Ivan Moravec Plays Chopin

Czech pianist Ivan Moravec (1930-2015)
Czech pianist Ivan Moravec (1930-2015)

 

The legendary Czech pianist Ivan Moravec passed away on Monday at the age of 84. He was widely regarded as one of the finest interpreters of the music of Chopin. Mozart and Debussy were also high points of his repertoire. Born in Prague, and initially limited by the constraints of the Iron Curtain, Moravec first became known in the West through his recordings.

Listening to Moravec’s extensive discography, it’s easy to get a sense of the stunning, expressive beauty of his sound. His musicianship transcended flashy showmanship, transporting listeners to a deeper and more primal dimension. In a 1980 New York Times review, Harold C. Schonberg described Moravec’s playing this way:

Using an exceptionally warm sound, he played with a perpetually singing line. There was an architecture to the playing. This was an absorbing recital, played by a pianist who is very much his own man, with a degree of intensity, poetry and tonal subtlety very rare in these days of machine gun piano playing.

Here is Ivan Moravec’s recording of Chopin’s haunting Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52:

Now let’s hear two excerpts from Chopin’s Op. 25 Études. Robert Schumann referred to the Étude No. 1 in A-Flat Major as the “Aeolian Harp,” describing it as “a poem rather than a study.” It’s impossible to sustain a note on the piano. Once the hammer strikes the string, the sound begins to decay. But somehow the colorful splashes of sound in the arpeggiated accompaniment in this piece almost seems to defy this reality:

Étude No. 7 in C-Sharp Minor takes us into dark, melancholy territory. At the same time, it’s filled with moments of restless transcendence…tremendous drama packed into a small space where every note and chord counts. The main melodic line lies in a deep, sombre register of the piano, suggesting the cello.

The music is harmonically adventurous, with surprises around every corner. It must have sounded even more shocking to audiences in 1834 when it was written. There are hints of the late nineteenth century chromaticism of Richard Wagner.

Additional Listening

The Fauré Requiem, A Lullaby of Death

Unknown-3Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem in D minor, Op. 48, the choral-orchestral setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, offers a uniquely serene and tranquil view of death. Influenced by chant, it floats on a peaceful and sometimes modal sea, The traditional Sequence section, the hellfire of the Day of Wrath, is omitted, while the Pie Jesu and In paradisum are added.

Written between 1887 and 1890, the Requiem was not motivated by personal tragedy or sombre thoughts of mortality. Fauré said, “My Requiem wasn’t written for anything–for pleasure, if I may call it that!” He added the following description:

It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience. The music of Gounod has been criticized for its overinclination towards human tenderness. But his nature predisposed him to feel this way: religious emotion took this form inside him. Is it not necessary to accept the artist’s nature? As to my Requiem, perhaps I have also instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper, after all the years of accompanying burial services on the organ! I know it all by heart. I wanted to write something different.

The Requiem emerges out of a stern D minor chord. Two contrasting lines (the dark strings and shimmering vocal lines) take tentative steps in opposite directions. We can almost feel the power of the text’s divine light (“et lux perpetual“) with each harmonic change. The passing tone in the bass at 1:11 suggests a sudden moment of terror before resolving to safety. Between 1:35 and 2:19 we hold our breath in anticipation and then arrive at an unexpected, but sublime peace.

At moments, Fauré’s harmonies drift in directions which seem to anticipate the full blown impressionism of Debussy and Ravel (listen to the string lines between 9:00 and 9:28). At 11:00, notice that the “Te / decet / hymnus” motive (first heard at 3:34) returns. We hear this motive again in the Sanctus’s violin solo. The motive is dominated by the interval of a perfect fourth, which also becomes the opening interval of the Pie Jesu.

The serenely transcendent final movement, In Paradisum, drifts away into a childlike simplicity, innocence and joy.

Here is Robert Shaw’s outstanding recording with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus:

  1. Introït et Kyrie (D minor) 0:00
  2. Offertoire (B minor) 6:24
  3. Sanctus (E-flat major) 14:36
  4. Pie Jesu (B-flat major) 18:07
  5. Agnus Dei et Lux Aeterna (F major) 21:48
  6. Libera Me (D minor) 27:55
  7. In Paradisum (D major) 32:16

Recommended Recording: Szymanowski and Shostakovich Sonatas

Szymanowski and Shostakovich Violin SonatasCanadian violinist Frédéric Bednarz and pianist Natsuki Hiratsuka have released an exciting new recording featuring sonatas for violin and piano by two giants of twentieth century music: Karol Szymanowski and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Polish composer and pianist Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) is sometimes overlooked, but his music occupies an important position between Late Romanticism and the French Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. Written in 1904, Szymanowski’s Violin Sonata Op. 9, grabs your attention with a powerfully brilliant opening. This recording captures a sense of strength and heroism as well as the more ethereal side of the music (as in the second movement). At times there are echoes of Chopin in the piano writing.

Written in 1968, Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134 was one of Shostakovich’s last works. The atmosphere of the music, sometimes eerie, other times sarcastic or ferocious, comes across beautifully in this performance. The sonata was written for David Oistrakh in celebration of his 60th birthday. Oistrakh explained:

Dmitri had been wanting to write a new, second concerto for me as a present for my 60th birthday. However, there was an error of one year in his timing. The concerto was ready for my 59th birthday. Shortly afterwards, Dmitri seemed to think that, having made a mistake, he ought to correct it. That is how he came to write the Sonata … I had not been expecting it, though I had long been hoping that he would write a violin sonata.

You can find this recording on iTunes and here. Read more in this review from last month’s Strad Magazine.

The Sunken Cathedral

Claude Monet - Rouen Cathedral, Facade (Morning effect)Last week Google celebrated the 151st birthday of French impressionist composer Claude Debussy with one of its clever Google Doodle logo animations. If you’re like me and you happened to see it, you probably clicked on the link expecting to linger for a few seconds and ended up watching all the way through, fascinated with its cinematic beauty. Accompanying the animation’s magical nighttime Parisian river scene is an excerpt of one of Debussy’s most popular pieces for piano, Clair de lune, or “Moonlight.” Google’s tribute received widespread media attention from The Huffington Post to The Washington Post.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Clair de lune[/typography]

As a composer, Debussy broke long-established rules. Germanic music from Beethoven to Wagner had been intensely goal oriented, driving towards an ultimate and often heroic resolution. By contrast, the music of Asia, like the philosophies of Buddhism, were more circular. Influenced by the Javanese gamelan music he heard at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Debussy became drawn to the pentatonic scale (the black keys of the piano), the whole tone scale and Asian sounds. The results were shocking new harmonies and music which had a different relationship with time, often seeming to float in a dream-like haze. You could say that Debussy wrote the first New Age or Ambient music. His music is about color and atmosphere, embracing the soft sensuality of a Monet painting.

With this in mind, let’s start off by listening to Clair de Lune, performed by pianist Claudio Arrau:

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Did you notice how often the music passionately builds, only to avoid resolution and move somewhere completely unexpected at the last moment? Listen to the way the tension at 3:12 dissolves into contentment at 3:34. Then after heightening our expectation, Debussy again avoids the resolution we might be expecting at 4:10. Finally, at 4:33 we quietly slip back into the “A” section. This is music which says, “Enjoy the moment. Enjoy where you are, even if it’s not where you expected to end up. Goals don’t really matter. Just float along…”

Clair de Lune is part of Debussy’s four movement Suite Bergamasque, written between 1890 and 1905. Listen to the entire suite here.

[quote style=”boxed”]In 1890 Debussy’s professor at the Paris Conservatory commented on Debussy’s use of parallel chords in the following way: “I am not saying that what you do isn’t beautiful, but it’s theoretically absurd.” Debussy simply replied: “There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.”[/quote] –Kamien Listening Outline

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]La cathédrale engloutie[/typography]

Debussy wrote La cathédrale engloutie, or “The Sunken Cathedral” in 1910 as part of a set of twelve Preludes for piano. Let’s listen to the piece once to get a sense of its harmony and tonal colors. What mood does the music create? What images are painted in your mind? As the music unfolds, can you perceive a large scale structure or musical shape? Here is a performance by François-Joël Thiollier:

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This piece was inspired by an ancient Breton legend about a cathedral submerged off the coast of the mythical island, Ys, near Brittany. On clear mornings the cathedral rises out of the ocean. Bells, chanting and the sound of a mighty organ can be heard. Then, it slowly sinks back into the water and disappears. Only distant bells are faintly audible as a memory. Was it real or only a dream?

Listen to the piece again. Can you hear the bells? Can you identify the moment in the music when the enormous cathedral begins to emerge? Notice the imitative canon between low and high voices as the music crescendos at 3:40. What elements in the music create tension and a sense of anticipation at this moment? Are you surprised by what happens at the climax of the crescendo? (4:02) Is there anything in the music which suggests the feeling of deep, dark, murky, cold ocean water? Consider the significance of the legend as a psychological metaphor.

Here is a quick analysis of La cathédrale engloutie. You can listen to more of Debussy’s Preludes here. I’ve shared a few of my ideas about what makes this music so interesting. Now, leave a comment in the thread below and tell us what you hear.