Friday, November 4, 2011

Franz Liszt' Second Ballade. What's the story behind it?

In the last few years, I have been telling my students (and audiences at my recitals) that I believe the Second Ballade by Liszt to be inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. A few people have asked why I believe such a thing, when no sources prove it. Furthermore, an oral tradition, perpetuated by the great Claudio Arrau--who apparently learned it from his teacher Martin Krause, who was one of Liszt's pupils, seems to establish a link between the Ballade and another myth, that of Hero and Leander. While that is possible, I doubt it. 

The Second Ballade was composed in 1853 and published in 1854. In those same years, Liszt composed his 8th Symphonic Poem, titled “Orpheus” (this is actually known as the Symphonic Poem n. 4, but that numeration does not follow the chronological order of composition). In 1854, Liszt conducted the Weimar premiere of Gluck's opera “Orfeo ed Euridice”, and replaced Gluck's original overture with his own Symphonic Poem. 

I think the Second Ballade truly fits the Orpheus and Eurydice story like a glove, and I cannot help but think that it is this myth that was very much on Liszt's mind when he wrote the Ballade. So much so, that I think every moment of the piece can be directly linked to the unfolding of the story:

 -The repetition of the same material at the beginning, first in B minor [bars 1-34], then in B flat minor [35-69], physically accompanying Orpheus‘ descent into the Underworld; 

-The murky river Styx represented by the left hand chromatic figuration; 

-The sublime “love theme”, sung by Orpheus accompanying himself on his lyre [24-34, and 59-69]; 

-A three-headed dog named Cerberus, ghosts, spirits, vultures, other threatening creatures [70 and following] all being tamed by Orpheus’ song [“Allegretto”, bars 143 and following]. In his journey to meet the King and Queen of Hades, Orpheus is confronted by numerous scary creatures at various times, but continues undeterred;

-Orpheus pleading to Pluto and Persephone, King and Queen of the Underworld [“Appassionato”, bars 225 and following]. This is the same theme we hear earlier, at bars 135 and following (‘a piacere, cantando”), softer and more hesitant, as if Orpheus first rehearses what he is going to say to the King and Queen, whispering it to himself;

-The transfiguration of the disconsolate opening theme into a glorious B Major, after his wish is granted [“Allegro Moderato”, bars 254 and following]; 

-The ascending arpeggios, and later scales, representing the ecstatic journey back to the world of the living, both hands moving upwards, both Orpheus and Eurydice so close to the goal, the music building up to what could have been such a triumphant finale; 

-The crushing blow of the diminished seventh chord that suddenly interrupts this ecstatic journey, representing the very moment in which Orpheus turns and looks at his wife, contravening the one condition set by Pluto and Persephone [bar 297]; 

-Orpheus chasing Eurydice as she vanishes before his eyes [bars 298-299];

-The contrary-motion alternate octaves, Orpheus and Eurydice being separated so precipitously and forever [bars 300-301]; 

-The return of the “love theme”, this time presented in a very frantic manner, as Orpheus realizes that his beloved is lost forever [302-310]; 

-Resignation [bars 311 to the end], but still Orpheus' longing, his yearning for Eurydice can be felt by the way the music resists the arrival of the final B Major chord through a series of G#s in the top voice, and chromaticism in the inner voices. The last note of the piece, an F# played over a tied chord, sounds like the ultimate gesture of resignation, Orpheus lowering his head and accepting his cruel fate.  

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Emperor is Naked!

In Hans Christian Andersen's short tale "The Emperor's New Clothes", two fellows--today we would refer to them as con artists, promise an Emperor some new clothes that are invisible to stupid people. The vain Emperor, for fear of being considered stupid, parades himself naked through the streets. Only a child, in his candor, can shout the truth--"But he isn't wearing anything at all!", and make everyone realize they had all been conned.

A friend sent me an article by music critic Michael White. You can read it HERE

Mr. White mentions music critics suffering secretly through a performance of some celebrated work they really can't stand. He also mentions people attending concerts feeling like they have to put up a show of delight only for fear of passing for unsophisticated if they dare say they do not like a particular work. It made me think of Andersen's tale. 

The article also talks about how a beloved work might become difficult to listen to, strenuous, exhausting, even unbearable, due to excessively frequent programming. 

In the piano world, with the massive amount of repertoire we have, recital programs and even concerto performances seldom deviate from mainstream repertoire. This is very limiting, and really a shame. Of course, some works are immortal, they transcend time and must be offered to concert goers, especially to new generations (when the Holy Spirit moves them to actually enter such an unhip place as a concert hall). However, I think the ideal balance in a recital program consists of an equal number of mainstream works/composers and relative unknowns. Sometimes a pianist has to push a little to convince presenters that his/her program is worth listening to!

For a New York recital of mine a few years ago, at Carnegie Hall, my proposed program was: Beethoven-Eroica Variations Op.35; Czerny-Variations "La Ricordanza" Op.33; Liszt-Ballade No.2; Julius Reubke-Sonata in B flat minor; Howard Ferguson-Sonata Op.8. The Reubke and the Ferguson are two very big pieces, and virtually unknown. The presenter expressed concern that people might be scared away. "You have an unknown (sic!) Beethoven, Czerny, whom people think of as just a composer for kids" (I guess because of his Etudes), "and in the second half you want to play composers no one has ever heard of?".  I was determined to play the program the way I had conceived it. I had put a lot of thought into it. However, after much pressing, urging, and pleading on his part, I agreed to show some "flexibility". Could I not do away with either the Reubke or the Ferguson and replace it with a "blockbuster"? He suggested I do away with the Reubke because it was longer than the Ferguson. As to say, he went with the lesser of two evils (he, of course, did not know either work. I don't blame him. Nobody played them!). In the end, I played the Ferguson, and replaced the Reubke with the Rachmaninoff Second Sonata (a mainstream work played all too frequently, but a gorgeous piece of music, of course).      

I remember when I was a student, reading through and learning masterpieces such as the Beethoven Sonatas, the Chopin Ballades, the Bach Preludes and Fugues and hundreds of other works. The intensity of the passion I had, the true love I felt. The impact of those "first times" was truly profound, and will last for as long as I live. Yet, studying those works, performing those works, teaching those works, listening to them hundreds of times while judging competitions or at piano recitals, I do feel the need to put some distance from many of them, and to explore, to "discover" new music…new for me, anyway. All in hope of feeling that same coup de foudre I felt when first playing through the Schumann Fantasy, the Beethoven Appassionata, the Liszt Sonata, to name a few. You might object that there aren't any works of such sublimity or importance to be "discovered", and that might be true. Much of the lesser-known or unknown repertoire from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is not worth unearthing. However, how are you going to find any buried gems without looking? I did find quite a few, and they gave me much pleasure. Besides, most of the pleasure for me is in the process of looking! When and if I happen to "find" something, that's a big fat bonus. 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Chopin Scherzo Connection

I was teaching the other day, and my student MoonKi played the Chopin 3rd Scherzo for me. I love the piece, and was listening to her play it when something struck me. A possible thematic connection between the 3rd a 4th scherzo?

I've played all of Chopin's Scherzi many times, and I've also performed all 4 in the second half of some of my recitals. I had never noticed this connection!

Example 1  (click to enlarge)

Example 2  (click to enlarge)
The two works date from 1839 and 1843 respectively. Number 3 is in C# minor, while the fourth is in the relative E Major, so they also share the number of sharps.

The descending double-octaves of the third scherzo (example 1) are a mirror image of the ascending chords of the fourth (example 2). As soon as the 3rd scherzo modulates to E Major, look at the five indicated notes (Example one, first line, bars 10, 11, 12, 13, and the first bar of line 2) : it's the opening theme of the Fourth Scherzo!

I don't know if it was intentional, but it is hard for me to believe it wasn't.  I think Chopin started out the 4th scherzo as a transfigured version of the 3rd and moved on from there.  Two works sounding as different as can be, and yet very closely connected.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Schumann - Bilder aus Osten Mvmt. 5

I'm in Santo Domingo, enjoying the great company of dear friends, and the beautiful weather, all the while teaching here. I'm also practicing...Bringing back Prokofieff Third Concerto and reading Tchaikovsky's Sonata in G, Op.37. I love that piece very much. In the downtime back at the hotel, I've been working on editing my next CD, an all-Schumann disc. Along with Carnaval op.9 and FantasieStucke Op.12, it features 6 pieces for piano 4-hands. My wife Emanuela Friscioni joined me for this project. The duets in question are called "Bilder aus Osten". The fifth movement, "Lebhaft", is a great favorite of mine. The energy in it is wonderful, and the middle section in F Major is so marvelous. I love the way Schumann creates a beautiful polyphonic dialogue, while the constant motion of the triplets keeps everything gently moving forward. It's like two people sweetly singing while on a boat ride! Here is our performance of it. I hope you like it!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Giuseppe Martucci: Fantasia Op.51

It has been truly a lot of fun practicing and playing through the Fantasia in G minor, Op. 51 by Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909), as I prepared it for a performance in Boston last February 8th.

The Italian composer was courageous enough to defy tradition, basing his entire career on instrumental and symphonic music [including 2 Symphonies, 2 Piano Concerti, an oratorio (Samuel), chamber music, and several piano and vocal works].  He never composed an opera, and as a conductor, he chose Wagner over Italian operatic composers!

This Fantasia [composed the same year as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture Op. 49 and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 2 S515] has become one of my favorite pieces.  It is very idiomatic, difficult but extremely well written for the piano, and it contains some beautiful melodies, some of which make me think of the rich tradition of Neapolitan popular music.

The Fantasia begins with a very dramatic gesture, followed by an emotional outpour. It then features a lively section that I would describe as a whirlwind, with its light, scherzando, fast 16th-notes that provide constant propulsion. In this section, along with the fun-filled agility passages, I greatly enjoy the imitations, the beauty of the harmonic progressions, as well as the overall transparency and brilliance. The last section is an abrupt return to the drama of the beginning, enhanced by the thematic material staying in the minor mode almost to the end, when we return to Eb Major with the final, chordal passage, solemn and grand.

One of the most successful characteristics of the piece, in my opinion, is the combination of structural soundness and free-flowing, quasi-improvisatory feel. Martucci was a truly wonderful composer. I hope to see his music programmed more often, and I'll try to do my part!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

On Gestures and Facial Expressions at the piano.

A friend called me the other night, telling me about a YouTube video, uploaded by user name th3wing3dpaint3r, titled: "Drama at The Piano: Pianists making unnecessary gestures while playing."  The video does me the honor of being briefly included, among a number of fantastic pianists, and I really enjoyed it because it offers food for thought. Thanks to th3wing3dpaint3r for uploading it.

I would like to offer a few considerations about gestures at the piano. People have different ways to summon up inner energy and emotions. As in life away from the piano, some of us wear their heart on their sleeve. It certainly does not mean that we express more through the music than other, more self-restrained performers, but just as surely it does not mean that our emotions are more superficial.

I think of two Titans like Richter and Michelangeli, and how diametrically different they were in their physical approach to the instrument (apart from the other differences between the two).

I think the only "unnecessary gestures" are those made without any corresponding emotional surges, fabricated artfully with the only purpose of attracting more attention to oneself. When the powerful rush of an emotion or feeling takes you, I don't see anything wrong with it being reflected on your face and in your body, if it is sincere. I assure you, I have no idea what expressions my face is making while I am playing, and I actually feel a bit self-conscious when I watch my own videos. However, and with perhaps a few exceptions, I don't think nirvana should be the goal of performing and/or listening to music. In music, we have suffering, desire, happiness, and the whole gamut of human emotion, and we cherish it all.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Rach 3 - Transitions

These days, I am working on Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (a.k.a. the "Rach 3"), as I prepare for performances of it in February and March.

The more I delve into this concerto (composed in 1909), the more I realize that, out of the many challenges the work presents, perhaps the most difficult one lies in its many transitions. I am striving to play the whole piece as a unit, organically quickening or slowing its pulse according to the Composer's speed- and character-related markings. It is not that easy, but I think it is more important than taking off as soon as Rachmaninoff writes "poco piú mosso", or some similar marking, thus using faster sections only to display technical prowess. They must be strictly related to the slower sections, I believe. There are plenty of example of this, basically at every indication of "piú mosso", "poco piú vivo", etc.

A particularly good example is the "Poco piú mosso" in the second movement, after the climax (following rehearsal figure 32 in the Boosey & Hawkes edition).

I have heard this concerto (dedicated to Josef Hofmann) played too many times, even by excellent pianists, in a way that made me feel that it was too fragmented, compartmentalized, and that many sections felt like unattached limbs, and did not fit the whole. I believe that every part of this concerto comes as a direct consequence of either the immediately preceding one, or several of the preceding ones, as a cumulative effect. It is a wonderful narration, with many psychological subtleties and some major cathartic moments.

I've decided to play the "other" cadenza instead of the massive one that is perhaps more popular nowadays. At first, Rachmaninoff wrote the one known as the "ossia", and then composed a second one. The composer himself chose to play this "leaner" cadenza in his 1939 recording of the piece. [3:23” of the following recording]:

I learned the "ossia" first, not even considering the other one (perhaps I was under the spell of Van Cliburn's recording with Kondrashin, which to me remains unmatched). [0:16” of the following video]:

Then, slowly but surely, I started feeling the need for some relief from the chordal writing so prominent in the movement, and in the concerto. I believe this may very well be the reason why Rachmaninoff wrote the second version of the cadenza, where the soloist has single-note runs like nowhere else in the movement, and instead of thick, massive chords and wide jumps, lean ones that skip nervously about. After a while the two cadenzas become one and the same, reaching again incredible levels of concentration through thick chordal passages that seem to have the same gravitational force of black holes.

Just the other day I watched a Video Artists International DVD with footage from 1956, in which pianist Aldo Ciccolini, whom I was lucky to have as a teacher for a couple of years, interprets the first movement of Rach 3. I wish the other movements had been included, as well! It is a great performance, and very different from the best known recordings of this work. Ciccolini played the "leaner" cadenza. So did Martha Argerich, as well as many others. I think it is the right choice. I hope my audience will concur!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Annamaria Pennella

Last night, with my family, we gathered round and listened to a stunning performance of Anton Rubinstein’s Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 70.  It is a live recording of a radio broadcast from 1959. The soloist is my teacher, Annamaria Pennella, performing with the Scarlatti Orchestra and Francesco Molinari-Pradelli in Napoli, Italy. It was aired in 1959, and it is absolutely beautiful:


Rubinstein - Concerto No.4 (Pennella) by AntonioPompaBaldi

True, this is a concerto that has somehow become obscure, in great contrast with its popularity during the first one hundred years or so of its existence. Rachmaninoff and Paderewski both had it in their repertoire. Mrs. Pennella's playing is of such immediacy that one cannot help but being immediately captivated by it. It is more than just being transported to another place. It has such power that it almost changes the world around you, making you believe you are presently living in a better, purer world of high ideals. It is the kind of playing that brings the Golden Age back every time you listen to it. Of course that age was just about a thing of the past even in 1959, but her playing here reminds me more of the Rachmaninoffs, Hofmanns, Paderewskis than of the other famous artists of the 1950s.

Her singing tone is as pure and gorgeous as that of any other giant of the piano from that Golden Age. What is more, every note is invested of that singing quality, even in the more virtuosic passagework. 

Mrs. Pennella will be 88 in July. After a life completely devoted to her students, she is playing again, and practicing like a 19-year-old preparing a competition! This past summer I visited her, and on a beautiful, sunny morning, in her living room, she regaled me with an unforgettable performance of the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5 , all 5 movements and with repeats! It is obviously quite a feat to be able to just play a monumental work like that at any age, let alone at 87, but the freshness, the quality and the accuracy, the naturalness…I could go on forever but there really are no words. We are very grateful for her presence in our lives, and look forward to hearing her future recordings. She has a few already scheduled, and among the various possibilities, there is the idea of recording the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15. What a beautiful gift to the world that would be!

Italian translation:

Ieri sera, con tutta la mia famiglia, abbiamo ascoltato una stupenda esecuzione del Concerto No. 4 di Anton Rubinstein. E' una registrazione dal vivo di una trasmissione radiofonica del 1959. La solista e' la mia insegnante, Annamaria Pennella, che suona con l'Orchestra Scarlatti, diretta da Francesco Molinari-Pradelli a Napoli. E' un'esecuzione assolutamente fantastica.

In verita', questo concerto e' uscito dal repertorio, e cio' e' in grande contrasto con la popolarita' di cui ha goduto per circa un secolo. Pianisti come Rachmaninoff e Paderewski lo avevano nel proprio repertorio. La Signora Pennella suona questo pezzo con tanta immediatezza espressiva che non si puo' non essere istantaneamente catturati. Il risultato non e' solo quello di essere trasportati in un mondo migliore. Il potere espressivo della solista e' tale, che sembra quasi cambiare la realta' attorno all'ascoltatore, rendendola migliore, elevandola ad una purezza ideale. Questo e' il modo di suonare che ci riporta all'eta' d'oro del pianismo mondiale, ogni volta che lo si ascolta. 
Il tono cantabile della solista e' puro e meraviglioso, come e ancora piu' di quello di qualsiasi pianista mitico dell'eta' d'oro. Ogni nota e' investita di questa qualita' cantabile, anche e persino nei passaggi virtuosistici piu' complessi.

La Signora Pennella compira' 88 anni a luglio. Dopo una vita spesa completamente al servizio dei suoi alunni, ha ripreso a studiare e suonare come se fosse una pianista di 19 anni che si prepara per un grande concorso!
L'estate scorsa, durante una mia visita, in una bellissima mattina di sole, nel suo salotto, mi ha fatto un grande regalo: una indimenticabile esecuzione della Terza Sonata di Brahms in Fa minore, tutti e 5 i movimenti e pure i ritornelli! Suonare bene quest'opera monumentale sarebbe gia' una sfida per chiunque, a maggior ragione per un'artista di 87 anni, ma la freschezza, la qualita' e la precisione, la naturalezza...Potrei continuare a lungo, ma davvero non ci sono parole. Siamo molto grati per la presenza della Signora nelle nostre vite, e aspettiamo con ansia le sue incisioni future. Ci sono vari progetti, tra cui l'idea di registrare il Primo Concerto di Brahms. Sarebbe un dono meraviglioso a tutto il mondo, musicale e non.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Being Expressive

Rachmaninoff recalled listening to a series of Anton Rubinstein's recitals when he was a 12-year old boy, and how the Master was extraordinary, but far from note-perfect. He also said that "for every possible mistake Anton Rubinstein may have made, he gave, in return, ideas and musical tone pictures that would have made up for a million mistakes."

I cannot help but wonder if the scores of note-perfect young pianists today could ever ignite passions and inspire others in the same way. I don't think that the increased attention paid to precision is necessarily detrimental to the imagination, but it is a fact that great emotionality, near-ecstatic abandonment can easily produce a certain diminution of physical control. To renounce this emotionality altogether for the sake of not missing a single note, is to miss the whole point of performing.

Unfortunately, a lot of pianists today are praised for flawless, but pointless execution. I am grateful for those comparatively few who make music and express sentiments, ideas, moods, thoughts, images, colors, perfumes, lights, and shadows, all through the notes, including a few occasional wrong ones.

The well-known video of Paderewski playing the Liszt Rapsodie hongroise II S244 in Lothar Mendes’ film “Moonlight Sonata” (1937) serves well as an example: