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In the world of classical music, someone who tickles the ivories tends to be considered either a pianist or a musician. Musicians tend to play Bach and Beethoven; pianists rather favor Chopin and Liszt. 

Brendel

Of course, this is not a simple dichotomy; it is a spectrum. But it helps to understand the difference between, say Vladimir Horowitz and Alfred Brendel. 

The Brendel side sees the “text” as sacred and attempts to provide a sort of Platonic or idealized performance of the music. The Horowitz camp, instead, sees the music as a canvas on which to display the joys of piano playing and the possibilities afforded by the 88-key machine. 

The one sounds studied, the other sounds spontaneous.

Perhaps my bias shows. I tend to downplay the very laudable talents of a Brendel, because I see it as a kind of embalming, or a making of a museum exhibit. I have always been more taken with pianists who bring themselves to the score, to see the score not as an end, but as a beginning, as if it were a photographer’s negative that can be printed in many contrasts and tones. Not ideal forms, but Heraclitan flow.

Paderewski

The latter parts of the 19th century and the beginning of the next were the heyday of the pianist as star. It was the time of Paderewski and de Pachmann, who gave very personal performances of their programs. 

But somewhere between the world wars, there emerged praise of piano players who were notable “as musicians” rather than as pianists. It was praise heaped on such notables as Josef Hofmann and Artur Schnabel. The parallel might be thought of as journalism, where the actual reporter disappears from his story and only the facts remain. 

(James Joyce famously once said that an artist should remain “invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”)

And so, for Brendel (sorry for picking on so august a man), the score is something to be studied, balanced and weighed, finding tempo ratios to emphasize the unity of the piece in question, to make sure it all coheres as a whole, from initial downbeat to final chord. To make such a case often requires the pianist to avoid making too much of details here or there, to subsume all into the integrity of the whole.

de Pachmann

While for the pianist, as a class, the details are what make the pieces interesting. If you have to lose something of a long view, you gain immeasurably in the emotional communication of the piece. 

(The distinction between emphasizing the whole against emphasizing the detail was described by famous art history Heinrich Wölfflin as one of the defining distinctions between what he called “classical” art and the “Baroque,” or, more popularly, romanticism.)

 Pendulums swing back and forth, and the age of keyboard musicians such as Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, Olga Kern, Marc-Andre Hamelin, András Schiff and Nelson Freire is giving way to a new, more overtly expressive group of pianists as ivory ticklers, less concerned with hitting their marks than with connecting with their audiences on a primal level. 

I have brought up all this backstory to express my love for the music of four younger pianists — “younger” being a relative term: These are each in their 40s or 50s. But pianists tend to reach their expressive prime not in their salad days but in their riper age. A few, such as Arthur Rubinstein or Mieczysław Horszowski kept getting better into their 90s. 

Lisitsa/Beethoven

Valentina Lisitsa

The impetus for this is a new series of YouTube videos by Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, now 46, in which she has begun recording all 32 Beethoven sonatas. She posts new videos one at a time as she goes through the canon chronologically. 

Her playing is brilliant but utterly untraditional. Fast movements are faster than a speeding bullet; slow movements can be dirge-tempo. Always her tempi are shifting, speeding up and slowing down, pauses added to phrases and dynamics ratcheting up and down, even within a two-note phrase. This is playing not about unity but about contrast and diversity. This is a Beethoven that is alive and having a grand time.

Lisitsa is a peculiar case in the history of virtuosi. She did not come up through the piano-competition mill, but by posting performances on YouTube and gaining a loyal fan base. 

This put off some fogey critics — especially those who rather preferred a piano playing wearing tails and white tie — but excited a generation of real fans. 

On an upright

Her first recordings were mostly of the music of Franz Liszt and Rachmaninoff — big Romantic pieces in which she could show off her blazing technique. But, unlike some other note-grinders, she didn’t simply hit the right notes in the right order, but instead made exciting music. 

Liszt himself knew how to make drama of his concerts, with his long hair and dashing attitude. Lisitsa gave us Liszt as theater. We have perhaps too often forgotten that a concert is an entertainment, that it has an audience. (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2)

You watch Lisitsa’s face as she plays and it is clear she is having fun; the music gives her — and us — genuine pleasure. (La Campanella) She is not giving us a pianistic lecture in music history, but giving us a reason to enjoy life. 

Which is why her new Beethoven series is so exciting. (Rondo from the Waldstein sonata) This is Beethoven as intoxicating. As I write this, her series has reached the first six sonatas. They sizzle as she plays. There is ample pedal — something recent pianists have considered to be rather a deplorable sin, as if they were musical Puritans.

You can find scores of her performances on YouTube, including a barn-burning version of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 2 No. 3. 

Grimaud

But Lisitsa isn’t the only great pianist bringing new fire to classical music. Hélène Grimaud is just as astonishing. D.T. Max in The New Yorker wrote, “Grimaud doesn’t sound like most pianists: She is a rubato artist, a reinventor of phrasings, a taker of chances.”  

Her performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the Bach Chaconne is furious and exciting. Purists complain that Busoni is “kein Bach,” but it is great music. 

It is the taking of chances, of seeing familiar ground in new ways that make my favorite pianists so moving. For them, classical music is not old, it is as present as today’s performance. 

These pianists are virtuosi, but more than that. They find the meaning in the music, what the music is really about, and how it says that music to its audience. 

My third nominee is the Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev. He also makes the music his own. He has technique to burn — listen to the Schulz-Evler transcription of the Blue Danube — but he can also turn out a Scarlatti sonata better than anyone since Horowitz, although, like the older pianist, he can sometimes rewrite the music, adding octaves or, in one case, his own coda. 

His recordings of the five Beethoven concertos is a revelation. 

Denk

And finally, I have heard Jeremy Denk many times live, none more overwhelming than his program at the Zankel Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in 2008, when he played, back-to-back, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata — the two thorniest and most monumental pieces in the repertoire, each 45-minutes long. Then, for encore, he reprised the “Hawthorne” movement from the Ives. It was a memorable night of knuckle-busting. (Alcotts movement from the Concord Sonata). 

Denk has a sense of humor, which shows up in his blog, “Think Denk,” but also in his recitals. I heard him perform Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations, which he explained as, at least partly, comic, and his performance was both beautiful and witty.

He also performs the piano music of György Ligeti, which he plays as fluently as if it were Mozart and makes a persuasive case for it. (Etude: “Disorder.”)

“There’s something I like about music that’s on the edge of destroying itself,” he has said. 

There are others in the younger generation that have also taken up the cause for more fluid, flexible and exciting performance. But these four are the ones I know best and admire the most. Seek them out.

les eyzies bison carving

Open a bottle of champagne and leave it out, and by morning it is flat and stale.

Opening up a prehistoric cave can be like that. Lascaux caves in France, with its menagerie of animal paintings, lasted for nearly 20,000 years intact. It was discovered (or more properly, rediscovered) in 1940 and after the war, was opened to tourists. It was soon apparent that the cave was beginning to be degraded. Lichens were starting to grow on the walls, and the huge jump in carbon dioxide levels, from the breath of all those making the pilgrimage through the caves, was joining with the calcium in the limestone to form a layer of calcite that would soon cover and blur all the imagery.

It was that, like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the act of observation changed what was being observed. When you open up the box with Schrodinger’s cat inside, sometimes what you find is not quote so pleasant.

The caves were closed to the public. In 1983, a simulation — a copy of the original caves — was opened as Lascaux II, and tourism heated up again. Tour guides led groups through the ersatz caverns and let us see a simulacrum of the original experience. They assure us over and over that the copy is precise down to the millimeter.

Lascaux II

Lascaux II

Yet.

I’m a naturally suspicious person. When a shopkeeper is friendly, I allow she may indeed be very nice, but I recognize she also has a self-interest in making customers feel good.

And when I see the great cathedrals of northern France, I question whether I’m getting the vision of the master builder and his sculptors, or am getting the Viollet le Duc version and a 19th century stylization of the Gothic art and architecture. They rarely let you know what parts of a church are original and what parts have been restored. Sometimes it is easy to tell, but much of the time, it is not.

Whether it is Sir Arthur Evans at the Palace of Knossos, or reconstructed pyramids at Chichen Itza or the Carnac alignments, the work, even of dedicated and honest archeologists, is suspect.

Entrance to Lascaux II

Entrance to Lascaux II

And when we visit Lascaux II in Montignac, Perigord, France, I am suspicious of the recreation of the original paintings by a 20th century artist, no matter how well meaning.

I’m not saying I don’t believe what I see is accurate, but that I harbor a constant suspicion that it may not be.

The problem is that the reproduced paintings are so much clearer and more contrasty than the genuine paintings we saw at Font-de-Gaume.

When I asked the tour guide about it, his answer was not satisfactory, and somewhat off point.

“These paintings were drawn from accurate photographs of the originals,” he said. “And they don’t vary as much as a millimeter from the real ones.”lascaux II panorama 2

But it isn’t the size that I was questioning, but that the photographs taken of the real cave may very likely have had their contrast boosted to make the images more legible, and I wondered if the artist who created the facsimile might have unconsciously reproduced jiggered-up photos.

Did he visit the original cave under the same lighting conditions he painted in, and did he compare his results, not with the photograph, but with the real paintings? This is not an academic question.

Our own biases secretly creep in whenever we look at the past. It cannot be otherwise. Even the most scrupulous “reproduction” is an interpretation.

It isn’t the honesty of the reproductions that I worry about. But I remember how easily fooled art experts were by Han van Meegeren’s forged Vermeers, and how shocked I was when I first saw them, with the gift of several decades between them and me, that anyone could ever have been fooled by them. Or even the Minuet by Paderewski, that he pawned off as a long-lost dance by Mozart. In the 19th century, it sounded genuinely like Mozart to their ears, but our ears can not be fooled: It is pure Victorian kitsch.

Abbe Breuil

Abbe Breuil

Often, in books, the images we see of cave paintings are not photographs of the original, but reproductions of drawings made of them. Abbe Henri Breuil, for instance, made many of them. He was one of the first and most influential archeologists to study the many cave paintings in France and northern Spain. But his drawings often make the originals clearer and of higher contrast. And we cannot always know if he has given us a perfect copy, or a modern interpretation.altamira bison pair

Consider his famous drawing of a bison from the caves at Altamira in Spain. He has added the horns and has made clear what is obscure — or has made guesses at what its original makers would have wanted us to understand.

He made a famous drawing of a supposed “sorcerer” from Caves of Trois-Frères, but a simple comparison of the drawing with a photo of the original makes one skeptical of all such attempts to reproduce the cave paintings.sorcerer pair

It is our own time and culture that colors what we pick from the welter of confused sense data that we see before us. We need to make sense of it, and invariably make a kind of sense that works in the confines of the culture we have been born into.

The air we breathe is invisible to us, the culture we absorb is odorless and tasteless. Only later can the habits and prejudices of one age be clearly spotted by its successor.

(It is easier these days to spot the cultural accretions from the Romantic 19th century, less easy to spot our own. One scratches one’s head at Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, comparing when on one hand, he declares “alle menschen werden bruder” — all men will be brothers — with the “Hogan’s Heroes” march where the tenor tells us that joy is like the hero after victorious battle. Who has he battled, if all men are brothers? Clearly, the Romantics had a different, and mythic vision of war than we can ever sustain after the Somme, the bombing of Dresden or slaughter at Stalingrad. Beethoven and Schiller were certainly blind to this irony. We can never be.)

It isn’t that I think we should be allowed to visit the original Lascaux: It is clear that visitation destroys them, and I’m all for preserving them.

But I asked if scholars are allowed to visit the original and the guide said, “No. Not even scholars are allowed in. There is a keeper of the cave and he ventures in on a strict schedule to monitor the air, the humidity and the temperature, but no one else may enter.”

So, I wonder if all the latest scholarship is based on inaccurate reproductions.

Because at Font-de-Gaume, the paintings, while beautifully drawn, were noticeably low contrast, often barely legible on the walls. You had, in many cases, to acclimate your eyes to make out the bull or his eye or his horns.

In some cases, animals we were shown may be more like the fanciful shapes people make out of stalactites and stalagmites in tourist caves — “Here is the ‘ham and eggs,’” or “Can you see the elephant here?”

Our Lascaux guide assured us that the originals at Lascaux look “just like the reproductions, and are very clear,” and I have to say they look bright and legible in the photographs in the books.

In vintage photographs, the paintings look clear and contrasty.

In vintage photographs, the paintings look clear and contrasty.

“Font-de-Gaume was made something like 4000 years after the Lascaux paintings,” he said. “They were not the same culture.”

And he implied that the Font-de-Gaume artists were inferior and less able to articulate their animals and less able to make their contrast ring out.

So, when our guide tells us the Lascaux facsimiles are accurate, I am inclined to believe him, and when Carole tells me that the shopkeeper was really nice and loved talking with her, I tend to believe Carole knows it is so. Yet, I also remember that the shopkeeper does a better business by being friendly.

NEXT: Visiting Lascaux II