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: