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A Pianist’s A–V

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Gustav Klimt: Schubert at the Piano, 1899; destroyed by fire in May 1945

Art and Artists

There are those who believe that delving into the biography of artists ensures a deeper perception of their art. I am not one of them. The notion that a work of art has to mirror the person of the artist, that man and work are an equation, that the integrity of the person warrants the integrity of his production—such belief seems to me to belong, particularly in the area of music, to the realm of wishful thinking. (The poet Christian Morgenstern has his hero Palmström assert that “there cannot be what must not be.”)

Beethoven’s frequently chaotic handwriting in his letters and musical autographs reminds us of his domestic disarray as we know it from pictures and descriptions. In complete contrast, there is the enduring order of his compositions.

The person of a great composer and his work remain to me incommensurable: a human being with its limitations facing a well-nigh limitless musical universe.

There are exceptional cases where events from the composer’s life can be traced in the music. Beethoven, in his Sonata op. 110, composed the experience of returning to life after a severe case of jaundice. Similarly, Schoenberg in his String Trio turned a major health crisis into sound. And Brahms conceived his D-Minor Piano Concerto under the impact of Schumann’s plunge into the Rhine.

Generally, however, the desire to link tendencies and incidents in an artist’s life to his compositions will lead us astray. The notion that a griever longs to compose his grief, a dying musician the experience of dying, or a person overwhelmed with joy his gaiety belongs in the realm of fairy tales. Music is full of counterexamples. Works of happiness, joyfulness, serenity, and even lightness have emerged in times of greatest personal distress. Let us rejoice.

Bach

When Beethoven, talking about Bach, exclaimed that to do him justice, the master’s name should not have been Bach (brook) but Meer (the sea), his remark was relevant not only to the surpassing abundance and diversity of more than a thousand compositions but also to the creative power that had come together in this supreme exponent of the most widely extended family of professional musicians ever. I see Johann Sebastian Bach as the grand master of music for all keyboard instruments: the initiator of the piano concerto, the creator of the “Goldberg” Variations, the master of the solo suite and partita, of choral preludes, fugues, and cantatas.

When, in the postwar years, Bach’s piano works were assigned exclusively to the harpsichord or clavichord, young pianists were deprived of the main source of polyphonic playing. To most of us, the assumption that Bach doesn’t fit with the modern piano is an outmoded viewpoint. On present-day instruments one can individualize each voice and give plasticity to the contrapuntal progress of a fugue. The playing can be orchestral, atmospheric, and colorful, and the piano can sing. To curtail in such a way a composer who himself had been one of the most resolute transcribers of works by himself and others might seem misguided even to practitioners of “historical performance.”

Alongside the boundless wealth of Bachian counterpoint the free-roaming creator of fantasies and toccatas must not be forgotten. In the spectacular A-Minor Fantasy (“Prelude”) BWV 922, to give just one example, no bar reveals where the next one will go.

Since the second half of the twentieth century something miraculous has happened: the complementary figure of George Frederic Handel has reemerged. The opportunity to familiarize myself with a multitude of Handel’s works has been, for me, one of the greatest gifts. The drama of his operas and oratorios, his vocal invention (by no means inferior to Mozart’s or Schubert’s), the fire of his coloratura, and his characteristic clarity and generosity now make him stand beside the figure of Bach as comparable in stature.

Balance

A crucial element of sound. No matter how relaxed and physically natural the performer’s approach may be, the result will be found wanting if chords and vertical sound combinations remain undifferentiated or when the balancing is left to the instrument. Common defects include: the concept of equally loud playing from both hands; a lack of attention to part-writing; and the permanent stressing of upper voice and bass. The fifth finger of the left hand can sound as if made of steel, and octaves in the bass register are allowed to drown out the rest. Of course there are pianos whose bass is overly loud; some time ago this used to be standard practice in America. Even more frequent is the dominance of the lower middle range, particularly when the soft pedal is applied. But the player should not accept the shortcomings of an inadequately voiced instrument as God-given. The bass should, in my opinion, only be highlighted when it has something special to say. The upper half of the piano should sing and be luminous, while the lower should dominate only in exceptional cases. The player’s arms ought, where necessary, to be as independent of one another as if they belonged to different beings.

Balancing suggests terraces and distances, supplies color and character, darkness and light. Rather than bass-heavy players, I prefer those who enable the music to leave the ground and float.

Brahms

Brahms was a pianist who in his early days did not hesitate to present, in a concert, an operatic paraphrase by Thalberg. I like to imagine him seated at the piano, short but handsome, at the Schumanns. The combination of technical bravura with rootedness in the music of Bach and Beethoven and a touch of Kapellmeister-Kreisler Romanticism must have electrified Robert and Clara. An inclination toward virtuosity and the presentation of new and prodigious technical hurdles remained a hallmark of at least part of his pianistic output. In this, as well as in a recurring predilection for Hungarian gypsyness, one can detect a kinship with his older musical counterpart Franz Liszt.

In the D-Minor Concerto, considered to be a reaction to the outbreak of Schumann’s insanity and reworked in several versions, Brahms created the most monumental symphonic work for piano and orchestra. Its grandeur, heroic as well as moving, is still free from a proliferation of parallel thirds and sixths, but it also avoids an over-abundance of polyrhythmic complexities. When the young composer played the work in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus he seemed to have been fairly happy with himself. However, the audience hissed. It is easy to assume that his listeners would have had some trouble taking in the solo part at all—on the pianos of his day even such athletic piano writing would, next to the orchestra, have had virtually no chance.

With all my admiration for the later variations, rhapsodies, intermezzi, and piano quartets, and a respectful bow toward the huge symphonic-chamber hybrid of the B-Flat Concerto, the purest Brahms remains for me the one between the first Piano Trio and the first String Sextet. To it, and particularly to the D-Minor Concerto, goes my love.

Chord

A conductor once lectured me: “If a pianist plays all the notes of a chord equally loudly, then he demonstrates a good technique.” No wonder his own conducting lacked warmth and refinement.

Be aware of the middle voices. Chords can be illuminated from within.

Concerto

There are concert pianists who feel most comfortable when they are alone with the public. They get all the attention. Then there is the musical partner happy to have company and a raised music stand on the piano with music on it. The genre of the piano concerto combines these two types. The soloist has to dominate yet, at times, be sufficiently discreet in chamber music fashion. Between these two positions Mozart’s piano concertos lie roughly in the middle. As a body of works they have remained, at least from K. 271 on, a veritable wonder of the world. Their range extends from the most personal—D minor (K. 466), C minor (K. 491)—to the most official, in C major (K. 503).

Beethoven went on from there. His five concertos strike me as sharply characterized individuals, which makes them eminently suitable for performance as a cycle. One could jokingly, and in reverse familial chronology, speak of two very lively teenagers (B flat and C major), a young man (C minor) with a strongly pronounced inner life (in E major!), and their parents (G major—mother, E flat—father). In spite of the glory of subsequent piano concertos, such classic flights of excellence have hardly been equaled. But the species itself has remained very much alive—as the works of Schoenberg, Bartók, Prokofiev, Messiaen (Oiseaux exotiques), or Ligeti impressively demonstrate.

Already in the works of J.S. Bach, the arch-founder of the piano concerto, there occurs a splendid fully fledged cadenza, namely that of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. It is “through-composed,” while classical cadenzas subsequently became, or feigned to be, improvisations. They now lead by detour from the six-four chord to the tutti of the orchestra. Mozart’s many original cadenzas never seriously depart from the basic tonality! Anyone who supplies cadenzas where Mozart didn’t leave his own should respect this important feature. The next generation then started the daredevil game of modulating anywhere and everywhere: cadenzas became areas for flights of fancy. They explode the character of the movement and wreck classical conventions left and right. Beethoven, in his giant cadenza for his C-Major Concerto, cheerfully runs amok.

Conductor

Watching singers and conductors is, for pianists, the most important source of learning. While the singer reminds us of the need to sing as well as to speak, the conductor offers us the orchestra as a model of balance, color, and rhythm. (The image of the pianist as a ten-fingered orchestra seems to originate with Hans von Bülow.) Our tempo modifications should be “conductable” as long as the piece doesn’t demand an improvisatory approach. In our mind, we conduct ourselves! Next to the rhythmic recklessness of some all too soloistic players, ensemble rhythm serves as a corrective.

In piano concertos, most conductors will try to be helpful as long as the pianist has a precise concept of the whole piece and doesn’t ask for the absurd and impossible. The soloist’s ideas need to be relayed in advance. There are, however, those conductors who indicate, after having been told three things: “Don’t tell me a fourth; I won’t remember it anyway.”

Dance

For many cultures, music and dance are inseparable. Beyond the suites and partitas of the Baroque era, dance and dancing have remained an important element of music well into the twentieth century. There have even been musicians who insist that the essence of all music is dance. I personally wouldn’t like to go that far lest a Credo or Dies irae may turn out to be skipping along.

Where we frequently have to think and feel in terms of dancing is in minuets, scherzos, and finales. All final movements of Beethoven’s concertos dance. For the player this means that the listener, in his imagination, should feel the urge to dance along, inspired by a rhythm that, as it were, celebrates itself and irresistibly takes possession of the dancers’ bodies.

Liszt

Romantic sovereign of the piano. Creator of the religious piano piece. Chronicler of musical pilgrimages. Ceaseless practitioner of transcriptions and paraphrases. Radical precursor of the modern. Musical source of Franck and Scriabin, Debussy and Ravel, Messiaen and Ligeti.

Familiarity with Liszt’s piano works will make it evident that he was the piano’s supreme artist. What I have in mind is not his transcendental pianistic skill but the reach of his expressive power. He, and only he, as a “genius of expression” (Schumann), revealed the full horizon of what the piano was able to offer. Within this context, the pedal became a tool of paramount importance.

Liszt’s uncertain standing as a composer can be traced back to a number of reasons: the variable quality of his works (with few exceptions, his finest achievements can be found in his piano music); the stylistic panorama of his compositions, which shows the influence of German and French music, Italian opera, the Hungarian gypsy manner, and Gregorian chant; and finally the fact that Liszt’s music is dependent like no other on the quality of the performance. To use an aphorism by Friedrich Hebbel, music here “only becomes visible when the correct gaze is focused on the writing.”

Liszt’s outstanding piano works, among which I would only like to mention the B-Minor Sonata, Années de pélérinage, the Variations on “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” La Lugubre gondola, and the finest of the Etudes, are for me on a par with those of Chopin and Schumann. His B-Minor Sonata surpasses, in originality, boldness, and expressive range, anything that has been written in this genre since Beethoven and Schubert.

According to Lina Ramann, his first biographer, we should see Liszt above all as a lyrical tone poet, “rhetorician, rhapsodist, and mime.” She demands from the Liszt player “the grand style,” inwardness (Innerlichkeit), and passion.

In a work like Vallée d’Obermann, all these qualities are evident. The improvisatory arbitrariness often associated with Liszt is contradicted by accounts of his playing in later years. It seems to me of crucial importance that, over a period of twelve years, Liszt remained in close contact with the Weimar orchestra as its principal conductor. A work like the B-Minor Sonata needs to be perceived in this context. Leo Weiner’s remarkable orchestration of the sonata can provide more essential information for the performer than the urge to whip up a succession of feverish dreams. With their metronome markings, both the Liszt-Pädagogium and Siloti’s edition of Totentanz in the Eulenburg pocket scores point to the fact that much of Liszt’s music is nowadays played at overheated speeds. The last thing Liszt deserves is bravura for its own sake. Likewise, he should be shielded from anything that sounds perfumed, or what used to be called effeminate. Wilhelm Kempff’s 1950 recording of the First Legend (St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds) presents us with poetic Liszt playing of unsurpassed quality.

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Félix Vallotton

Mozart

Grand master of opera, the piano concerto, the concert aria, and the string quintet. His piano sonatas seem to me, with few exceptions, underrated. Artur Schnabel has splendidly summed up why: they were too easy for children and too difficult for artists. For the most part, the sounds they suggest are those of a wind divertimento; others, like the famous A-Major Sonata K. 331 and the C-Minor Sonata K. 457, are distinctly orchestral. So, too, is the C-Minor Fantasy K. 475. Orchestral versions of the two latter works emerged soon after Mozart’s death. Mozart’s relatively rare works in minor keys are particularly precious: the A-Minor Rondo K. 511 and the B-Minor Adagio K. 540 are soliloquies of the most personal kind. Stupendous in their chromatic boldness are the Minuet K. 355/576b and the Gigue K. 574. Wagner admired Mozart as a great chromaticist.

Mozart—to quote myself—is made neither of porcelain, nor of marble, nor of sugar. The cute Mozart, the perfumed Mozart, the permanently ecstatic Mozart, the “touch-me-not” Mozart, the sentimentally bloated Mozart must all be avoided. An important key to Mozart playing is operatic singing.

The grown-up Mozart said what he intended to say with a perfection rarely encountered in compositions of the highest order. More commonly, the minor masters smooth out what may sound rugged, bold, or odd in the music of their great precursors. In Busoni’s beautiful “Mozart Aphorisms” we find the sentence: “Along with the riddle, he presents us with its solution.”

Pedal

The pedal belongs exclusively to the piano—I am not here concerned with the organ or the harp—and is our most precious and personal artistic tool. I am speaking, of course, of the right pedal, which sustains the sound up to the next change of pedaling but also reacts to the most minute pedal vibrations. In addition, the pianos of Beethoven’s time provided the so-called Pianozug that reduced soft playing to a ghostly whisper. On Biedermeier pianos, one could find half a dozen pedals; one of them, the cymbal crash pedal, would have made Mozart laugh if he could have employed it in his Rondo alla turca.

There are laymen and purists who believe that the pedal mostly serves the purpose of concealing bad technique and placing the sound under water, echoing the admonitions of one’s earliest piano teacher. If used expertly, the pedal creates color and atmosphere, adds warmth and declamation to the singing line, and makes the notes, written as shorter note values because the fingers cannot, or must not, hold them, continue to sound. Without the pedal, many compositions would be virtually disfigured. Many of Schubert’s works require sustained voices in the background or a third dimension of depth in their sound. Good pedaling also boosts the volume: where it needs to be increased, the sound, as a rule, ought to appear widened and not sharpened.

The pianist who plays “into the pedal” often needs to employ a different kind of articulation. His own ear—including the inner one—will be the mobilizing and controlling instance. Passages in the lower part of the piano generally tolerate less pedal while the treble of a Steinway yearns for it.

Although Liszt tended, in his pedal markings, to be rather cursory, and left a work like the B-Minor Sonata without any pedal indications, dealing with his piano compositions gives us incomparable insight into the pedal’s body and soul.

Piano

A glance at the scope and wealth of piano literature makes us realize: this instrument works wonders. But the piano must be an instrument, not a fetish. It serves a purpose. Without the music, it’s a piece of furniture with black and white teeth. A violin is, and stays, a violin. The piano is an object of transformation. It permits, if the pianist so desires, the suggestion of the singing voice, the timbres of other instruments, of the orchestra. It might even conjure up the rainbow or the spheres. This propensity for metamorphosis, this alchemy, is our supreme treasure.

To accomplish it we need an instrument of superior quality. What may the discerning pianist expect? The piano should have an even sound from treble to bass, and be even in timbre and dynamic volume. It should be brilliant enough without sounding short and clanky in the upper register, or drowning out the singing upper half with its lower one. The soft pedal sound shouldn’t be thin and “grotesque” but round and lyrical, its dynamics reaching up to mezzoforte. Its action should be well measured in key depth and key resistance. And it should, ideally, be suited for a concerto no less than for a lieder recital. For the noisiest piano concertos, however, a particularly powerful concert grand may be the only answer.

There are pianists who are content just to play the piano. Their ambition stops at what the instrument has to offer if it is only played in “the beautiful and right way.” In contrast, the most important piano composers—apart from Chopin—have not been piano specialists; they enriched music in its entirety. The piano is the vessel to which a multitude of sounds are entrusted, the more so since one single player is authorized to control the whole piece. In his solo playing, the pianist is independent of other players. But he bears sole responsibility as his own conductor and singer.

For these reasons, it is not my most pressing concern to take, for authenticity’s sake, a certain harpsichord, hammerclavier, or Pleyel piano of 1840 as a yardstick because the composer may have favored such an instrument. What matters more to me is to make manifest the sounds that a piano piece latently contains. The modern piano with its extensive dynamic and coloristic possibilities is well equipped to do this. The pianist should make himself acquainted with the orchestral, vocal, and chamber works of the masters.

A well-known musician has advised young pianists to spend two years browsing through the entire piano literature. I’d rather spend the time dealing with the other music the composer wrote. Such an extension of one’s horizon might enable the player to differentiate the first movement of Bach’s “Italian” Concerto as an orchestral piece that alternates tuttis with solos, the second as an aria for oboe and continuo, and the third, for once, as a harpsichord piece.

Concert grands of recent decades progressively tended toward the harsh and percussive—or so it seems to me while writing this in 2012. (The great old pianists would have turned away in despair.) Pianos of the past displayed an inner resonance that gave the sound length and warmth. Yet even today it is possible to find, once in a while, a wonderful, magnificent instrument. Frequently, it has been monitored by one of the leading concert technicians. My collaborations with the finest exponents of this trade count among the happiest experiences of my musical life.

Recording

Record producers and sound engineers are modern magicians. They can render musicians incalculable service, and even administer, to the cheeks of a pale performance, a touch of rouge. But they also can be driven by an ambition to make every line of the score equally audible. By turning the sound into some kind of two-dimensionality they make us long to return to a good concert hall where the strings are still sitting in front of the winds and the priorities of the conductor remain respected.

Schubert

Creator of an all-embracing world of over six hundred songs, with magnificent contributions to chamber music and symphony. Grand master of four-hand piano music.

Schubert may well be the most astonishing phenomenon in musical history. The richness of what he accomplished in a life of merely thirty-one years defies comparison.

I should mention his two-hand piano works. With the exception of the Impromptus and Moments Musicaux, most of them were neglected for many years. The works composed between 1822 and 1828 take us from the “Wanderer” Fantasy to the B-flat Sonata. They are worthy of superlative honors. The drama of their development sections alone disproves the myth of Schubert the exclusive lyricist. In the “Wanderer” Fantasy, the piano is turned into an orchestra more drastically than had ever been attempted before. It seems almost miraculous that a composer who had not been a virtuoso player himself could display such an instinct for novel and forward-looking possibilities of piano sound and texture. All of the later sonatas are orchestral in design, with the exception of the last three, which, to me, seem closer to the sound of a string quintet. Schubert’s piano style belies the opinion that he did not add anything new to the treatment of the instrument. It has its own, highly authentic aura, an aura that, to become effective, relies on sensitive and inspired pedaling.

Schumann

A grand master of the Romantic piano and the lied. In the splendid sequence of his earlier piano works we find a special predilection for the profane reality of amusement parks and ballrooms, next to messages of love addressed to Clara. In the Kinderszenen, we find virtuosity under the spell of Paganini next to the poetic empathy with children. The orchestral piano stakes its claim: in his Symphonic Etudes, Schumann brings together variations, etudes, and the full power of the symphonic orchestra. His Papillons preserve glimpses of the moment, following in the footsteps of Beethoven’s Bagatelles op. 119, while the Faschingsschwank depicts the whirl of Viennese dancing. In addition, Carnaval exhibits a gallery of masks and portraits. In the Humoreske, affectionate intimacy complements the leaps and bounds of a whimsy to which the title refers. The pieces of Kreisleriana point by turns to Kapellmeister Kreisler (G minor) and Clara (B flat major), whereas the great C-Major Fantasy, in its passion and introspection, has remained “the emblem of the piano’s soul” (Edwin Fischer).

Notwithstanding the fantastic turbulence of his music, Schumann remains a German composer. Romanticizing him in a French or Russian manner leads the player astray. In a piece like the first movement of the C-Major Fantasy it is the quirky and passionate element in particular that cries out for a cohesive overview. Among Alfred Cortot’s variable Schumann recordings from the 1930s, the Symphonic Etudes (apart from the finale) and Carnaval (apart from its introduction and conclusion) have remained unrivaled.

Virtuosity

Baffling, daredevil, and unprecedented? Countless notes delivered in the shortest possible time? Thunder, zestfully unleashed? This sounds like bravura for bravura’s sake. A sizable section of the public will acknowledge it with rapture. But the Romantic etude aimed higher. Triggered by Paganini’s Caprices, the technically new and unheard-of had to be counterbalanced and vindicated by musical novelty, boldness, and poetry. Next to the pinnacle of Chopin’s Etudes, those of Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms (“Paganini” Variations), as well as of Debussy, Bartók, and Ligeti, give pianists the chance to prove that, in their playing, music retains the upper hand. Virtuosity, by the way, will prove to be useful even if we don’t spend the majority of our working hours tackling etudes, and particularly so.

Frequently, when faced with runs and fast figuration, players cannot help getting faster. There will be an involuntary speeding up in the playing of technically gifted pianists—unless their musicianship checks their fingers. Playing too fast may well be the lesser physical strain than the cultivation of a discipline that controls each single fingertip.

Copyright ©Alfred Brendel 2013 (to be published in the UK by Faber & Faber Ltd. on September 5, 2013).

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