Thursday, July 25, 2013

CD of the Month

Garrick Ohlsson plays Gershwin. I caught the tail end of the Concerto in F on the radio last week in the car, and sat in the carpark until it finished. I played the Concerto six years ago, but I've never had an urge to revisit the piece until after hearing this. It's a piece that has some memorable tunes and great moments, but it can feel overblown. If it's in the wrong hands, that is. Ohlsson does it with sneaky humor and refuses to let it get bogged down in the big orchestral climaxes. Before they announced his name on the radio, I was guessing it would be a jazz pianist crossover recording. Truly amazing stuff.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The World Piano Competition: A Renewal

At the end of the finals of this year's World Piano Competition, based in Cincinnati, director Mark Ernster remarked that while the competition is currently in its fifty-seventh year, it's as if it had been born anew, thanks to its recent partnership with CCM and the Cincinnati Symphony. As a competitor, third prize winner and sufferer in last year's competition, I couldn't agree more. Unlike last year, the competitors were treated to a smoothly organized experience with great pianos, great audiences and a highly accomplished jury. I couldn't get to the first two rounds, but I listened to the live stream of the finals just down the hall from the actual competition in a vacant classroom (since the whole family came along, we needed a “baby-proof” setting).

The final round of any competition is always a strange thing. It's the most exciting, it draws the biggest audiences and the most speculation. But the finalists, exhausted from a week of non-stop adrenaline and working on a tight rehearsal schedule with the orchestra, rarely are in top form. It can be an exercise in stamina more than actual musicianship. While I can't confirm it firsthand, I did hear from a few others that this year's competition conformed to the rule. Still, the three finalists were all exceptional pianists who gave it their all.

Misha Namirovsky started the evening with a thoughtful and expressive Brahms D minor concerto. I was particularly captivated by a lush and serious slow movement that maintained an undercurrent of tension despite a tempo that was a little slower than normal. Unfortunately, the octave passages in the first movement were probably not as clean as he would have liked, and a number of little inaccuracies crept into the last movement as well. The real disappointment was a embarrassingly slipshod job by the Cincinnati Symphony under the baton of associate conductor Robert TreviƱo. They sabotaged the performance with a sluggish response to the soloist, incorrect tempi, and flat, lifeless lines. This concerto has too many extended orchestral interludes for the pianist to be able to hold the piece together on his own, so inevitably it came across as dull and long-winded. Namirovsky was awarded the bronze medal, quite fairly I think, although it's easy to imagine that the result could have been very different with slightly different circumstances.

Jin Uk Kim dazzled with a hair-raisingly accurate and polished account of Beethoven's fourth concerto in G major. He was the audience prize winner and the favorite of many of my friends. I thought he gave a powerfully structured interpretation of the first movement that climaxed in a brilliant cadenza. Ultimately, he was let down by his choice of repertoire; the finesse and lithe character were missing in a piece that is all about a quicksilver attention to gesture and shape. His style would have made for an unbeatable Prokofiev 3, or even Beethoven's Emperor concerto. He came away with second prize, although probably it was a very close call.

Marianna Prjevalskaya concluded the evening with a highly individual take on the Brahms D minor. Her presence on stage was electrifying, and she demonstrated true artistry in a compelling and tumultuous performance. I can't say I agreed with every interpretative choice she made—the second movement was stagnant at times and the slower sections in the third movement were a little mawkish for my taste. She was daring, she was challenging, she was maybe controversial, but her musical authority put her ahead of the pack and she emerged victorious as the gold medallist. The orchestra rallied behind her wonderfully, sounding like a completely different ensemble than only a couple hours before.

The level of artistry was inspiring at the World Piano Competition this year, and it looks to have turned over to a new leaf. It's an exciting time for piano and pianists in Cincinnati!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Mendelssohn and sempre pedale

Mendelssohn’s Fantasie, Op. 28 stands out among his wide-ranging output for piano. I think it's certainly one of his more challenging works, especially the final Presto. That’s probably why it’s one of the few Mendelssohn piano pieces on the circulating repertoire of our super-virtuosi, along with the G minor concerto. But the first two movements are so quirky—if I didn’t know the music, I doubt I would guess Mendelssohn as the composer. I'd go for Schumann, probably, especially with the bizarre asymmetrical phrasing in the second movement.

I’m currently working the piece up for the Art of Piano festival at CCM next week, and I played it through for James Tocco a few days ago. I don't think I've ever had a teacher who was more concerned about detail—Tocco has a musicologist’s mind for tiny things in the music that too many of us wouldn't give a second thought. But he manages to draw out so much meaning from these breadcrumbs off the composer’s table that he completely transforms my understanding of the music.

What would you make of this sempre pedale marking?
I probably thought what 90 percent of pianist would think: Mendelssohn is asking me to change the pedal here and hold it for the next five measures. There a similar passage in Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata, where the pedal blurs a single-line melody:

Mendelssohn was, of course, very much into Beethoven, and was one of the first pianists to tackle his monumental “Hammerklavier” sonata. He was surely familiar with this passage and might have been paying homage.

But Tocco suggested a more radical interpretation: The sempre pedale could indicate that the pedal remains sustained, not a change of pedal. Then there would a single pedal starting nine measures earlier, lasting for a total of fourteen measures! This pedal would blur through the B minor-F sharp major chord changes on the second line of the example. More strikingly, F sharp major would blur with F sharp minor as Mendelssohn suddenly reverts to the opening tonality six measures before the end.

It might seem out of character for Mendelssohn. The image of Beethoven as a raving genius who thrust the Classical world kicking and screaming into the Romantic era matches perfectly with uncomfortably messy pedaling. But Mendelssohn? From a respectable upper middle class family, stylistically conservative, who according to Taruskin, never outgrew his precocious early style? On the other hand, Mendelssohn was very clear with his markings and didn’t normally leave pedal markings hanging unended. Surely if he wanted a pedal change, he would have written it.

That evening around midnight, I received an email from Tocco. His meticulous attention to detail hadn’t allowed him to sleep, and he gave me a near-exhaustive list of sempre pedale examples from Beethoven and Mendelssohn. The more you look, the less clear it gets, but he thought—and I agree—that there’s a strong case to be made for a single, fourteen-measure pedal. Beethoven often used sempre pedale to indicate a sustained pedal (no change), for example near the end of the first movement of the “Appassionata”:

Mendelssohn used the term even more frequently than Beethoven. Sometimes it seems to indicate a change of pedal, but more often than not it means to sustain it. One of my favorite examples is in his first sonata, Op. 6, where he writes sempre Pedale after a long cadenza-like movement that leads into a powerful finale:
Tocco classified this one as probably indicating a pedal change. But wouldn’t it be cool if it were sustaining? The sonority that would build up over the course of these seven measures would be pure cacophony on a modern instrument! Unlike in the Fantasie, there is really only one harmony here—a long dominant pedal—even through there are plenty of passing tones.

It’s long been accepted that the differences between Beethoven’s pianos and ours mean that we don’t really need to observe his more eccentric pedalings exactly. For every pianist who plays the “Tempest” passage above with one long full pedal, there are probably three who use shades of half pedal and half changes to keep things under control. I think the same could be said for Mendelssohn.

One more caveat: Sempre is a tricky term. I bet if Beethoven were alive today, he wouldn't use a crazy term like sempre fortissimo quite so easily. Like here:

He writes that at the climax of the first movement of the “Appassionata.” Counting the two measures of fortissimo before, there are seventeen(!) full measures of fortissimo before the next written dynamic, piano. I think everyone understands that the excitement has to wind down somewhere, without a sudden drop of dynamic right at the end of this passage. I think there would also be general agreement about what Beethoven means: this is a powerful, sustained climax. But in the best performances I’ve heard, this passage isn’t necessarily all loud loud loud. Instead it’s volatile, like a pot boiling over on full flame. It’s not surprising that a more considered approach is more exciting and effective than seventeen measures of jackhammer, but thanks to that sempre too many pianists fall into that trap.

Still, sempre fortissimo and sempre pedale are worlds apart. I have a clear preference for pianists who play with too much pedal over those who play too loudly. Too loud is just unmusical, but a good musician who takes chances with the pedal has balls. Or powerful ovaries.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Life, and art

The past month or so has passed so quickly! I gave a lecture-recital on improvisation in graphic scores back at the end of May. The recital was a requirement for my degree at Juilliard, but I talked them in to letting me do it in Cincinnati and save the cost of a plane ticket. I talked mostly about improvisation and played two graphic scores by Roman Haubenstock-Ramati. In the Q&A afterward people were more curious about the scores. Following a graphic score, even if you know the exact path and method of interpretation used, is inevitably an exercise in frustration for a classical music listener who's used to having everything clearly laid out. So when I made a DVD of the performance to send to Juilliard, I analyzed my performance of the solo version of Catch 2. It was pretty fun to listen back, really a discovery since I had surprisingly little idea of what to expect. As it turns out I managed to skip a whole line of the score—a whole repetition to be exact! I posted the video on YouTube here.

The birth of our son James Jerome on June 11 has made the past few weeks both terrifically exciting and frustrating, since looking after a newborn is a delightful chore that leaves little time for anything else. I'm still scrambling to finish revising my dissertation (on improvisation) since I'm told it will soon get worse. I have the Art of the Piano festival to look forward to here in Cincinnati in a few weeks; we're expecting some terrific teachers and pianists to come through. More on that soon.