Saturday, 23 June 2012

Claude Debussy's La Mer

The great pianist Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) wrote:

"For me, Roger Désormière's recording of Debussy's La mer -- a piece that I rank alongside the St Matthew Passion and Wagner's Ring as one of my favourite works -- is the most beautiful in the whole history of the gramophone.
Shall I ever tire of listening to it, of contemplating it and breathing its atmosphere? And each time is like the first time! An enigma, a miracle of natural reproduction; no, even more than that, sheer magic!
The mere fact that technology has managed to capture this degree of inspiration is in itself a miracle! I don't know a finer recording. As for the interpretation, there's nothing one can say. It's unique."

Debussy, when writing "La mer", was inspired by Hokusai's famous engraving "The Great Wave at Kanagawa", ca. 1830. He asked his publisher Durand to reproduce it on the cover of the printed score.

Francois Gillet, the first oboist of the Lamoureux Orchestra that gave the first performance of La mer in 1905, recalls that during one of the rehearsals Debussy said to the conductor Camille Chevillard: "A little faster here!"
Chevillard said: "Mon cher ami, yesterday you gave me the tempo we have just played."
Debussy looked at him with intense reflection in the eyes and said: "But I don't feel music the same way every day".....

Roger Désormière (1898-1963)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded in 1950

Saturday, 21 April 2012

How Béla Bartók played his Second Piano Concerto

There are quite a few Bartók-recordings from private collections, and most of them were issued on a 4-CD set by Hungaroton (now out of print):

On it are various solo pieces, some performances with other musicians such as Bartók's wife Ditta with whom he performed pieces for two pianos

...and some pieces with orchestra with Bartók at the piano.
Most of them have abominable sound quality, and the one I would like to share here is no exception! The orchestra is hardly audible, and there are atmospheric disturbances, distortions and gaps. Still, it gives a glimpse of how Bartók played one of his most important piano works... an important historic document.
This recording of a 1938 radio broadcast by Radio Budapest was made by a Hungarian sound recording engineer István Makai (1904-1970) with primitive equipment. He wrote books about radio systems and recording techniques:

Makai was asked to make the recording by the poetess Sophie Török (born Ilona Tanner, 1895-1955), a big fan of Bartók and the wife of the poet Mihály Babits (1883-1941):

Unfortunately the cadenza of the first movement (Allegro) is missing, as well as the Presto middle part of the slow second movement (Adagio).
However it is clear that this is a very precise and energetic performance.
In the Adagio one can hear that Bartók as a pianist was influenced by the Liszt-tradition. At the Budapest Conservatory he was taught by István Thomán,

a pupil of Liszt. In the espressivo section he is using rubato, arpeggiation of chords and the asynchronisation of bass and melody notes (playing the bass notes earlier). According to some modern views, these are  "Romantic mannerisms"! However, in Bartók's hands, they are simply suitable, expressive means belonging to his versatile style.

Budapest Concert Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ernest Ansermet.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Art of Playing Scales, some thoughts and examples

When I look at certain sites of music schools where piano teachers present themselves, I am astonished to learn that some of them have embraced a "modern approach" that makes practising scales superfluous... calling the traditional way "old-fashioned" and a "waste of time".
I am inclined to think that those modern teachers are totally denying one of the truths of fine piano playing: without a flexible, clean and fluent technique, artistic playing on a high level is simply not possible. And practising scales in an intelligent way is one of the best ways to develop an all-embracing technical grasp.

Especially in the first years of learning to play the piano, but also later on when one has a more advanced level of piano playing, it is indispensible to practise scales in all forms, preferably on a daily basis. I give just three of many important reasons:

1. It is the best way to get acquainted with tonality (key, major and minor) and intervals, and in general with the total range of the piano.
2. It is a perfect way to train both the ear and all the fingers by listening very attentively to the exact dynamic value of the tones, so that the result sounds smoothly and accurately.
3. If one has memorized the exact fingerings of all the minor and major scales and if one can reproduce them all without much trouble, it is of incalculable value when studying new pieces of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin etc. that are full of scales in whatever form or key... it also saves a lot of time!

 It is very difficult in the beginning to judge the correct volume of sound when one starts practising scales (because the fingers are unequal in strength), that's why I would recommend to start with hands separately.

Special attention is needed for the role of the thumb, because it is often causing a jerkiness or unrest of the hand. This is usually because the thumb is too late with moving towards the proper key. To put the fingers in time on the right keys without any jumpiness while playing scales with great speed is not an easy task! That's why it needs so much practise, too. One should always listen with a lot of concentration to the sounding result, but at the same time one should also foresee and prepare all the correct movements.

The right hand of Thedor Leschetitzky (1830-1915), one of the greatest and most important piano pedagogues in history, playing a scale:

Heinrich Neuhaus (1888-1964), in his extremely important book "The Art of Piano Playing", gives this exercise to train the thumb in anticipating the next key:

There is a huge amount of preliminary exercises for scales available, I just give three examples:
Marguerite Long, "Le Piano":

J. Pischna, Technical Studies:

Franz Liszt, Technical Studies:

Eventually, a good touch has been formed, and the thumb will be fully prepared. Then one can start practising more advanced scales, using the entire range of the piano.
Of course it is of the utmost importance to study very carefully all the right fingerings. An excellent compendious survey of all the major/minor scales with added fingerings can be found in the book of Marguerite Long ("Le piano"),

 but there are many other well-ordered piano methods, suchs as "Le Pianiste Virtuose" by H.L. Hanon.

The "secret" of thoroughly enjoying practising scales is, of course, to vary as much as possible. Chromatic, diatonic, major, minor, in groups of three, four or six notes, in contrary motion, in thirds, sixths and octaves, in different rhythms, with accents, crescendi, decrescendi, piano, forte, legato, staccato etc. etc. There are endless combinations possible... no need to ever work mechanically! There is a great deal of fun in inventing new exercises with scales. It's also nice to just improvise using as much scales as possible. Why not try something à la Prokofiev, who wrote polytonal passages like this (combining an A major scale with a D flat major scale):

Also, it is a very good idea to collect and memorize a repertoire of passages of scales from famous pieces, as there are literally hundreds of them in the piano literature that one can use for practise purposes!
Depending on one's mood, one day one can choose Liszt's Mazeppa to practise (starting slowly and gradually working up to speed):

Or if one feels more like E major, one could spend some time practising this passage:
Or if one wants to practise an exuberant E flat major scale, one could play the end of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition":
It is also possible to use a passage from Mozart or Chopin, and then transpose it into other keys:

Sometimes, a fingering may deviate from what is "normal", because a composer/pianist had a certain pianistic style, or he had a certain musical effect in mind. For example we can find in some of the Liszt Rhapsodies rapid scale passages that are supposed to be played with a rather unorthodox fingering:
And Ferruccio Busoni (who often had a tendency to experiment with difficult fingerings) used this idea too:

To end here, I would like to quote one of the greatest technicians in the history of piano playing, Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969):

"Personally, I practice scales in preference to all other forms of technical exercises when I am preparing for a concert. Add to this arpeggios and Bach, and you have the basis upon which my technical work stands. Pianists who have been curious about my technical accomplishments have apparently been amazed when I have told them that scales are my great technical mainstay—that is, scales plus hard work. They evidently have thought that I had some kind of alchemic secret, like the philosopher's stone which was designed to turn the baser metals into gold. I possess no secrets which any earnest student may not acquire if he will work in the laboratory of music long enough. There are certain artistic points which only come with long-continued experiment."

(From "Great pianists on piano playing", James Francis Cooke
Available here:

Monday, 9 April 2012

Vladimir de Pachmann: Poet and Poseur

Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933), apart from being a great pianist, was one of the greatest eccentrics in the history of piano playing.
He was born in Odessa and received his first music lessons (starting on violin) from his very musical father, who was Jewish. His mother came from an ancient Turkish family.
As a boy of 18 years old, he entered the Vienna Conservatory to study with Joseph Dachs, a very "old school" pianist who had studied with Carl Czerny.

Young Vladimir studied in Vienna from 1867 to 1869, but in fact he had very few lessons with Dachs; he did study harmony and counterpoint with Anton Bruckner.
He went back to Odessa to give some concerts, but especially after hearing the great virtuoso Carl Tausig, Pachmann was not satisfied with his playing and retired for many years, studying alone. 

Eventually he gained confidence and he was very successful, notably in the works of Chopin in which he must have excelled.
In the 1880s Pachmann also received some advice and encouragement from Franz Liszt.
Pachmann first married one of his pupils, Maggie Okey,

but later he lived with his secretary Francesco Pallottelli, who wrote a very interesting biographical sketch:

He made his first very successful tour in America in 1890, returning many times, until his last Carnegie Hall recital in 1925.
There is one surviving silent movie of Vladimir de Pachmann,  making a piano roll recording:

One can see a very fluent technique, a free wrist and rather flat, strong, independent fingers. One of his principles was that there should be ease and grace in every movement.

He had a special idea about how to use (or not use) the wrists during playing:
"Perhaps a simple experiment will serve to illustrate. Put your elbow upon the table and let your forearm fall with your hand in comfortable playing condition. Do not curve the fingers too much, because that is unnatural.
Now, with the hand and forearm in this position, move the hand (without moving the forearm) as far as possible to the left and hold it in that position for a few moments. You will notice at once that there is a strain at the joint of the wrist. Now move the hand in the opposite direction and there is likewise a strain. It is this strain that, to my mind, distorts the muscular and the nervous condition of the hand and the forearm and results in much horrible playing. The tone cannot be musical and beautiful if the wrist is stiff or strained in this manner. Therefore I never move the hand from side to side. The lateral movement occurs at the elbow or at the shoulder and not at the wrist. The hand is on a straight line with the arm. Is this 'stiff wrists?' On the contrary it is the very opposite, and the one sure remedy for stiff wrists. The hands and arms are always free and unconstrained."

Later in life, Pachmann's behaviour and ideas could be rather bizarre... for example, according to Harold Schonberg in his book "The Great Pianists", he claimed that "milking cows was better finger exercise than anything devised by the mind of man".

He would also talk to the audience, insulting some people, commenting the music he played, inviting other pianists in the audience to play, or showing "Chopin's socks" on stage...
But despite these eccentricities, he must have been a poetic pianist with great personal magnetism and a wonderful delicate touch... in his best recordings, there is also a marvellous tone production:

Pachmann Quotes

"Each note in a composition should be polished until it is as perfect as a jewel —as perfect as an Indian diamond — those wonderful scintillating, ever-changing orbs of light. In a really great masterpiece each note has its place just as the stars, the jewels of heaven, have their places in their constellations. When a star moves it moves in an orbit that was created by nature."

"Great musical masterpieces owe their existence to mental forces quite as miraculous as those which put the heavens into being. The notes in compositions of this kind are not there by any rule of man. They come through the ever mystifying source which we call inspiration. Each note must bear a distinct relation to the whole."

"In playing Chopin all lies in the fingering. How many have cunningly watched me do these same things to find out how I did them. Did they find out? Scarcely; they would not have kept on playing with such a hard tone afterward, if they had. It has taken me thirty years to study out these things for myself. Let them do the same. Why should I give away my bread? I am sixty, and I shall soon be dead: it is well."

"The whole question of melody is of the utmost importance where Chopin is concerned, for many of his most beautiful pieces resemble songs which, alas! too often lose their beauty at the hands of second-rate pianists, through the voice being drowned by the accompaniment. Infinite delicacy and elegance are required for the playing of these songs on the piano, and much may be done to ensure perfection by listening to great singers, observing how they obtain their effects, and adapting their methods to the piano."

"Je suis le roi des pianistes."

 "The trouble with most pupils in studying a piece is that when they seek individuality and originality they go about it in the wrong way, and the result is a studied, stiff, hard performance. Let them listen to the voice, I say; to the inner voice, the voice which is speaking every moment of the day, but to which so many shut the ears of their soul." 

"The artist's genius is not genuine until he can comprehend Bach. To play Bach is to play the piano. His compositions are drops of pure gold. In Bach you must read between the lines; he is a little obscure here and there, but the more you understand him the more you see his infinite greatness."

"This then is my life secret — work, unending work. I have no other secrets. I have developed myself along the lines revealed to me by my inner voice. I have studied myself as well as my art." 


Sunday, 8 April 2012

Walter Gieseking as a Composer: Children's Songs

It is not well-known that the eminent German pianist Walter Gieseking (1895-1956), a sublime colorist, also composed himself. Apart from music for the piano and chamber music pieces, he wrote this charming song cycle for his daughters Jutta and Freya. Gieseking's idiom is influenced by the late Romantic German composers, but also by the French impressionists, notably Ravel... sometimes humorous, with a quote of Chopin's Funeral March at 7:03! Maybe his style lacked a certain originality, but who cares when hearing these superb musicians! Sublime and definitive performance by Schwarzkopf and Gieseking.

21 Kinderlieder - nach Gedichten von Paula und Richard Dehmel (1934-35)
21 Children's Songs after poems of Paula and Richard Dehmel

Geht leise
Witte woll schlafen
Mein Wagen
Wenn Rumpumpel brummig ist
Der Pudding
Zwei Mäulchen
Das Scherchen
Tintenheinz und Plätscherlottchen
Es regnet
Drei Bäumchen
Hansel und Gretel
Der Reitersmann

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915-2006), soprano
Walter Gieseking (1895-1956), piano
Rec. 50s

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Aphorisms (2): Artur Schnabel

This Austrian pianist (1882-1951) who lived successively in Germany, Italy and America, received lessons from the famous pedagogue Theodor Leschetitzky in Vienna when he was a teenager.
Although he played the Romantic virtuoso repertoire when he was younger, he later became associated with the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. His recordings are not always successful from a technical point of view, probably because of nervousness. However Claudio Arrau, who heard him play in Berlin when he studied there, said that Schnabel's live performances during the 1920s were "technically flawless". In any case, for many years Schnabel was considered the greatest Beethoven pianist, and in my opinion his Schubert recordings are still unsurpassed.

Here you can hear him play a Schubert Moment Musicale:

And here in Schubert's last Sonata:


The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes — ah, that is where the art resides.

I know two kinds of audiences only - one coughing, and one not coughing.

When a piece gets difficult, make faces.

One should never make any music, not even sound one musical tone, without a musical intention preceding it.

Interpretation is a free walk on firm ground.

There is only one good technique, and that is to attain a maximum of achievement with a minimum of effort. That applies to all physical activity.

Sunshine can burn you, food can poison you, words can condemn you, pictures can insult you; music cannot punish – only bless.

I am attracted only to music which I consider to be better than it can be performed. Therefore I feel (rightly or wrongly) that unless a piece of music presents a problem to me, a never-ending problem, it doesn't interest me too much.

Aphorisms (1): Egon Petri

Undoubtedly the best pupil of Ferruccio Busoni, Egon Petri (1881-1962) was born in Germany but came from a Dutch family. He later settled in America where he also developed into an important teacher. Petri was a formidable virtuoso who inherited his teacher's taste for the big pieces of the repertoire. In my opinion he was one of the greatest Liszt interpreters of all time, as can be heard here:


Art consists of a lot of very fine details made correctly.

Meter is something invented by man, like the metronome, the clock, etc. 

In playing, think everything in curves: no angles, no stops, and no jerks.  

This is a principle of life: Calm is based on confidence. 

Subtle differences of accent are a case of mental division. Like "men’s wear" as opposed to "men swear". 

Rhythm is something in nature, where nothing is quite alike. 

Pedal: A very beautiful but dangerous instrument. 

Rubato is like a man walking his dog. Sometimes the dog is ahead, sometimes behind, but both go and come back together. 

Phrasing in music is like speaking or reading, observing punctuation marks, and dynamics are like voice inflection. Don't overdo or underdo either. 

Remember that technique is mental rather than physical. Therefore, it is necessary to will a movement before making it. 

Music is so lovely when it's left alone.

Most pianists spend their expression in small coin.

People who talk too much about interpretation are apt not to be humble enough. I try not to overshadow the composer.