the former two. But I’ve listened to the winners and at least one medalist at each.
To be candid-I wasn't excited by the winner in the Rubinstein. If we check out his repertoire through the solo rounds, we see Scarlatti, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and Rachmaninoff (the standard fare, though at least with underplayed sonatas from the first three, and a diverse batch of Etudes from the latter), and some interesting Szymanowski to go along with the imposed contemporary piece.
But I loved the winner of the Montreal competition, Zoltan Fejervari. As one of my friends said, “ …everything he played is standard repertoire but the combined program is so unique and really sets him apart.” His solo repertoire included Bach, Beethoven, Ligeti, Scriabin, Bartok, Janaceck and Schumann. Most of his choices were of lesser heard selections from each composer. It seemed clear to me from his programming and his manner of playing that Fejervari wasn’t competing to fit a ‘winner’s’ mold, instead, he presented his own artistry in a take it or leave it way.
One of the riskiest choices a competitor in a competition makes is choosing their final concerto. How often do we see Rachmaninov’s or Prokofiev’s second or third concerto, or the Tchaikovsky first? The Rubinstein finalists all happened to make the safest choices possible: 3 played Rachmaninov 3rd, 3 Prokofiev’s 3rd. I say safe as in, you have the best chance to show off your mastery of the instrument.
But Fejervari played Bartok’s 3rd in the finals—not an easy piece, but he had the added task of convincing the jury that this piece was worth competing with against the ‘war-horses’. (The last winner of the Montreal Competition won with Beethoven 4, an equally risky choice.)
I’ve been skeptical of the propensity to see many of the same pianists sitting on the juries to multiple major competitions each year. I don’t blame jury members for accepting invitations, but why do competition boards continue to ask from the same pool of artists? If the goal is to find a young artist that stands out among the rest, you don't want the same crowd choosing that winner; inevitably the same jury members will choose the same kind of pianist. The issue of jury member’s students competing is another one, fraught with questions of correlation and causation along with competition rules that I’d prefer not to get into. It’s covered quite well in this article in response to Veda Kaplinsky and previous Cliburn competitions.
The Cliburn has attempted to avoid these issues entirely this year. In the press release first announcing the 2017 jury and rules for application, they made note that only one of the competition jury had ever served before, and that the screening jury competition jury was comprised of entirely different people. They further made a brave attempt to avoid bringing teachers on to judge, focusing on (recently) retired professors and several artists who exclusively perform. From what I can tell, they were largely successful in avoiding student and teacher pairings among competitors and jury. Their focus clearly was on establishing a jury with a wide variety of unique, intentional artists and I expect that the eventual medalists will reflect this.
I think it shows in the competitors chosen for the Cliburn, starting this week. They are from all over the world, and there is very little repetition among their place or professor of study. And their repertoire! Yes, among the concertos, we see the same warhorses: 4 with Prokofiev 2, 5 with Prokofiev 3. 5 with Rachmaninoff 3, and 7 with Tchaikovsky. But, 0 playing Rach 2! Among solo repertoire, only 3 offer Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and 4 Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, two pieces I thought everyone tried to do at the last iteration.
What about what’s novel? A few offer Beethoven’s 4th concerto, or Liszt 2nd, and each of Chopin’s are the ‘grand concerto’ choice of one competitor. There’s a few solo Messiaen offerings, Clementi, C.P.E Bach, a few Schubert Impromptu sets, and a variety of J.S. Bach, and several people offering contemporary composers such as Carter, Ades, Takemitsu, Corigliano, Rzewski and Auerbach, in addition to the imposed piece by Marc-Andre Hamelin. There are many examples of someone playing a less virtuosic or less known piece from a well known composer, say Scriabin (10th Sonata), Brahms (Op. 118), Prokofiev (4 etudes), Shostakovich (1st Sonata), Debussy (Reverie). And the sheer art of programming. So many competitors programs work against your expected programming of romantic repertoire with a nod to something a little more conservative, in the best ways possible. Two examples I’ll point you to are Luigi Carroccia’s entire program, and Dasol Kim’s Semifinal recital.
So-I’m optimistic and excited to be bathed in piano playing. I will be posting reports every two days or so. I hope to not fall into the trap of being a ‘back-seat’ jury. I’m hoping to be so intrigued by all kinds of great piano playing that I can just wax poetically with optimistic fervor. I’m sure I’ll have my favorites and my least favorites, but more than anything, I expect to be intrigued, excited and inspired. Hopefully I can share that with you!
A lot of studying the piano is learning to copy, from our youngest years through at least until completing undergraduate education. Initially, this isn’t a bad thing. We need models to learn:
But there comes a time that we want to move away from copying. Until we do, we generally only function as accidental, or perhaps unintentional, pianists. We’ve done everything by chance, regurgitating what we’ve learned instead of processing and adding value to everything we’ve been taught.
Sometimes when we think we’ve gone off on our own, we haven’t actually done so. I’ve argued that the act of performing is at least as important as the texts on which our performances are derived. I believe our ears are easily manipulated by what we hear and most of our performance decisions are not truly our own; see case studies in Beethoven and Liszt.
And so I’d like to suggest embracing what I have decided to call 'intentional pianism'. What makes a great pianist stand out? Our favorite pianists have at once a pianistic voice that is all their own, that sounds completely familiar, and simultaneously keeps us thinking and guessing. They’ve studied all the rules but have commanded the authority to break them. They have a sort of intentionality to the way they play music.
All this is not to suggest that intentional piano playing is limited to the great masters. Some of my absolute favorite musical memories are from pianists who are not famous to the general classical music population. Some of the most distinctive performances I’ve seen were by students who brought an energetic commitment rare among artists, others are from professional artists who have sought their own career path, whether to pursue unique repertoire or venues for their performances. Anyone can play with intentionality.
Nor do I want to suggest that our educational system is failing students. I’ve benefited from studying with an incredible, diverse group of piano teachers, all of whom are brilliant, and largely fall into the category of a ‘traditional’ piano teacher.
And there’s nothing wrong with role of traditional piano teacher, in fact, traditions are essential. But to step out as performers with a personal intentionality, we need to use traditions as a stepping stone, not an end in themselves. Our professors in lessons and classes only have so much time to help us reach the level of being a unique artist. My goal with this blog and other future endeavors is to supplement the great teaching that goes on in piano lessons and schools of music. I believe some of the keys to being intentional include:
With this blog, most of all, I hope to outline how one can become a truly independent, a truly intentional pianist. Over the course of this next year, I’m going to present 5 blog series along with several standalone posts. First will be Extraordinary Recordings, a series studying several of my personal favorite performances on record, focusing on what makes the performer so unique. This will be, in a sense, a series of 9 case studies on pianistic intentions. Simultaneously, I will report on my viewing of the Cliburn Piano Competition, my favorite performances as well as thoughts on the repertoire chosen, and nature of competitions in general. What better way to ruminate on the state of intentionality than by studying this competition of world-class, young talent?
Later on, with the hope of inspiring some summer reading, I will release a series of posts on Influential Books. Some of these will be explicitly musical, but several will be from outside the musical world. In the fall, I will be ruminating on the Coexistence of Contemporary and Traditional Classical Music. This will be in preparation for a project that I’m very excited about, which I will announce later in the summer. Finally to end the year, I will discuss my views on Performance Practice, especially focusing on my work studying the amazing pianist Ervin Nyiregyhazi.
I hope you’re as excited about this journey as I am. Please subscribe to my e-mail list to the right, as I would love to keep you apprised as each new series is rolled out, as well as my projects as a performer.
In my undergraduate piano literature class covering Baroque music, one of our assignments for the listening exam was to study 4 recordings by different pianists of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E major from Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier such that we could blindly identify the pianist. I remember two of the pianists were Edwin Fischer and Glenn Gould, and whoever the other two were, they continued the trend of reasonable interpretive distinctiveness. I was fascinated to compare and contrast these different performances, and found the assignment manageable but learned more by studying the recordings with classmates who had much difficulty distinguishing the performers. So often we listen to the work, how often do we listen to the performers?
I think this is one of the greatest deficiencies of advanced musical study today: we spend so much time talking about great composers that we rarely talk about great performers. Academically, we ask what makes composers great, distinctive, creative? We really only ask the same thing of performers obliquely by talking of ticket sales, numbers of commercial recordings, and who is the most exciting to watch live. Rare is it to see performance of canonical literature treated to an academic analysis, as if music need only be between a composer and the audience.
In large part I’d hazard that this is due to the focus in teaching performers on the “composer’s intentions”. Interpretation is an act of properly conveying notational symbols in the score with sound. I don’t buy that, and I fall more in line with the Richard Taruskin quote to the right when I’m studying a piece and preparing it for performance. This is a common theme in my thinking, and my own academic work (and thus, why I’ve titled this blog “Performer’s Intentions”). As a pianist, I am an intrinsic part of the musical circle, and while my musical decisions are based in the score, I’m not a slave to tradition because traditions are often wrong (as I will write about in future posts).
I’ve just begun working on Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Since this work is commonly heard, I’ve decided to inundate myself with different recordings, to see the variety of approaches pianists have taken. There are many similarities, so many performers today painstakingly playing the sometimes awkward or unnecessary passagework that the non-pianist Mussorgsky wrote. There’s some virtue there, but there’s also virtue in finding new solutions to convey the musical work. There’s a fantastic recording my Maria Yudina, someone with an appropriate musical lineage and geographic authority to be taken seriously. One of my favorite tricks that she uses is inserting a glissando into the Baba-Yaga movement (measure 74, or hear it here). The grace-notes written are a physical nuisance to play, why not amplify the effect while making it easier? Continue listening through the rest of her recording: her ability to manipulate time is highly dramatic and effective.
This blog title is certainly to be taken tongue-in-cheek. I don’t hate music but what I do hate—and what I think the Bernstein song that inspired the title was getting at—is the culture of what classical music has become. Stuffy concert-halls, egotistical performers, interpretations that must follow a standardized formula based on modernly-conceived “rules” of tradition. I hope to explore many of the contentions I have with the classical music world through this blog.
I did not begin to truly enjoy music until just a couple years ago. There are only a couple books that have changed my life: the Bible, Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, William Westney’s “The Perfect Wrong Note” and Kenneth Hamilton’s “After the Golden Age”. The last I read over Christmas break in the first year of my master’s degree and found it such a relief. I will surely talk about it a great deal later so suffice to say now: it addressed a side of making music that was lost in the 20th century. It inspired me to listen to the oldest recordings of pianists who studied in the 19th century. We have on record performances by people who were trained in the musical style of the time in which the great piano canon was created. These recordings sound bizarre but here are the performance practice of Liszt and of Chopin, of Brahms and Schumann, even of Mozart and Beethoven. And yet it is not the performance practice propagated by performers today, whether or not they claim to be authentic interpreters.
Music was openly subjective back in “the day”. Says Richard Taruskin (another hero of mine, though he certainly goes over the top on occasion, and his repulsion towards contemporary music is alarming) regarding music as museums and performers as curators: “In musical performance, neither what is removed nor what remains can be said to possess an objective ontological existence akin to that of dust or picture. Both what is ‘stripped’ and what is ‘bared’ are acts and both are interpretations—unless you can conceive of a performance, say, that has no tempo, or one that has no volume or tone color. For any tempo presupposes choice of tempo, any volume choice of volume, and choice is interpretation.” (Texts and Acts, page 150).
I have arrived at the point that anything claiming to be music is worth a listen. Popular, classical, why must we even make the distinction? I believe to tout the genius of composers of the past, or the inerrancy of a musical score is to do a severe disservice to our art and the satisfaction we can get out of performing that art. I used to be more close-minded, in music and all walks of life. I knew what I believed, that I was ‘right’ and I arrogantly defended my positions. Just a few years ago I would have openly shot down my two great music loves: Liszt and contemporary music. Now I could be satisfied playing both, or either, for the rest of my life. Music—in the most subjective and therefore true sense—should never be boring and it should always throw you for a loop once in a while.
Final thoughts go to Alex Ross in a great article in the New Yorker from a few years ago: “Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values. The best music is music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world. This morning, for me, it was Sibelius’s Fifth; late last night, Dylan’s ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’; tomorrow, it may be something entirely new. I can’t rank my favorite music any more than I can rank my memories. Yet some discerning souls believe that the music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that supplants an inferior popular product. They say, in effect, ‘The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music.’ They gesture toward the heavens, but they speak the language of high-end real estate. They are making little headway with the unconverted because they have forgotten to define the music as something worth loving. If it is worth loving, it must be great; no more need be said.”
"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