Imaginative programming matched by imaginative performances marked a surprising and satisfying evening of solo piano music at Tannery Pond Concerts. There is a mini-vogue for Rameau’s keyboard music, originally written for harpsichord, but currently being performed on piano, offering virtuosi surprising opportunities to show off their chops. There are You Tube video performances by Grigory Sokolov, Alexandre Tharaud, Clément Lefebvre, and Kyu Yeon Kim. Playing harpsichord music on the piano is a long-standing practice, but with increased awareness of the originally intended instrument and its unpianistic characteristics (including razor-sharp attack, lack of graduated dynamics, ultra-transparent textures and absence of sustaining pedal) pianists have had to make strategic choices whether to emulate some of these traits or to ignore them and use the full resources of the modern piano to interpret the music in ways that would have been unimaginable to the composers. An interesting debate hinges on the question of whether this latter choice would have been unacceptable to the composers, or on the contrary, delightful.
Schubert is considered an early romantic composer, but that does justice neither to his personal voice nor to the amazingly compressed stylistic development that took place right up to his death at the age of 31. Compared to his older contemporaries John Field and Carl Maria von Weber, Schubert the instrumental composer was a classicist, striving to emulate Beethoven in his increasingly masterful command of large forms; but in all of his music, he was also a fully developed romantic composer, squeezing feeling out of every note, often with the most original conceptions of sound and expressiveness.
The Philadelphia Orchestra always WAS the sexiest!
Back in the publicity heyday of art music and the aftermath of Toscanini, Americans knew their five orchestras. It went like this: in Boston you listened to Charles Munch for Gallic excitability. In Chicago, Reiner ruled with a heart of stone but turned out warmer central European renditions than Toscanini had. You flocked to Bernstein for eruptive passion and disreputable energy in New York. And at Severance Hall, in a state of penance, you submitted to the owlish purges of George Szell. But nothing seduced the listener so much as The Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of Eugene Ormandy.
Two musical instruments rise above all others in their humanity — the violin, because it comes closest to imitating the singing voice, and the piano, because it comes closest to conveying human nature. As human nature is vast, so is pianism. You can sequester yourself from territory that is too hot, cold, angry, lustful, domineering, or terrifying. Some pianists base their whole career on safely walling off the troubling aspects of human perversity (Alfred Brendel comes to mind, with his ability to make even Liszt wipe off his shoes at the door), while only one has been courageous enough to venture without a care into heaven and hell.
Stephen Hough says that he chose this program to be one of strange sonatas, which is altogether fitting for Liszt’s 200th birthday. The program, consisting entirely of sonatas — no préludes, études or the like (not counting the three encore pieces) — might theoretically have been stranger with, say, one of Pierre Boulez’s sonatas, but Hough seems to have been after a more subtle variety of strangeness. A sense of mystery and a very personal quality, very expressive of the internal world marry these pieces under Hough’s playing. The honesty and faithfulness to the Truth in his playing brought the music close to poetry. Though making music and poems are not the same or even parallel activities, the word ‘sonata’ shares an etymology with ‘sonnet’, the stem son- having to do with sound, and, as Stephen Hough points out in the program note, a sonata is sounded rather than sung, the piano having to make do on its own without words. Hough also pointed out in his short speech in-between the Beethoven and his own piece (usually I’d be against spiels in amongst the music, but Hough is a very good public speaker, thoughtful an interesting, with the voice of a 1930’s radio presenter), that Liszt, whose birthday fell on the very day of this recital, invented the concept and the word ‘recital’ as a sort of pure recitation of music of a single musician. Thus, though sounded and not sung there is the similar expectation in the audience, the similar solitude of the performer as in a poetry recitation, far from a mere reading, but an honest expression of the sonata as if it were naturally being created then and there, as Hough says ‘as if the notes were still wet on the page.’ Mozart wrote something similar once, that the height of piano playing is to play as if you had composed the music yourself.