The enlightened listening blog

Gearing up for Beethoven’s 32 sonatas

I’m gearing up for my fifth journey through the thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas. The last one was eleven years ago when I performed them at Houston’s Rothko Chapel. This time the venue is the new Shigeru Recital Hall at the Kawai Gallery, at 5800 Richmond Avenue. The acoustics are state of the art, and the Shigeru concert grand is one of the most beautiful pianos in Houston. I am greatly looking forward to playing often on that magnificent instrument.

It’s always an exciting and absorbing ride – to be for a few months immersed in this great music, with its extraordinary variety of styles and approaches and emotions. Beethoven was always restless to find new means of expression and was never content to repeat himself. This means that each of his compositions inhabits a world entirely of its own with its own personality and landscape.

I shall also be posting videos on Youtube, introducing listeners to each sonata from the piano.

The eight concerts will take place between September, 2016 and March, 2017, and I will be performing each one twice – on Thursdays at 7.30 p.m., and on Sundays at 5.00 p.m. There will be complimentary cheese and wine at each event.

For the full list of dates and the contents of each concert, please go to my events page.

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Horn of Plenty

A few months ago I found a batch of schoolboy letters I had written to my parents during an age when LP’s were king, and expensive. In letter after letter I would carefully present my short lists of records I would like to own: Brahms 2nd piano concerto – 24 shillings (bargain price); Chopin’s Etudes on Decca – Ah! this one was a whopping 41 shillings, which, to put things in perspective, was at that time about two-thirds of the price of the clothbound Henle edition of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas vol.2. The equivalent today would be about $50, for one record. They had to be saved up for. Those records were precious, and listened to many many times. When the school announced the opening of a record lending library with 300 records, I was overcome with a feeling of abundance, a treasure trove opening up in front of my very eyes.

Times have changed. The problem now, if one can really call it that, is how to budget time rather than money. With so many choices to listen to at almost no cost, where does one start? Up until about five years ago I found reading classical record reviews interesting but frustrating, because I knew I was not going to be hearing but a tiny fraction of the recordings being reviewed. When it came to whole areas of music I was unfamiliar with, like the English 20th century symphony, I more or less had to take my chances and buy randomly and hope I liked what I heard. I often did not, and abandoned the practise. Nowadays that whole area of the repertoire is available to me at the touch of a button from one of the streaming services to which I have subscribed. I can explore with abandon. A somewhat impatient listener, in a similar manner to the way I am as a reader, I must be grabbed pretty soon by what is going on, or I move on. But in these days of unlimited accessibility, I can do this without regrets or disappointments, and with a real feeling of adventure. So many nuggets in there – all I have to do is find them.

Besides having access to thousands of radio stations, from which I choose only two or three, including the BBC, my two main sources of  streaming are Spotify and Naxos Music Library.

Spotify has only recently reached our American shores, having taken Europe by storm for a few years with its extraordinarily large library of 15 million tracks and growing. It is not primarily a classical music hub like Naxos, but its collection of classical music is impressive, if spotty. Notable are major labels which do not feature on Naxos, such as Deutsche Grammophon, EMI and Sony Classics. Not their entire catalogues of course, but some major artists are included. Virtually all of Glenn Gould’s recordings are available, many of Murray Perahia and Maurizio Pollini are there, and amongst conductors I am happy to see Simon Rattle and Karajan well represented.

With Naxos we get more versions of everything, and they also have an ever growing list of labels, including Bis, Chandos, Haenssler and Hungaraton, as well of course as the entire Naxos catalogue. For the exploration of unusual repertoire, Naxos cannot be beaten. All of those 20th century English symphonies are there, and one can listen to complete works of many unfamiliar composers. Certain great hallmark collections stand out for me – The wonderfully crisp and exciting Beethoven symphonies with Osmo Vanska; five different complete collections of the Bach cantatas (what a HUGE discovery these are, and only ten years ago I was still frustrated at not having them all available to me, but only in bits), including those of Gardiner, Koopman, Suzuki and Leusink; the Sibelius collection on Bis, and the Carter edition on Bridge – Spotify boasts only two discs of Elliot Carter, America’s greatest living composer, and not more than that of Tippett, who until his death a few years ago was England’s greatest.

There is a feeling that Naxos takes on all willing comers though, and the quality of recordings/performances is by no means uniformly high. One has to choose carefully, but at least the best recordings are always complete. An irritating feature of Spotify is the absence of apparently randomly selected tracks from performances which would be so much more worthwhile if complete. Gardiner’s account of Don Giovanni for example suffers from having the great final scene be unavailable. Maybe the record companies assign a computer to knock out a few tracks from their recordings so that listeners might feel they have to buy the albums after all.

I sometimes think how life would have been so much easier as a music student if I had had access to recordings and scores like I do now. That is true, but I rejoice that being a constant lifelong student is now so enjoyable, especially without the pressure of exams! I know for certain that there are still about 100 or so Bach cantatas I still haven’t heard, and I know equally that I will be just as amazed by the unrelenting inspiration and imagination Bach shows in the ones I have heard. And never has it been possible (let alone so easy)to compare so many performances of single movements or pieces as it is now.

Faced with such plenty, it is sometimes a problem (of the very best sort) deciding what to listen to, what to explore next. If I am not in a mood to make choices, I turn to Pandora. Here I can set up radio stations for myself which will play the kinds of music I like. If I choose, say, Berg, Berg himself is represented in a random track followed by one by another composer who wrote in what is considered by Pandora’s team of experts to be related in style. I have found this a marvellous method to make serendipitous discoveries, which can then lead me to explore those pieces further on Naxos or Spotify. A wonderfully fresh and energetic Martinu violin concerto for example, or the charming Symphony no.1 by Elliot Carter.

Some diehards worry about not being able to download from these sites (they mean for free!). Almost everything can be downloaded off the internet for money, and now those who are patient can record in real time anything that enters their computer from the internet, using Freecorder or similar programs. The only time I feel the need for such ownership is when I have trouble with internet connection (but then I just go to my Iphone and tune in there on 3G), or when I am in a very remote place. Then I take my Ipod, and am quite happy.

All in all, despite minor imperfections, these sites complement eachother to result in a veritable Library of Congress-sized library in one’s own living room or smart phone. It’s hard to imagine things being any better for the enthusiastic listener, but I am sure they will be.

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The Diabelli Effect

This past week I gave two performances of Beethoven’s great Diabelli Variations. To say that it was like welcoming back an old friend (after ten years of not performing it) would be understatement. It had an energising force on me on me which I remember from the past, but magnified even more this time around.

I remember Stephen Hough once saying (unboastfully) that there was something about the Brahms Second Piano Concerto (one of the most difficult in the repertory) which allowed him to not have to practise it much anymore. I couldn’t quite believe how that could be possible at the time, but I find I feel similarly about the Diabelli Variations. I was heartened that the piece came back within a few days, as though I had left it for a few weeks and not ten years. A lot of that familiarity comes with having played all the sonatas and feeling more “at home” in Beethoven than in any other composer except Schubert.

But there must be other factors as well. When I play the work I feel like I am in a playground. Every time I finish one variation I thoroughly look forward to the next one. Each variation inhabits an emotional world of its own, and each is a little dramatic miniature with twin climaxes, one at the end of each half. Beethoven treats these climaxes differently in each piece of course, but the visceral pleasure of building to these climaxes and really letting loose is one of the chief joys of playing the work. And as there are 33 variations, these climaxes occur  over 120 times including the repeats. I don’t know of any other work which allows a performer to indulge so lavishly in exciting climaxes as much as this one – or anything close. This is a major reason that the work is so fulfilling to perform.

Arthur Schnabel once quipped that when he performed the Diabellis he always had the greatest time, but felt sorry for his audience for having to sit through it. I doubt that many of his audience members suffered from boredom. But it is a long and very intense piece of music, which demands much of  (not completely tuned-in) audience members throughout its 55 minute duration. Much of it seems odd, quirky, whimsical, not overly serious, and then very serious; a mixed bag in every sense. So for some listeners (including myself before I came under its spell), the diverseness can leave one feeling a little adrift, the piece not held together sufficiently. Unlike Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s work is not divided into easily identifiable sections. And yet for me the musical logic and structure are so strong that the piece seems half its actual length.

At my first recital a great enthusiast of music told me how much she had admired my performance. I sensed something missing, so I immediately asked whether she liked the piece. “Not at all!”, she said. “I felt sorry for Beethoven, who must have been mentally ill when he wrote it!” I told her to go and seek out Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge op.133, for string quartet, if she thinks the Diabellis are crazy. I took her remarks as a complement both to me and the music. Beethoven was supremely uncrazy in his search for new ways to express his ideas, breaking the bounds of his former styles. A listener at the second recital said that he now, for the first time in his life, had woken up to Beethoven, whom he had hitherto found heavy and even boring. He has listened to the work three more times since.

These were heartening comments, different though they were. It’s impossible to feel indifferent to this music, or to Beethoven in general. One very musically well-versed friend claims it as his favorite piece of all music, not just piano music. It is one of my favorite repertory pieces, and probably the most intensely thrilling of all to perform.

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A week of Peaks; Bach, Mozart, Beethoven.

A good week for music last week. It started off with Bach’s St.Matthew Passion in a luminous performance by the Houston Bach Society under the baton of Albert LeDoux. In such an ideal location (Christ The King Lutheran Church, with its perfect acoustics), the experience was an aesthetic pleasure on top of the spiritually uplifting one which came from the music.

There was always a sense of forward motion, something which has become a signature characteristic of the modern “authentic” Baroque performance style, but the tempi were never rushed, which can be a danger in this style. To take just two examples, the last chorus and the beautiful aria “Erbarme dich” were both taken faster than I have ever heard them, but they both worked perfectly. In both cases the underlying triple time meter was especially apparent, giving the music a refreshing lilting quality which was like a tranquil breeze wafting through the gloom of the text – providing an underlying balm of forgiveness. In the case of the aria I was struck by the lightness of tread in this music, the exquisitely delicate contapuntal lines weaving around the central solo violin melody, and the pulsing beat of the repeated notes in the bass; I was reminded of an episode in my undergraduate years when a fellow-student had, in a quiz, wrongly guessed the opening instrumental measures of this aria to be a Schubert quartet. At the time I found this tremendously risible and preposterous and gulled him about it for years. Last Sunday I quite independantly started thinking how much it reminded me of Schubert! There was a lovely intimacy in these textures which had never been so apparent to me before.

At the tail end of last week, Houston Grand Opera’s witty production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, (or more precisely Wedding of Figaro) provided the tonic I needed after a high intensity week. A different kind of experience from the Bach, of course, and equally uplifting. The text of the Bach is not per se uplifting, but his setting makes it so; likewise, entertaining as the story of Figaro is, the amount of tenderness that Mozart’s music exudes goes way beyond what the words offer. The Countess’ final words to her husband, after he has been caught redhanded misbehaving in the garden, are “I am kinder than you, so I forgive you”, and yet these few measures of music ennoble her into one of the great spirits of the operatic repertoire; infinitely patient and loving. Mozart’s powers of transformation of his material from the silly, commonplace, or even ridiculous, to the sublime, are what makes us keep coming back to his operas.

Meanwhile, during the week, I was tasked to record Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations, complete with a spoken illustrated talk, with only a few days to have it all ready for the printer. Nothing like a deadline to get the creative juices working, as someone once said. The Diabellis are considered the highest peak in Beethoven’s piano works. In terms of its length and its variety, as well as its accessibility, it probably does knock the “Hammerklavier” Sonata off top spot, though such value judgements are usually arbitrary. I am performing the work on May 1st in Houston as part of my miniseries “Twin Peaks”, comprising Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the Beethoven Diabellis.

I feel especially at home in this music, and it is a joy to rummage so freely in the encyclopaedia of Beethoven’s late style. One of the experiences any performing artist has in returning to a work after years of hiatus, is finding new things in the piece, and having new interpretive insights. I remember when I first performed the work as a graduate student, I listened to a number of recordings, was generally impressed, but influenced especially by the Rudolph Serkin recording. This struck me as just right, just how I wanted to do it. And so I more or less emulated what he did, because I knew it worked for him. It worked for me too, but I always had the feeling that the interpretation was not really my own.

Revisiting the piece, I tried to listen to some recordings (no doubt I made infelicitous choices), and could not stay with them for more than a few minutes each! I already knew there was nothing I wanted to learn from performances which seemed to me either far too timid (or perhaps reverential), or far too self-referential, in which every detail is highlighted or squeezed dry of every mililiter of its expressive value, as if this is the way to get listeners to really notice. I realised to my great satisfaction that I knew exactly how I wanted the piece to go, and I didn’t need to listen to anyone else for ideas anymore; I don’t want to hear the Serkin again; then was then, now is now. Sounds conceited I know, but it is an essential stage a performer must reach before reaching a state of real confidence in a particular piece. I have felt this way about Schubert for many years – I am so easily exasperated by what I hear as a complete “missing of the point” in performances of others, that I tend to avoid them, (with some notable exceptions). No doubt this is because Schubert’s is such a deeply personal style, that any lover/performer of Schubert will want to claim him to some extent as his/her own territory. I certainly feel this, as was delighted to find similar sentiments expressed by Leon Fleisher in his recently published memoir, and whose recording of Schubert’s last sonata I am looking forward to hearing, and trust that I will enjoy.

I mentioned Mozart’s habit of turning everything including the ridiculous into the sublime. This is what Beethoven does in the last of his Diabelli Variations. The “ridiculous” waltz (though I actually believe that it is not only an effective waltz but one cunningly devised to attract Beethoven’s attention) is turned into a sublime minuet in the style of late Mozart, with a coda in the style of Beethoven’s sublime sonata op.111. Beethoven’s initial dismissal of the waltz as a “cobbler’s patch” upon which he was not inclined to waste any of his time, was forgotten. He pays full homage to it here, even to its harmonic progression and sizable chunks of its melody. And of course he is at the same time displaying his alchemical powers to turn anything into gold.

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On performing the Goldberg Variations again

Recently I performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations in public again for the first time in seventeen years. I could not believe it had been that long. Yet there was the inescapable evidence. My last go was for the Philadelphia Bach Society in 1994.

I hasten to point out that my apparent reluctance to air it again was not owing to a disasterous experience. My memories of the Philadelphia recital are happy ones, and the reviewer was even kind enough to mention that he would have been even happier if I had devoted the other half of the program to a performance of the same work on the harpsichord! I can only say that I sincerely believe that he would not have been. My brief skirmishes with the harpsichord have implanted in me a deep respect for the instrument and the very specialized skill required to play it well. My reasons for putting the work aside are probably well known to any performing pianist – there’s just so much else out there to play. The pianist’s repertoire is an endless supply of riches, and constituted the most compelling reason, beyond the sound and feel of the piano itself even, that I chose it over any other instrument.

I had performed the work probably thirty times during the previous decade and a half, and then this was followed by a break of more than that. I felt I needed to approach the preparation of the work as if it were new. I looked everywhere for better ways of doing things. I sought out places which had always given me trouble, or had never felt entirely comfortable,changing hand positions and fingerings. I investigated new ornamentations and articulations, new relationships between variations, especially contiguous ones. And most of all I looked for ways to bring out the individual character of each variation as vividly as possible, bringing them to life in my imagination and with luck the imaginations of my listeners.

In the past seventeen years, access to recorded music has blossomed wonderfully. I used to scramble about in used record stores seeking recordings of Bach cantatas, a repertoire I knew frustratingly little. Nowadays, for a few dollars a month, I have access to five versions of the complete cantatas, and free access to the complete scores online. The same goes, of course, for the orchestral music, and the instrumental and chamber music as well. Immersing oneself in this repertoire is, apart from being one of life’s great pleasures, essential for a comprehensive education in Bach style. Making choices about how to approach each variation based on its similarity to pieces I have heard elsewhere in Bach now becomes an almost scientific pursuit. It is surprising how many of the variations relate to the styles of dances, for example.

When I was first playing the work in the early 1980′s, the performance everyone knew was the first Glenn Gould recording. Orchestral and choral performances were only just beginning to take on the historically accurate style we know today. I was brought up on Karajan and Klemperer, and thrilled though I was at the time, I find it very hard to listen to now. I tried to listen to Giulini’s Mass in B Minor from 1970 recently, and couldn’t do it. Even the orchestral playing sounded throaty; I am so accustomed to spritzy Bach that treacly Bach doesn’t do it for me anymore.

In piano performance things have taken a somewhat less directly opposite path from, let’s say, Romantic to hyper-modern authentic as in the other repertoire. Gould defined hyper-modern, and ever since his two recordings, Bach playing on the piano has softened a little in its dazzling drive and speed. Angela Hewitt, one of today’s doyennes of Bach on the piano sounds closer to the old school with its more spacious approach and generous use of rubato, than to Gould and modern conductors such as Gardner and Hereweghe with their sizzling tempi and dynamic rhythmic drive.

Playing Bach on the piano is still considered cowboy territory by the new authentic school anyway, so it is not surprising to hear a wide range of approaches and little sense of conforming to any conventional wisdom. So the important thing is, as always, to find a way of playing the music which feels right to the performer, based on a healthy immersion in the broader repertoire of the composer. In Bach of all composers, this results in a great variety of approaches, new insights and surprises.

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Welcome to my blog

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Welcome to my blog

Hello and welcome to my blog. 

To coincide with the release of my double album devoted to Bach’s Goldberg Variations (CD1 is the performance, and CD2 my illustrated talk), and with my performance of the work in Houston on March 27, the first few posts will feature selected variations.

The blog will include, amongst other things, performances of short works, piano playing tips, and other nuggets of advice to pianists and music lovers.

Please feel free to leave your comments and opinions.

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