Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


1 Comment

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.

_____

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.

Advertisements


3 Comments

Of Foot Pedals, Clogs, and a Romance: A Random Walk

This is why I can’t get anything done.

It all started with the Charles Gounod blog post.  I was doing my typical random walk through the internet, looking for interesting works to bring you, when I found the piano-pédalier: a grand piano fitted with a set of organ pedals hooked up to another piano.  Oh my.

My first thought was that this instrument has to be every pianist’s nightmare (in which, perhaps, you arrive on stage to find, not a standard grand piano, but a piano-pédalier and a very expectant audience.  And you may or may not be fully clothed.  It is a nightmare after all).

So then I started looking for more information on the piano-pédalier, which led me to composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, who was, I found out, a master of the instrument.  I plan to write a blog post about him.  I also found out his works are deemed, let’s say, rather difficult, with the possible exception of some of his miniatures, that is, his Preludes (Op. 31) and his Esquisses (Op. 63).  Since I’m all about playing the not-very-difficult, I decided to look for those.  I will note, however, that the Preludes and Esquisses contain works in every major and minor key, so I’ll be skipping over some of those, particularly the ones with numerous sharps and flats.  I found some recently published sheet music, and realized I own a book that has a couple of his pieces in it.  I then also found his listing in the ever-popular imslp.org library of public domain sheet music.  Which reminded me,  in addition to the Alkan post, I still needed to write a post on the other library of sheet music I found.  Soon!

So, later, I decided to listen to Alkan’s Preludes.  I found them quite interesting, and regretted that I been doing Paperwork that Needed To Be Handled instead of sitting in a chair, with a cup of tea, following along with a score.  I’ll just have to listen to them again!  Soon!

A full day later, after doing Things Which Must Be Done (cooking, washing dishes, laundry, etc.), I remembered that I had not yet extracted my book of sheet music to see what Alkan pieces were included.  So, settling into a chair with my music in one hand, and a cup of tea in the other, I found exactly two Alkan pieces oddly juxtaposed with one another:  First Love Letter (Op. 63, No. 46) and Man in Clogs (Op. 63, No. 23).  Was the First Love Letter from the Man in Clogs?  To the Man in Clogs?  It seemed an unlikely prospect.  In addition to being in clogs, the Man in Clogs is also in a key with five flats, with lots of grace notes that seem to depict rather graceless walking.  Hmmm…five flats and grace notes.  Since I hadn’t looked at this book (Anthology of Romantic Piano Music) for a while, I decided to see who else was represented (and perhaps find some less challenging key signatures).

Surprisingly, there were works by Amy Beach, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and Clara Schumann, in addition to the usual suspects, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn (Felix), Rachmaninoff, Schumann (Robert), and Tchaikovsky, as well as others.  My eyes settled upon a familiar name:  Gabriel Fauré.

What a wonderful time I had last year learning and singing Fauré’s Requiem!  What piece of his was here?  Romance sans paroles [Romance without Words] Op. 17 No 3.  Wait—this is do-able!  (Have I done it already?  If I did start learning it, I know I never finished.)  The left hand is a very regular pattern; four flats, not so bad; a little messing about with the left pedal of the piano, and the right, but hey, it’s not like wrangling a piano-pédalier, right?  I read through it in my head, and thought, yes, I’m going right to the piano to try this!

But then I realized I had better write this post before I forget the weaving path by which I came to this point.  And so, due to the Romance Without Words, the Man in Clogs will have to wait just a little longer (perhaps he can read over his First Love Letter, a romance with words, while he’s waiting).

And Mr. Fauré will have to wait as well, because my tea is now cold, and I just need to go warm it up.  Then, I promise, I’m going right to the piano.   As soon as I answer this ringing phone…

_____

References

  1. Anthology of Romantic Piano Music: Intermediate to Early Advanced Works by 36 Composers, Maurice Hinson, ed.  Alfred Publishing Co, Inc., 2002.


Leave a comment

Music for a Busy Day:  Czardas by Vittorio Monti

Hi folks!  I haven’t blogged in a while, it’s been rather busy here.  How busy?  Here’s a fun video of Vittorio Monti’s Czardas that’s a pretty close representation.

And here’s a performance with violin and piano (the instruments Monti originally wrote the piece for).

I will now resume my plate spinning.

Thanks to reader Laurie C. for bringing the first video to my attention.


2 Comments

Free Lectures on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas by Jonathan Biss

Beethoven

Happy New Year, everyone!  It’s good to be back after a very busy holiday season.

Great news for piano music lovers!  Pianist Jonathan Biss is back with his third series of lectures on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas on Coursera.org.  Biss is in the process of recording all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

This series, like the previous two, is designed for everyone—no prior knowledge is needed.  And if you missed the first two lecture series, they are also available on Coursera.  The first series provides a wealth of background information to understand Beethoven’s world and the sonata form.  I wrote about series one here.  The second series focuses on the exploration of individual sonatas, including the Waldstein and Pathétique.

Here are links for the three lecture series on Coursera

Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas

Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Part 2

Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Part 3.

Need more Beethoven?  This post provides more resources for learning more about Beethoven.

Here is a video of Biss playing a portion of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 5 in C minor.

You can hear the entire sonata here.

_____

Image attribution:  Beethoven, Painting by Carl Jäger (1833-1887), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beethoven_.jpg.


Leave a comment

Haiku Wednesday: For George

George Butterworth, around 1914

Silence need not fall,
Nor memories fade away.
Music will endure.

Recently, I had the honor of presenting one of my compositions at a composers circle.  The blog has been quiet lately because I have been diligently preparing for that event and a major choral event.

I started writing The Lost (for George Butterworth) after a 2016 blog post for Veterans Day.  At that time, I did more research into Butterworth than had appeared in the initial post, and his story affected me deeply.

George Butterworth was a promising young English composer.  One of his best-known works, which I quoted in remembrance of him in my composition, is The Banks of Green Willow, which you can hear here.  He was friends with Ralph Vaughan Williams, and, as noted in the blog post The Symphony Lost in the Mail, helped Vaughan Williams reconstruct his symphony score when it disappeared.

He was also a folk dancer.  There is film of him performing (in 1912!), alone, and as part of a group.  You can see it here.  At one point as four people are folk dancing, Butterworth and his friend accidentally collide, and you can see them laughing at their mistake.

Butterworth served ably in World War I.  In 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, he was killed by a sniper.  The fighting was so ferocious that the dead were quickly buried where they fell.  Butterworth’s body was never recovered.

Butterworth:  a composer, a lively, laughing dancer.  Cut down.  Lost.

The introduction of this piece expresses mourning for those lost in battle on the windswept fields of the Somme in France.  A brief four-part writing segment asks, in disbelief, whether this is how it must be, with a resigned answer of yes, which returns later in the piece.  The major key section is a paraphrase of Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, as a half-remembered melody from long ago, twisted at the end by a bitterly mock-heroic snippet of an anthem as Butterworth must abandon his music to go off to war.  A sudden strong C minor chord represents Butterworth’s death, and the pain of that loss, followed by resignation and the return to the introductory theme.

Here is The Lost.

_______

Image attribution: Photograph of George Butterworth, about 1914 [Public domain], via Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Butterworth_2.jpg


Leave a comment

Haiku Wednesday: Schubert–Last Hope, Last Leaves of Autumn

Stick figure looks at the last leaf on a tree in autumn

Here and there upon
The trees, many colored leaves
Remain, and often,

I stand there and think.
I spy one leaf, and upon
It, I hang my hopes.

The wind stirs the leaf.
I shake. If it falls, I’ll fall,
And weep for lost hope.

The haiku above is a rendering of the words of Wilhelm Müller’s poem Letzte Hoffnung [Last Hope], which was set to music by Franz Schubert as part of his Winterreise song cycle.  Here is Letzte Hoffnung, performed by tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch.

_____

Image attribution: Drawing by C. Gallant, 2017.

The painting that is the background in the YouTube video is Abandoned by Jakub Schikaneder.  He was known for his paintings of lonely figures–a perfect choice for Winterreise.


Leave a comment

Glenn Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations Outtakes Released

Photograph of Glenn Gould, pianist

Photo by Don Hunstein / Glenn Gould Foundation

Glenn Gould was not only a great pianist, he was also well-versed in the art and technology of audio recording.  He was the final arbiter of what appeared on his released recordings.  Any retrospective look at his 1955 and 1981 recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations will mention the countless alternate versions of individual variations that Gould discarded in favor of the performances that ultimately were released.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to wonder what those outtakes were like.  The difference between his 1955 and 1981 recordings of the Variations is stunning.  What alterations were occurring in 1955 that we didn’t get the chance to hear?  Some outtakes were made available in the retrospective A State of Wonder recording that included both the earlier and later renditions.  But it was only a small sample.

Finally, it is possible to hear them all.  Sony has released a box set containing all of the alternate versions that were recorded in the 1955 sessions.  There are five CDs of outtakes.  The box set also includes a coffee table book that includes audio engineering notes and the score, the 1955 and 1981 recordings on CD, the 1955 recording on vinyl, and a poster.  You can see the box set here.

Or should we perhaps trust Gould’s meticulous selection of variations, seamlessly spliced together, as representing his vision of what the Goldberg Variations should be, as he saw it in 1955?  I will leave it to you to decide.

Here is a video of Gould playing some of the variations in a television broadcast from 1964.

 

References

  1. Siegel, Robert and Huizenga, Tom, “The Gould That Didn’t Glitter: New Box Set of ‘Goldberg Variations’ Outtakes” Deceptive Cadence from NPR Classical, October 25, 2017.  http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/10/25/559611543/the-gould-that-didnt-glitter-new-box-set-of-goldberg-variations-outtakes?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=classical&utm_term=music&utm_content=2052
  2. Clements, Andrew, “Goldberg Variations, Complete Sessions CD Review—Glenn Gould’s Obsession, Meticulously Assembled” The Guardian online version, September 13, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/13/goldberg-variations-complete-sessions-cd-review-glenn-gould

_____

Image attribution:  Photograph of Glenn Gould by Don Hunstein / Glenn Gould Foundation [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Glenn_Gould_1.jpg