Sunday, November 4, 2012

Where we have been.

Dear Readers,

So much time has passed since my last blog. So much has happened since… My last one talked about the works I was going to play at the Museum of Art on January 29th. That program was recorded, and the CD is about to be released by Centaur Records.

Soon after that recital, in talking with my friend, the conductor Domenico Boyagian, we decided to collaborate on a project to record the Grieg Piano Concerto. We picked the venue (the Museum of Art, again), talked to Ted Good of Steinway, who gave us a superb instrument, enlisted the services of Thomas Knab, a fantastic sound engineer, and scheduled two public performances of the Concerto, with the Ohio Philharmonic Orchestra. Those live performances are the basis for the CD that is about to be released. 

In the meantime, teaching at CIM was in full swing, and I was playing recitals in Oregon, Spain and South Africa, and concerto performances in California (Prokofiev Third with the Stockton Symphony), and Florida (Rachmaninoff Second with the Pensacola Symphony), as well as Texas (Grieg with the Longview Symphony). The South Africa trip at the end of March was a fantastic one, and a perfect prelude to my South African tour of August. I went to Stellenbosch, to be part of the Piano Symposium organized by Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhaes. I had a blast. It was well worth the interminable flights.

The Liszt Society Festival in Eugene, OR was also a wonderful experience. I met or saw again colleagues and friends who I respect and admire, such as John Perry, Luiz de Moura Castro, Alexandre Dossin, Gila Goldstein, and many others. I also had a wonderful time playing my recital on a New York Steinway that did not seem to be the instrument of choice at the University of Oregon Music School, but I loved it and am happy I chose it. 

I also had many trips to beautiful Santo Domingo throughout the winter and into late spring/early summer, to teach masterclasses there. That is always I place I love to go to, especially for the dear friends I have there.

I returned to San Jose, CA at the beginning of June to preside the jury of the International Russian Music Piano Competition. Dan and Irina Morgan, as well as Julie and Alex Poklewski, always do a magnificent job at organizing that event, aided of course by wonderful board members and volunteers. They have all become great friends of mine and Emanuela's, as well as fantastic "uncles and aunts" to my daughter. Eleanor's birthday falls during the competition, and the fact that we were together on that day made the whole experience even more special.

The summer festival season was now upon me, and I traveled to Italy, and more precisely to one of the most beautiful places on earth: the Amalfi Coast. The Amalfi Coast Music Festival was unforgettable. I arrived quite tired, after all that activity and not a day of rest. The weather was scorching hot, air conditioning insufficient, or not available. I'm Italian, so that was nothing I didn't expect. What I did not expect was how the beauty of the surroundings would make me feel regenerated, even while working hard. July in Amalfi, radiant, splendid, sweet, unforgettable, gave me emotions I will not forget as long as I live.

Those emotions and feelings carried over to the next engagement, a workshop in Napoli. I have been returning to Napoli every year in the third week of July. Never have I loved it more.

At the end of the workshop, I played a recital in Nancy, France. Place Stanislas is simply incredible.

Then came my South African tour, which lasted over 3 weeks. I played the Grieg Concerto several times with the Johannesburg Philharmonic, Rachmaninoff Third with the Cape Town Philharmonic, several recitals in Jo'burg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, and Knysna, as well as numerous masterclasses all over the country. I met so many wonderful people. I'm happy I will return there at the end of June 2013. 

By the time I played my last engagement in South Africa, I had barely time to fly back to Italy, and drive 6 hours from Rome to Taranto, for my brother's wedding. It was a wonderful ceremony and reception.

Summer was now over! Fly back to the States, start teaching right away, mix that with more traveling and performing: four concerts with the West Virginia Symphony, then Rachmaninoff Third with the National Symphony of the Dominican Republic, then Hong Kong, Macau, back to the US to play Mendelssohn First with the Winston-Salem Symphony, then a quick trip to Japan, and here we are! 

Two more trips in November, one to Santo Domingo to teach, and another to Rio de Janeiro to judge a great piano competition, from November 25th through December 8th. Then, perhaps, finally, a few days to catch my breath?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Program Notes

Dear Readers,

I will play a recital in Cleveland, on January 29th, and here are my program notes:

Carl Czerny (1791-1857)
Variations on a theme by Rode, Op.33 "La Ricordanza" (1822)

Carl Czerny is mostly remembered today for his Études and exercises. However, his catalogue of compositions lists 861 Opus numbers, many of which are brilliant concert pieces. It appears that Czerny chose the theme by violinist Pierre Rode after hearing the great soprano Angelica Catalani perform her own variations on the same theme. The title "La Ricordanza" The Reminiscence, seems to indicate that Czerny composed this delightful set while reminiscing about that fabulous performance. Elegant, charming, extremely virtuosic in some of its passagework, this set makes for a wonderful concert piece.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)
Sonata No. 5, Op.81 in F# minor (1819)

Johann Nepomuk Hummel is the greatest composer of that period of transition between the Classical and the Romantic eras. He studied with Mozart for two years, living under the same roof with the great Wolfgang Amadeus during the last two years of the great Master's life. Subsequently, Hummel studied with, or came under the influence of great composers such as Clementi, Dussek, Salieri, and Haydn, who became his mentor, and whom he addressed as "my beloved Papa". While studying with Haydn, Hummel became friends with Beethoven, whose respect he earned and maintained. Following Beethoven's wishes, Hummel improvised at Beethoven's memorial concert. At this event, he met and became friends with Franz Schubert, who dedicated his last three sonatas to Hummel (unfortunately, by the time of their publication, both Schubert and Hummel were dead, so the publisher changed the dedication to Robert Schumann instead). While Kapellmeister at Weimar, Hummel formed a close friendship with Goethe and Schiller, who both worked for the Weimar Theater. Hummel turned Weimar into a European musical capital, attracting the best musicians of his day to perform or be in residence there. As a teacher, Hummel represents one of the most influential figures of the 19th century. He taught Carl Czerny, Ferdinand Hiller, Sigismond Thalberg, Adolf Von Henselt, and Felix Mendelssohn. Franz Liszt's father refused to pay the high tuition fee Hummel charged, so Franz ended up studying with Czerny (Liszt eventually became himself Kapellmeister at Weimar). The Sonata Op.81 (1819) is a great example of the incredible virtuosic piano writing, prodigious sense of form and proportions, melodic and harmonic inventiveness of Hummel. The second movement of this Sonata, much like the Hummel Concerti in A minor and B minor, makes it abundantly clear that Frederic Chopin knew and admired Hummel's works, and was greatly influenced by them. The two became friends, and Hummel was a great mentor to the young Chopin.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op.42 (1931)

In 1931, while visiting Switzerland, Rachmaninoff bought a piece of land to build a new Ivanovka, as his summer residence in Russia was called. The villa, on Lake Lucerne, would be called "Senar" (SErgei and NAtalia Rachmaninoff).
While waiting for its completion, Rachmaninoff composed the Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op.42. It took him only three weeks to finish it. This would turn out to be his only original solo piano piece composed after leaving Russia.
Rachmaninoff seems to have been unaware that the theme was not by Arcangelo Corelli, but rather a Portuguese popular melody called "La Folia", the existence of which is first documented in treatises and compositions dating from the 16th Century. Lully, Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, J.S. Bach and Franz Liszt all used this theme to compose their own variations. The Spanish Rhapsody by Franz Liszt, based on the same theme, had been part of Rachmaninoff's repertoire since 1919, and that is probably how Rachmaninoff came in contact with it.
The op. 42 is dedicated to the great violinist Fritz Kreisler, Rachmaninoff's friend and colleague. This encourages the thought that Kreisler might have even enticed Rachmaninoff to compose the Variations. It does not seem like a big stretch to think that "Les Folies d'Espagne", Arcangelo Corelli's violin sonata based on "La Folia", might have been the object of a conversation, or even a private reading by the two great musicians.
Rachmaninoff's style at this stage had evolved considerably, allowing the composer to express the full range of his emotions with an economy of means already manifested in the revision of the Second Sonata, as well as the Fourth Concerto, and without his earlier redundancy. One can't help but notice a similarity and a contrast with the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op. 43, composed in 1934. The "slow movement" in Op. 42, constituted by Variations 14 and 15, is in D Flat Major, just like the famous Variation 18 in Op. 43. However, in the Op.42, the two Variations do not turn into a vehicle for the Composer's lyrical vein. They have a rather introspective, dreamy character, not very impassioned and almost diametrically opposite to Variation 18 of the Rhapsody.
The Coda of this work is an absolute gem, finally resorting to chromaticism to intensify the emotional outpouring, just before releasing the built-up tension through a final, wistful statement of the theme.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
From "Années de Pèlerinage, Première Année, Suisse" (1855)
Vallée d'Obermann
Au bord d'une source
The first volume of "Années de Pèlerinage", Years of Pilgrimage, is subtitled "Suisse", Switzerland. It was published in 1855, but eight out of the nine movements had already appeared about twenty years earlier, under the title "Album d'un Voyageur", having been composed while Liszt was in Switzerland with countess Marie d'Agoult, with whom he had eloped. Liszt re-worked all the movements, and added one, "Orage". 
"Vallée d'Obermann" is inspired by Étienne de Senancour's novel, "Obermann". Liszt musically describes the philosophical meditations, the existential doubts, the torment of unanswerable questions that Obermann goes through while living in a solitary refuge in the Swiss Alps. The Valley of Obermann is as much a spiritual as a physical place. Through his struggle, Obermann longs for spiritual peace, love, harmony, hope, and eternity. Liszt masterfully renders this longing by a transfiguration of the initial, desolate theme, and by a crescendo that reaches an ecstatic climax.
"Au bord dune source", Beside a Spring, is a splendid example of "water music". It flows quietly and calmly, with occasional big splashes, but its apparent calmness disguises enormous technical challenges to the performer.
"Orage"  is a musical description of a violent storm in the Swiss Alps, thus creating a violent contrast with the peaceful water music that precedes it. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Franz Liszt' Second Ballade. What's the story behind it?

In the last few years, I have been telling my students (and audiences at my recitals) that I believe the Second Ballade by Liszt to be inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. A few people have asked why I believe such a thing, when no sources prove it. Furthermore, an oral tradition, perpetuated by the great Claudio Arrau--who apparently learned it from his teacher Martin Krause, who was one of Liszt's pupils, seems to establish a link between the Ballade and another myth, that of Hero and Leander. While that is possible, I doubt it. 

The Second Ballade was composed in 1853 and published in 1854. In those same years, Liszt composed his 8th Symphonic Poem, titled “Orpheus” (this is actually known as the Symphonic Poem n. 4, but that numeration does not follow the chronological order of composition). In 1854, Liszt conducted the Weimar premiere of Gluck's opera “Orfeo ed Euridice”, and replaced Gluck's original overture with his own Symphonic Poem. 

I think the Second Ballade truly fits the Orpheus and Eurydice story like a glove, and I cannot help but think that it is this myth that was very much on Liszt's mind when he wrote the Ballade. So much so, that I think every moment of the piece can be directly linked to the unfolding of the story:

 -The repetition of the same material at the beginning, first in B minor [bars 1-34], then in B flat minor [35-69], physically accompanying Orpheus‘ descent into the Underworld; 

-The murky river Styx represented by the left hand chromatic figuration; 

-The sublime “love theme”, sung by Orpheus accompanying himself on his lyre [24-34, and 59-69]; 

-A three-headed dog named Cerberus, ghosts, spirits, vultures, other threatening creatures [70 and following] all being tamed by Orpheus’ song [“Allegretto”, bars 143 and following]. In his journey to meet the King and Queen of Hades, Orpheus is confronted by numerous scary creatures at various times, but continues undeterred;

-Orpheus pleading to Pluto and Persephone, King and Queen of the Underworld [“Appassionato”, bars 225 and following]. This is the same theme we hear earlier, at bars 135 and following (‘a piacere, cantando”), softer and more hesitant, as if Orpheus first rehearses what he is going to say to the King and Queen, whispering it to himself;

-The transfiguration of the disconsolate opening theme into a glorious B Major, after his wish is granted [“Allegro Moderato”, bars 254 and following]; 

-The ascending arpeggios, and later scales, representing the ecstatic journey back to the world of the living, both hands moving upwards, both Orpheus and Eurydice so close to the goal, the music building up to what could have been such a triumphant finale; 

-The crushing blow of the diminished seventh chord that suddenly interrupts this ecstatic journey, representing the very moment in which Orpheus turns and looks at his wife, contravening the one condition set by Pluto and Persephone [bar 297]; 

-Orpheus chasing Eurydice as she vanishes before his eyes [bars 298-299];

-The contrary-motion alternate octaves, Orpheus and Eurydice being separated so precipitously and forever [bars 300-301]; 

-The return of the “love theme”, this time presented in a very frantic manner, as Orpheus realizes that his beloved is lost forever [302-310]; 

-Resignation [bars 311 to the end], but still Orpheus' longing, his yearning for Eurydice can be felt by the way the music resists the arrival of the final B Major chord through a series of G#s in the top voice, and chromaticism in the inner voices. The last note of the piece, an F# played over a tied chord, sounds like the ultimate gesture of resignation, Orpheus lowering his head and accepting his cruel fate.  

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Emperor is Naked!

In Hans Christian Andersen's short tale "The Emperor's New Clothes", two fellows--today we would refer to them as con artists, promise an Emperor some new clothes that are invisible to stupid people. The vain Emperor, for fear of being considered stupid, parades himself naked through the streets. Only a child, in his candor, can shout the truth--"But he isn't wearing anything at all!", and make everyone realize they had all been conned.

A friend sent me an article by music critic Michael White. You can read it HERE

Mr. White mentions music critics suffering secretly through a performance of some celebrated work they really can't stand. He also mentions people attending concerts feeling like they have to put up a show of delight only for fear of passing for unsophisticated if they dare say they do not like a particular work. It made me think of Andersen's tale. 

The article also talks about how a beloved work might become difficult to listen to, strenuous, exhausting, even unbearable, due to excessively frequent programming. 

In the piano world, with the massive amount of repertoire we have, recital programs and even concerto performances seldom deviate from mainstream repertoire. This is very limiting, and really a shame. Of course, some works are immortal, they transcend time and must be offered to concert goers, especially to new generations (when the Holy Spirit moves them to actually enter such an unhip place as a concert hall). However, I think the ideal balance in a recital program consists of an equal number of mainstream works/composers and relative unknowns. Sometimes a pianist has to push a little to convince presenters that his/her program is worth listening to!

For a New York recital of mine a few years ago, at Carnegie Hall, my proposed program was: Beethoven-Eroica Variations Op.35; Czerny-Variations "La Ricordanza" Op.33; Liszt-Ballade No.2; Julius Reubke-Sonata in B flat minor; Howard Ferguson-Sonata Op.8. The Reubke and the Ferguson are two very big pieces, and virtually unknown. The presenter expressed concern that people might be scared away. "You have an unknown (sic!) Beethoven, Czerny, whom people think of as just a composer for kids" (I guess because of his Etudes), "and in the second half you want to play composers no one has ever heard of?".  I was determined to play the program the way I had conceived it. I had put a lot of thought into it. However, after much pressing, urging, and pleading on his part, I agreed to show some "flexibility". Could I not do away with either the Reubke or the Ferguson and replace it with a "blockbuster"? He suggested I do away with the Reubke because it was longer than the Ferguson. As to say, he went with the lesser of two evils (he, of course, did not know either work. I don't blame him. Nobody played them!). In the end, I played the Ferguson, and replaced the Reubke with the Rachmaninoff Second Sonata (a mainstream work played all too frequently, but a gorgeous piece of music, of course).      

I remember when I was a student, reading through and learning masterpieces such as the Beethoven Sonatas, the Chopin Ballades, the Bach Preludes and Fugues and hundreds of other works. The intensity of the passion I had, the true love I felt. The impact of those "first times" was truly profound, and will last for as long as I live. Yet, studying those works, performing those works, teaching those works, listening to them hundreds of times while judging competitions or at piano recitals, I do feel the need to put some distance from many of them, and to explore, to "discover" new music…new for me, anyway. All in hope of feeling that same coup de foudre I felt when first playing through the Schumann Fantasy, the Beethoven Appassionata, the Liszt Sonata, to name a few. You might object that there aren't any works of such sublimity or importance to be "discovered", and that might be true. Much of the lesser-known or unknown repertoire from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is not worth unearthing. However, how are you going to find any buried gems without looking? I did find quite a few, and they gave me much pleasure. Besides, most of the pleasure for me is in the process of looking! When and if I happen to "find" something, that's a big fat bonus. 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Chopin Scherzo Connection

I was teaching the other day, and my student MoonKi played the Chopin 3rd Scherzo for me. I love the piece, and was listening to her play it when something struck me. A possible thematic connection between the 3rd a 4th scherzo?

I've played all of Chopin's Scherzi many times, and I've also performed all 4 in the second half of some of my recitals. I had never noticed this connection!

Example 1  (click to enlarge)

Example 2  (click to enlarge)
The two works date from 1839 and 1843 respectively. Number 3 is in C# minor, while the fourth is in the relative E Major, so they also share the number of sharps.

The descending double-octaves of the third scherzo (example 1) are a mirror image of the ascending chords of the fourth (example 2). As soon as the 3rd scherzo modulates to E Major, look at the five indicated notes (Example one, first line, bars 10, 11, 12, 13, and the first bar of line 2) : it's the opening theme of the Fourth Scherzo!

I don't know if it was intentional, but it is hard for me to believe it wasn't.  I think Chopin started out the 4th scherzo as a transfigured version of the 3rd and moved on from there.  Two works sounding as different as can be, and yet very closely connected.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Schumann - Bilder aus Osten Mvmt. 5

I'm in Santo Domingo, enjoying the great company of dear friends, and the beautiful weather, all the while teaching here. I'm also practicing...Bringing back Prokofieff Third Concerto and reading Tchaikovsky's Sonata in G, Op.37. I love that piece very much. In the downtime back at the hotel, I've been working on editing my next CD, an all-Schumann disc. Along with Carnaval op.9 and FantasieStucke Op.12, it features 6 pieces for piano 4-hands. My wife Emanuela Friscioni joined me for this project. The duets in question are called "Bilder aus Osten". The fifth movement, "Lebhaft", is a great favorite of mine. The energy in it is wonderful, and the middle section in F Major is so marvelous. I love the way Schumann creates a beautiful polyphonic dialogue, while the constant motion of the triplets keeps everything gently moving forward. It's like two people sweetly singing while on a boat ride! Here is our performance of it. I hope you like it!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Giuseppe Martucci: Fantasia Op.51

It has been truly a lot of fun practicing and playing through the Fantasia in G minor, Op. 51 by Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909), as I prepared it for a performance in Boston last February 8th.

The Italian composer was courageous enough to defy tradition, basing his entire career on instrumental and symphonic music [including 2 Symphonies, 2 Piano Concerti, an oratorio (Samuel), chamber music, and several piano and vocal works].  He never composed an opera, and as a conductor, he chose Wagner over Italian operatic composers!

This Fantasia [composed the same year as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture Op. 49 and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 2 S515] has become one of my favorite pieces.  It is very idiomatic, difficult but extremely well written for the piano, and it contains some beautiful melodies, some of which make me think of the rich tradition of Neapolitan popular music.

The Fantasia begins with a very dramatic gesture, followed by an emotional outpour. It then features a lively section that I would describe as a whirlwind, with its light, scherzando, fast 16th-notes that provide constant propulsion. In this section, along with the fun-filled agility passages, I greatly enjoy the imitations, the beauty of the harmonic progressions, as well as the overall transparency and brilliance. The last section is an abrupt return to the drama of the beginning, enhanced by the thematic material staying in the minor mode almost to the end, when we return to Eb Major with the final, chordal passage, solemn and grand.

One of the most successful characteristics of the piece, in my opinion, is the combination of structural soundness and free-flowing, quasi-improvisatory feel. Martucci was a truly wonderful composer. I hope to see his music programmed more often, and I'll try to do my part!