Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Piano’s Everests: Islamey and Gaspard de la Nuit

Elisa Tomellini plays grand piano on top of a mountain in the Alps

Elisa Tomellini plays grand piano on top of a mountain in the Alps.
Photo copyright Joseph Giachino.

Islamey by Mily Balakirev and Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel are considered the most difficult pieces for solo piano.

I had the great good fortune recently of hearing an excellent live performance of Gaspard de la Nuit.

Wow.  There are no words to describe the experience, but I’ll try.

The sound of the piece is stunning, the visual perception of the performance, no less so.  The hands cross over one another, the fingers move so fast, they can be a blur to the human eye.  And as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of notes roll by, you realize the pianist has memorized all of them.  And that is only one part of it.  The first hurdle is technical—being able to physically play the piece.  The second is expressive—and that’s where the piece comes to life, and the pianist adds his own interpretation.

Ravel based this 1908 piece on a collection of poems, Gaspard de la Nuit, by Aloysius Bertrand.  If you read French, you can find the book of poems here (free on Project Gutenberg).  If you want to see the three poems that Ravel used (in French and English), you can see them here.

The first movement is about a water nymph that tries to tempt the listener to join her in her underwater realm.  The second movement is a depiction of a hanged man on a scaffold in the desert.  The third movement depicts the antics of a goblin, Scarbo, as he capers through the night.

Here is Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, performed by Lucas Debargue.

If you want to read the sheet music to see what the pianist has read (and memorized) to perform this piece, you can follow along here to a performance by Benjamin Grosvenor.

There is a masterclass on YouTube for Gaspard de la Nuit, taught by Vlado Perlemuter, who studied with Ravel and recorded all of Ravel’s solo piano music.

In the third movement of Gaspard, Ravel had the intention of creating a piece of music more difficult that Balakirev’s Islamey, written in 1869.  Balakirev drew his themes from folk music of the Caucasus and Crimea.

Here is Balakirev’s Islamey, performed by Giuseppe Mentuccia.

Here is a masterclass on Islamey taught by Lang Lang.  It’s worth noting that the person performing the piece in the masterclass is 17 years old.

In watching these masterclasses, one thing that stands out is that the comments laser-focus in on specific measures, specific phrases.  As I said earlier, when you learn music at this level, you don’t just learn the notes; that’s just the first step.  Then, you consider the execution of phrases, their speed, the speed of separate sections of a given phrase, how connected, smooth, a phrase should be, how the volume evolves over a phrase.  And that’s just one phrase.

Most of us may never be able to play Islamey, or its equivalent for the instrument we play.  And some of us do not play instruments.  But thinking about the music in this detail, listening for these nuances, will make the music richer, fuller, and more enjoyable.

We may not make it to Everest, but even the view from the foothills is worth the trek.

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Image attribution:  Elisa Tomellini plays a grand piano at a concert given on top of a mountain in the Alps, setting a world record for the world’s highest piano concert (4460 meters), via http://dmajor.tv/2017/07/11/elisa-tomellini-the-highest-piano-concert-the-world/.  Photo copyright Joseph Giachino.

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Haiku Wednesday: These Five Were a Handful—Balakirev’s Circle

hand holding Russian flag

Rimsky-Korsakov,
Balakirev, Borodin,
Mussorgsky and Cui.

These make up “The Five,”
Russia’s Mighty Handful of
Splendid composers.

The five composers noted above, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky, and César Cui, made up the group that came to be known as The Five, or in Russia, the Balakirev Circle or Mighty Handful (Могучая кучка).  The group was led by Balakirev, and the goal was to elevate the standing of Russian traditional music (the musical nationalism movement, which was found in other countries as well).

The name Mighty Handful came from a review of a concert that included a number of Russian composers, including Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov (and Mikhail Glinka as well).  When the phrase was used disdainfully by critics, Balakirev and his group kept the name as a badge of honor.

One unusual thing that distinguished this group is that most of them kept their “day jobs.”  Borodin was a chemist (he is well known for his work with aldehydes and as co-discoverer of the Aldol reaction). Others were in the military or civil service.  What’s more, none were conservatory trained (which may have been part of the disdain noted above).

It was a challenge to pick some music to represent this group.  Hmm, challenge, mighty handful…actually there can be only one choice:  Balakirev’s Islamey, long considered one of the most difficult (if not the most difficult) piece of solo piano music of all time (Ravel wrote Gaspard de la Nuit with the intent of making it more difficult than Islamey!).

Here is Islamey, performed by Boris Berezovsky.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mighty_Handful_(composers)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamey

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Image attribution

Photo by C. Gallant, 2016.