Sunday, March 16, 2014

Piano Recital

I mentioned in one blog post that when I go to a concert it is more for the repertoire than the performance. In other words, as long as the music is played with some degree of accuracy, I'm happy. I would rather hear a relatively unknown musician playing Bach than the latest celebrity pianist playing The Flight of the Bumblebee or something by Liszt. But sometimes this policy does not quite work out...

Last night I attended a piano recital that featured a piece by Bach to open, then a Beethoven piano sonata and the second half was Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky. Can't go wrong with that program, right? I realize that part of the reason my policy usually works is that good musicians tend to pick better programs, aesthetically. But not always, apparently.

I won't give the name of the pianist, but he seemed a bit of a cold fish coming onstage. However, it is the playing that counts. Alas, the Bach did not come off well. The playing was graceless and confused, meaning that the phrases were oddly delivered and stiff. The shape of the music was confused. There was no clarity to the texture or the harmony. All this was exacerbated by fast tempos. The great weakness of the piano as an instrument comes from its very convenience: it is all too easy to hammer away at it, making loud furious gestures, but it is very much harder to play with subtlety and control. This player played every phrase like he was squirting out watermelon seeds. The Beethoven was even worse. Mussorgsky almost survived the performance, but not quite. On the whole the evening was an unpleasant experience, musically. But, inexplicably, most of the audience leaped to their feet, after all the enormous, furious and virtuosic passages at the end of the Mussorgsky, eager to give the artist a standing ovation. I overheard someone saying something about how the music was like rivers and waves of sound, which was apparently a positive comment.

But I was not the only disappointed listener. A pianist spoke to me as I was leaving, saying that she found the performance cold and unemotional, as did a singer sitting next to me. I wouldn't say that myself, exactly. What it was, was musically crude, attempting to replace phrasing and balance with fast notes and sheer volume. But I can see how you might see this as unemotional if you contrast in your mind mechanical virtuosity with musical expression.

Given that most of the audience seemed to like the concert, I guess this explains the success of Lang Lang and others. If you play loud and fast, that is what leads to a standing ovation these days!

So what happened? I mean, this is supposedly a "classical" music audience? Do even classical listeners lack a basic aesthetic sense these days? How can you find, not only acceptable, but admirable, just a lot of big chords played very loud and fast flurries of notes?

A while ago I read a contention by a couple of researchers who claimed that average intelligence has declined one standard deviation since late in the 19th century. This claim is based on studies of simple reaction time, which is a proxy for IQ. They seem to think that this explains what they see as an accelerating decline in creativity in areas like mathematics. I certainly don't know enough about this area to have an opinion myself, and there are lots of people that disagree with them. But I'm starting to wonder if it might not be true. Heck, it might explain what I see as an accelerating decline in musical taste!

Let me see if I can put the quality of this performance in perspective. When I was teaching at McGill University, I would occasionally be called on to attend a recital in fulfillment of the requirements for a degree in performance. These recitals are marked by a jury usually consisting of three faculty members. You give either a "pass" or a "fail" with comments. I would have given this recital a fail for musical insensitivity and technical sloppiness!

Let's listen to a good performance of the Mussorgsky. Here is Evgeny Kissin:


Bridge said...

In my opinion both are equally important. Pieces can potentially take on an entirely different meaning with even the slightest change of detail and I personally am very sensitive to these details. To take a quick example, I recently listened to Riccardo Chailly's Beethoven Symphonies cycle and he interprets the 9th's scherzo in a most egregious fashion. Sections marked fortissimo are played mezzoforte and the final chord is played pianissimo even though it is not marked as such. These may seem like pedantic observations, but they really do destroy the piece's character. In fact, I would say that details like this, choice of tempi and overall orchestral balance are more important than an accurate performance. Take for example the Leibowitz cycle which is sometimes a little clumsy (more in the sense of the vertical alignment of instruments, each part is played with reasonable competency) but yet is so full of, for lack of a better word, "soul" that you forgive it. It would of course be better played perfectly, but it has all of the characteristics that appeal to me personally as a listener which I think many other cycles do not. Then there are cycles like the Barenboim that are played perfectly but are entirely too slow. Funnily enough, this slow tempo I think is actually a good thing in the two minor symphonies, especially the C minor as it adds a certain sense of dread. To take another example, I absolutely cannot stand Rubinstein's interpretation of Chopin's music even though he is lauded by most as the ultimate Chopin pianist. Rubinstein is a brilliant pianist and all of the music is played competently with good attention to balance at all times, but it's the wrong balance (in my opinion.) Not that I'm claiming it's objectively bad, I just don't think it is Chopin - it's not what his music means to me. I prefer Claudio Arrau, as his interpretations speak to me like no other. His attention to detail is sublime - the right amount of rubato at every key moment, neither too much nor too little. Rubinstein's rubato I find disturbingly arbitrary, as if it's added there just because it should be there. Not sure what you should take away from these pointless anecdotes - God is in the details? In any case, they make or break a performance for me. Plus, it's fun to carry on an endless search for "the perfect performance" of various pieces that are important to you, it makes you consider what about them actually is important to you and certain interpreters (includes conductors) can make you hear pieces in a totally different and enlightening way. For example, when I first heard the Moonlight sonata's first movement played as written, alla breve, it started to truly make sense. I of course loved it prior to that, but I now find the snail's pace interpretations of it to be utterly absurd.

Bryan Townsend said...

After this concert, I think I am leaning towards your view! I'm not much of a connoisseur of different performances of the Beethoven symphonies, a bit more of the piano sonatas and definitely more of the string quartets. As for Chopin, I have the Ashkenazy complete, but more and more I found it dull and uninspired. I much prefer Rubinstein whom I heard in a live concert on one occasion! But I don't know Arrau, so perhaps I should give him a listen.

But the concert I heard last night was on an entirely different level. It was simply bad musicianship. Virtually no passages were clear, neither in terms of balance, rhythm or harmony. Everything was rushed and blurred. Very unpleasant to listen to, not because of the interpretation, with which you may disagree or not, but because of the poor execution of the basic musical values.

When I was younger, the only version I had of the Moonlight sonata was that of Malcolm Bilson on fortepiano, so you can imagine how far that was from the lethargic ones you mention! Now I have Friedrich Gulda doing all the sonatas and I find it excellent. But my favorite pianist for musical depth and interpretive accuracy (he is only one that seems to get the dynamics just right) is Grigory Sokolov.

Bridge said...

I would have definitely liked to hear the performance in question, the way you describe it it sounds almost unbelievably bad. I'll check out those pianists you mentioned. I have only listened to the sonatas played by Kempff (embarrassingly I have to admit I have also not heard the last two sonatas (apart from themes) nor many of the early ones.)

On the subject of the Moonlight sonata, have you listened to András Schiff's lecture on it? That was where I first got introduced to the fact that it is often played "wrong" (it's arguable whether it is wrong even if it goes against the score) and you can also hear him play it with half-pedaling to simulate the fortepiano's sustain. The result is quite eye/ear-opening - it is a completely different piece if you follow Beethoven's instructions to play without dampers/with the sustain pedal. I'm not quite sure whether I like it yet, but I am tempted to believe it is exactly what Beethoven wanted. After all, most of the other sonatas do not have this peculiar instruction. In his words, the harmonies swim together.

The complete lectures are available on the Guardian website if you haven't heard them - they are very good in my opinion although Schiff comes across as a little nervous.,,1943867,00.html

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't want to give his name, but he is an internationally-known German pianist. This was not an amateur concert--it was part of a professional concert series. He has a few clips on YouTube, but none of them are similar to last night's concert.

I have listened to some or part of one of Schiff's lectures on a Beethoven sonata, but I don't recall which. I tend to get my understanding of things like pedaling in the Moonlight sonata from the excellent book by Charles Rosen on the Beethoven piano sonatas.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, I just listened to Arrau's first Ballade and you are right, it is very fine!

Anonymous said...

Glad you liked it, the nocturnes are very good too. Another Chopin pianist I like is Garrick Ohlsson - I have his complete Chopin works and although I prefer Arrau's more sensitive performances of the Nocturnes he plays most of the repertoire (that I've heard anyway) very well. I especially like the Fantaisie-impromptu which is played spectacularly well. By the way, I did some searching on old blog posts and came across a post entitled Basic Music Library where you specifically say it's not necessary to know Schumann's symphonies. Is it because you don't like them or are you only saying it's not necessary to know them because they aren't necessarily a focal point of the symphonic repertoire? I'm by no means a Schumann scholar, I only recently got into him after hearing the original version of his 4th played live (not on period instruments sadly) but it is a striking symphony nonetheless. I think it would be unfortunate if someone heeded your advice and decided not to listen to it. In case you have only heard the revised symphony by Mahler I highly recommend giving it a shot - I'm sure you'll agree with me that it's quite great. The revisions make the piece much more ponderous and clumsy in my opinion and I can certainly see how you would call it watered down Mahler (because that's sort of exactly what it is, eh?) I don't want to put down the revised edition too much as I haven't heard all of it, but the original played on period instruments just has much greater freedom and agility which I think is exactly what Schumann intended.

Bridge said...

Sorry, I had the wrong idea when it comes to the revisions. They were made by Schumann itself it seems and Mahler later re-orchestrated the symphony supposedly to fix some of the balance issues and thick textures. It's entirely possible I haven't heard the Mahler orchestrations but what I said about the revised edition I still stand by if you remove the reference to Mahler. I personally prefer the earlier version and apparently Brahms agrees with me as he went out of his way to have it published. Listen to it anyway, and see what you think, you'll find it a different experience to the revised edition I'm sure.

Bryan Townsend said...

If I were giving a history course on the symphony I would not tell people not to listen to the Schumann symphonies. But a blog post is a bit different. If you go back and look at that post I was making the point that some music is very central and influential and other music is more peripheral. The Schumann symphonies are not on the same level of importance as those by the other composers I mentioned in the post.

I listened to the clip you put up and yes, it is pretty good. But I'm afraid that long sonata-form movements are not Schumann's forte. I think someone mentioned that he had a lot of trouble with transitions and it does seem the case that he will just keep on, pounding on the same rhythm or idea long after its "best before" date. But I freely confess that one period I am not terribly fond of is the mid to late 19th century. Everyone seemed to have the idea that bigger and longer was better. Alas, their ideas usually don't support the length. Just my personal opinion.

Now Schumann is a great composer, but not, I think because of his symphonies or string quartets. Where he really is strong is in the early piano pieces, especially before he revised them. And, of course, his songs are absolutely amazing.

Bridge said...

Of course, but I was only checking to see what your opinion was. The purpose of your comment was clear in the context. I can't really say I have the same problems with the symphony as you do though. I think the transitions are pretty good personally. Also, whatever damage that might have been caused by the somewhat repetitive nature of the symphony is greatly mitigated by the short length and relatively fast tempo of the specific performance. Most of the other performances, even from otherwise great conductors almost put me to sleep. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the symphony is a masterpiece, I like a lot of its ideas personally but I recognize that it is perhaps a little clumsily presented. It just seemed to me like you went out of your way to dissuade people from them - I was only curious what your opinion was.

Agreed on mid to late 19th cent. I even think Mahler tends to be a little long-winded, though I still love him.