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

Debussy’s Études Turn 100

UnknownApart from the question of technique, these Études will be a useful warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands….

This was Claude Debussy’s warning to students who dared attempt to play his twelve fiendishly difficult Études for solo piano. The short pieces were even technically daunting for Debussy, who described them as “music that soars to the summit of execution,” and requires you to occasionally catch your breath, “as after climbing a mountain.” Each étude was designed to showcase a different set of finger gymnastics, from thirds, fourths, sixths, and octaves, to chromatic passages, ornaments, and dissonances.

Beyond the thorny technical challenges lie extraordinary music. The first étude, marked sagement (“well-behaved”), opens with a reference to the finger dexterity exercises of Carl Czerny. A five-note scale motive is interrupted by gleefully raucous outbursts which eventually take over the music completely. There are echoes of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum from Debussy’s Children’s Corner. We hear a similar sense of wild humor in the “eight finger” Perptuum mobile of the sixth étude. The mercurial fourth étude (For Sixths) swings erratically from one key area to another and ends up awash in jazzy impressionism. Regarding this music, Debussy wrote to his publisher,

For a very long time, the continuous use of sixths gave me the feeling of pretentious demoisselles seated in a salon sulkily embroider- ing, envying the scandalous laughter of mad ninths…yet I am writing this study where the at- tention to the sixth organizes the harmonies only with aggregates of these intervals, and it’s not ugly! (Mea culpa…).

Tomorrow, Debussy’s Études turn 100. He began working on them on July 23, 1915 at a sea-side chalet in Dieppe in Normandy. Fear of an impending German occupation of Paris had driven him to the countryside. He was beginning to show signs of the cancer that would take his life three years later. The ghosts of past pianists seem to have been looking over Debussy’s shoulder. He considered dedicating the Études to Couperin, but instead chose Chopin. (He had just completed a new addition of Chopin’s works for his publisher, Durand).

You can hear Mitsuko Uchida’s great 1990 recording of the complete set of Études here.

For an excerpt, here is the dreamy Étude 11 (Pour les Arpèges composés). Listen to the way the initial musical “stream” of notes flows and develops, taking us on a series of sudden and short-lived adventures, and culminating with a playful splash of sound:

Louis Lortie Plays Ravel

pianist Louis Lortie
French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie

 

Last week we listened to Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, a piece which originated as a solo piano suite and culminated as a breathtakingly colorful orchestral work. Many of Ravel’s works followed this evolution. His glistening, Impressionistic orchestration even extended to Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibitiona work also originally for solo piano.

Let’s return to Ravel the pianist with a few excerpts from French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie’s 2003 recording (on the Chandos label), Ravel’s Complete Works for Solo Piano. We’ll start with Lortie’s beautifully intimate performance of the Menuet from Le Tombeau de Couperin:

Une barque sur l’océan

Une barque sur l’océan, the third movement of Ravel’s piano suite, Miroirs, evokes the feeling of a boat tossing in waves, at the mercy of powerful ocean currents. Each movement of Miroirs, written between 1904 and 1905, was dedicated to a member of the Les Apaches, a group of French avant-garde writers, musicians and artists which included Ravel. This movement was dedicated to the painter Paul Sordes.

Une barque sur l’océan goes beyond musical image painting or literal representations of the ocean. Hazy and dreamlike, this is music that makes us forget about goals. Instead, we get lost in the vast, timeless ocean of the present. Each harmonic shift is enjoyable for what it is, rather than where it’s going. You might get a particularly powerful sense of this at the end of the movement:

Jeux d’eau

Jeux d’eau evokes feelings of the play of water, this time in smaller splashes. Written in 1901, this piece was dedicated to Ravel’s teacher, Gabriel Fauré. The manuscript included a quote from Henri de Régnier’s Cité des eaux: “Dieu fluvial riant de l’eau qui le chatouille…” (“River god laughing as the water tickles him…”).

A couple of listening points: At 3:44 we return to the opening idea, but suddenly, because of the note in the bass, it has a completely different feeling (darker and more ominous). From 5:01 listen to the way the music revels in splashes of color:

Pavane pour une infante defunte

Pavane pour une infante defunte was written in 1899 when Ravel was a student at the Conservatoire de Paris. It’s easy to hear the influence of Fauré in this serene melody, but we also hear Ravel pushing the boundaries. Listen to the jazzy parallel harmony around 0:54. I love the way minor turns to major for the final statement of the theme at 5:05:

Le Tombeau de Couperin: Post-Apocalyptic Ravel

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), French composer. (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

 

Listening to Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, it’s easy to get a sense of altered reality. Outwardly, the original six movement suite, written for solo piano, responds to the horrors and devastation of the First World War, a conflict Ravel experienced first hand as a military ambulance driver. Ravel dedicated each movement of the work, written between 1914 and 1917, to the memory of a friend lost on the battlefield.

But, interestingly, we don’t hear the anguish of war in Ravel’s music. There isn’t a hint of the hellish fury of Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies or the dazed shell shock and bleak desolation of Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral” Symphony. Instead, Le Tombeau de Couperin escapes into an almost childlike world of color and joyful, elegant ambivalence. Like so much of Ravel’s music, there is a sense of detachment which seems to open the door to ultimate, yet indescribable truth. Some critics complained that the music was not sombre enough for its subject matter, to which Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”

Through its hazy, impressionistic prism, Le Tombeau de Couperin also evokes voices of the distant past. Its title references the French Baroque composer François Couperin (1668-1733). In the seventeenth century, Tombeau, which translates literally as “tomb,” referred to “a piece written as a memorial.” Ravel intended to pay homage not only to Couperin, but to the style and ambiance of eighteenth century French keyboard suites. The movements are based on popular Baroque dances. Listen to the rhythm and structure of this Forlane by François Couperin and compare it to Ravel’s Forlane below.

Le Tombeau de Couperin was originally written as a six movement solo keyboard suite. (Listen to Louis Lortie’s excellent performance here). Two years after its completion, Ravel orchestrated the suite, eliminating two movements (the Fugue and the Toccata). Listening to the piano score, the jazzy sophistication of Ravel’s harmonies come across with striking brilliance. But it’s in the final, orchestrated version where the music blossoms with new life through a rich array of colors. The instruments, with their distinct personas, engage in musical conversations and the tonal colors mix in magical new ways.

From the bubbly opening of the Prélude, there’s a dreamlike and illusory quality about the music. It doesn’t go where we expect, and just when we think we’ve arrived at a climax, something firm that we can hold onto, the music dissolves, like a mirage. Throughout the piece, there’s a sense of joy in the rhythm. In the Forlane, notice the buoyant, dance-like quality of the music, especially in the passage beginning at 1:10. The closing Rigaudon is full of jokes and surprises. As in the first movement, we’re pulled in new, unexpected directions.

For me, the Menuet evokes serene beauty, but also a touch of sadness. As the oboe makes its opening statement, listen to the changing colors around this solo voice. Notice the velvety bed of strings, which enters at the end of the first phrase and then passes us along to the next phrase (0:05). Listen carefully to the sudden change of color and parallel harmony beginning at 1:47. I love the way this darker, veiled new world dissolves effortlessly back into the opening theme. At the end of the Menuet, the music pauses at a climactic moment of shimmering sensuality and repose (3:52) before being cut off by the innocent, childlike “laugh” of the woodwind voices, which seem to be saying, “Come on, let’s go.” The final chord fades into a jazzy dreamscape.

One of my favorite recordings of this piece is Charles Dutoit’s 1990 CD with the Montreal Symphony:

1. Prélude:

2. Forlane:

3. Menuet:

4. Rigaudon:

Frank Huang Headed to New York

violinist Frank Huang
violinist Frank Huang

On Wednesday, the New York Philharmonic announced that violinist Frank Huang will become its new concertmaster, succeeding Glenn Dicterow who stepped down last June after 34 seasons.

The 36-year-old Huang is currently concertmaster of the Houston Symphony. He has held that position since 2010. Before joining the Houston Symphony, he briefly served as first violinist of the Ying Quartet and professor of violin and chamber music at the Eastman School of Music. He was a student of Donald Weilerstein at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Frank Huang was born in China. When he was 7 years old, his family relocated from Beijing to the Houston suburbs.

Frank Huang’s solo career was launched after he won first prize in the 2000 Hannover International Violin Competition and the 2003 Walter W. Naumburg Foundation’s Violin Competition. A 2003 recording released on the Naxos label features this performance of Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie.

Here is Huang performing the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 11 for Houston Public Radio’s The Front RowHe is joined by cellist Sophie Shao and pianist Adam Golka.

Schumann’s First Violin Sonata: Passionate, Tempestuous

schumann

Last week the exceptionally talented, young conductor, Tito Muñoz led the Richmond Symphony in a memorable concert which included Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Returning to this symphony, I was reminded of the subtle sense of schizophrenia that often inhabits Schumann’s music. For example, in the first theme of the Fourth Symphony’s opening movement, listen to the way the music develops through obsessive rhythmic repetition. The restless eight-note motive that makes up this theme haunts the entire first movement, twisting and evolving throughout the development section. It resurfaces in the bridge to the final movement (a nod to Beethoven’s Fifth), as if to say, “You can’t escape me…I’m still here!”

Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, op. 105 develops with a similarly stormy, obsessive intensity. For the first movement, rather than a standard tempo marking like “Allegro,” Schumann provides the words, Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck (with passionate expression). The opening motive begins in the depths of the violin amid tempestuous piano arpeggios. It reaches tentatively, falls back and reaches again before soaring higher. Listen to the conversation between the violin and piano as the motive is passed back and forth. This is a persistent conversation which becomes increasingly intense (listen to the piano at 1:02). There’s a strong sense of striving, and by the end of the exposition a few hints of sunlight have appeared (1:58). But then we get pulled back into the depths. One of my favorite moments in this first movement is the way we return from the development to the recapitulation (5:40).

Listen for the stormy, obsessive development of the opening motive and enjoy the incredible drama which unfolds in this first movement. Here are Japanese violinist Shoji Sayaka and pianist Itamar Golan in recital at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall in 2005:

Here are the second and third movements. In the second movement (Allegretto), the musical conversation seems to end frequently in a question. You may hear passages which anticipate Johannes Brahms’ violin sonatas.

The A minor Violin Sonata was first performed publicly by Clara Schumann and the German violinist Ferdinand David in March, 1852. David worked closely with Felix Mendelssohn, influencing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Recordings

  • Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich: find on iTunes, find at Amazon, listen to a sample
  • Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt: a new recording, released in 2013. Find on iTunes
  • Carolin Widmann and Denes Varjon: find at Amazon
  • Ilya Kaler and Boris Slutsky: find at Naxos
  • Augustin Hadelich and Akira Eguchi perform the first movement: youtube

The Rise of Simone Dinnerstein

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Rising to the top of the classical music world requires a combination of talent, hard work, determination, and luck. In 2007, American pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s career was “launched into the stratosphere” with the release of her self-financed recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and an appearance at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. The recording quickly soared to the top of the Amazon classical chart and more disks followed. This CBS Sunday Morning story profiles Dinnerstein’s miraculously self-made career.

Last week, Dinnerstein released another exciting CD on the Sony Classical label. Broadway-Lafayette “celebrates the time-honored transatlantic link between France and America” with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, and The Circle and the Child: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, a new work written for Dinnerstein by Philip Lasser. Kristjan Järvi conducts the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. In this interview with Mike Goldberg, classical radio host at WCVE-FM in Richmond, Simone Dinnerstein talks about her newest CD. She also details her exciting “Neighborhood Classics” program in the New York City public schools.

In a world of hype and slick marketing, Simone Dinnerstein, initially working without management or a major record contract, has displayed obvious business savvy. But the ultimate source of her success may lie in her sincerity and dedication to putting the music first. Watch her introduce Bach’s Inventions to schoolchildren at P.S. 321 in New York City. Also watch this short clip from a masterclass in which she talks about drawing a singing sound out of the piano. And don’t miss this home movie of Dinnerstein’s dog listening to her practice Schubert.

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Simone Dinnerstein plays the Sarabande from J.S. Bach’s French Suite nº 5 in C major:

The Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations:

Hilary Hahn: In 27 Pieces

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Violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Cory Smythe at the 57th annual Grammy Awards earlier this month in Los Angeles.

 

Earlier this month, violinist Hilary Hahn and accompanist Cory Smythe picked up a Grammy award for their 2013 album, In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. The recording came in first in the Best Chamber/Small Ensemble category.

Don’t be deceived by the album’s title. This isn’t yet another CD of violin showpiece warhorses. It’s a collection of completely new music born out of an intriguingly fresh idea. Hahn noticed that, while the violin repertoire is full of short encore pieces from the past, few contemporary composers have ventured into this territory. After careful consideration, she approached twenty six composers (a process she now jokingly compares to asking someone out on a date) for commissions. A twenty-seventh composer, Jeff Myers (The Angry Birds of Kauai), was selected through an online contest. You can check out Hilary Hahn’s informal discussions with each composer at her youtube channel.

It will be exciting to see if any of this music finds its way into the standard violin repertoire. Only time will tell. In the meantime, we have a fun CD to enjoy: Jennifer Higdon’s Echo Dash sounds like its title and suggests the dense counterpoint of J.S. Bach. David Lang’s Light Moving takes us on an exciting neo-minimalist joyride. Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis’ Coming To evokes a cinematic atmosphere. Lera Auerbach’s lamenting, romantic Speak, Memory suggests the twentieth century sounds of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Messiaen.

And that’s one of the more interesting aspects of this recording-the way the present meets the past. Contemporary composers seem liberated from the need to be “new” or to push forward a dogmatic idea. Ukrainian pianist and composer Valentyn Sylvestrov says,

I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists…With our advanced artistic awareness, fewer and fewer texts are possible which, figuratively speaking, begin ‘at the beginning’… What this means is not the end of music as art, but the end of music, an end in which it can linger for a long time. It is very much in the area of the coda that immense life is possible.

Two Pieces by Valentyn Sylvestrov: