Dr Tsay’s research has run the globe. Sadly, it doesn’t deliver anything new: musicians have known her results for years; Charles Rosen writes about it in his Piano Notes (2002).
But Dr Tsay’s research is an interesting case of how good science can be polluted by poor interpretation: her interpretation appears to be that “we don’t judge musical performance by the music and therefore no independent judgment of music is possible”, while she should have concluded that “any judgment of music is liable to become polluted by visual clues and therefore special care must be taken to exclude that possibility”. To exclude just this possibility, early Chopin competitions were judged by judges sitting behind a curtain. (To be entirely fair, competitions aren’t set up to judge music but to judge musical performance, which is why Chopin competition does not do the curtain trick anymore).
A more interesting research would be to try to separate those judges who can judge the music independently of the visual clues and those who cannot and see what other differences exist between them. The former is a rare skill – normally a hallmark of inborn trait — a mutation, if you like — but is, at least to some extent, trainable. Judging music, like judging paintings and all art, is like playing the piano: some measure of talent and lots and lots of work.
Perhaps it is a related note to observe that I usually find myself closing my eyes during piano performances. I seem to hear better when my visual cortex is not busy.
How success kills the goose!
Kto słucha nie błądzi was for many months my favorite program on Polish Radio (the last undumbed-down cultural radio on earth). It was also proof that it is possible to talk intelligently about quality in art – in this case, recordings of classical music.
The format was very good: three musicologists with engaging personalities and pleasant voices discussed six different recordings of a single work of music “blind” — i. e. not knowing who the performers were — and choose the best. The program was run on a very high level — this was professionals talking to one another, talking like professionals (“talking shop”) and not minding that someone listening might not know some terms. It’s such a wonderful rarity to hear a program which is not aimed at the 10th grade and below (such programs don’t seem to be produced anymore) — I counted the days between the programs and on occasion cancelled a date in order to hear it.
Unsurprisingly, the speakers’ choices usually coincided with mine. The revelation of the performers at the end of the program also rarely surprised: some performers really are predictably head-and-shoulders above the rest (Gould, Richter, Abbado, Bernstein); but it was pleasant to discover surprising facts, such as that Dudamel actually can conduct (when he’s not conducting a youth orchestra), that Shostakovich played his 2nd Piano Concerto wrong – but better than the score, etc.); and above all it was a lesson in listening: I have been listening to classical music almost “professionally” for forty years now, so it’s no surprise I can hear most of what the musicologists can; but not all – and to learn what they heard and I did not was fascinating.
For an aesthetictist, the program was also a goldmine of observations in the matter of taste: it illustrated that the opinions of those in the business (all participants are musicians and musicologists) are far less divergent than those of the clueless general population (whose preferences being random mean nothing), but that they too face the barrier of personal taste. Yet, at that level of sophistication, the barrier is not a barrier: one cannot help but respects an educated divergent taste.
Like me, the public probably liked to hear what kinds of small details, undetectable to their untrained ears, the musicologists heard in the recordings and why they liked them (or not) — and it grew and grew by the week. But the public liking was the program’s undoing: the organizers – classical radio stations are so happy to have a runaway hit – decided to make it a program with live audience in the studio — and thereby… killed it. The participants began to play to the galleries — unnecessarily showing off their erudition, making pointless jokes and, when they had nothing to say, making things up — lying, to call a spade a spade — as if debates of art and music needed any more lies and fabrication.
(The aestheticist’s lesson here is that taste and perception can be discussed on a very high level but probably not in groups larger than three).
This — the perversion of the author/performer (in this case, the musicologists) is one way in which success kills a good program; the uncalled-for broadening of the audience is another. A Japanese stand-up comedian whose program I once sponsored on Japanese TV told me he stopped enjoying the work the moment his ratings went over 5%. “Suddenly, he said, I discovered that my audience didn’t get my jokes”. His jokes were intelligent and required both wit and lots of erudition to get — the qualified audience size was naturally limited. But as the show became more popular, it began to struggle to reach its new audience, and after some attempts at educating the audience first and then at dumbing-down the content, the host asked us to take him off the air.
Dear Kto słucha nie błądzi : for your own good, today I won’t be tuning in this Sunday.
If you’re working in aesthetics, psychology, or musicology and know a little math and programming you can do this rather easily:
Introduction: New, previously unheard melodies of Chopin, Mozart, Monteverdi, Schubert and Vivaldi are instantly recognizable to the ear of anyone who has heard a hundred others. The reason why must be that the melodies of each composer are ruled by a unique algorithm (which is what our brains recognize subconsciously); such an algorithm must be expressible as a polynomial (i.e. ax + bx2 +cx3…). (Given how easily our brains learn to recognize each composer, it is unlikely to be a multivariable polynomial — ie. ax + py + bx2 +sy2 +cx3 ty3…).
Method: plot n Mozart melodies on a graph; then use graph-fitting software to approximate the values of a, b, c etc. Each polynomial thus generated can be said to be a property of the brain of the particular composer — his cognitive “signature”.
Interest: Think about it: would it not be fascinating to know that Mozart’s melodies all have the structure of, say, 1x + (1/2)x2 +(1/3)x3 ?
A free PhD follow-up idea:
Calculate signature algorithms of the A class composers (Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Monteverdi,Vivaldi) to illustrate the general procedure. Then show that it is impossible to generate by this method similar signature polynomials for B class composers (Berlioz, Brahms, Janacek, Tchaikovsky etc.) — and conclude that their music can therefore be mathematically demonstrated to be directionless and haphazard.
Bernstein’s NBC/ABC series of talks on classical music contains some observations on American music: he praises Jazz and American Comedy Musical because he thinks both are truly American, not just a poor copy European music; and, he adds less convincingly that both are a future art-music in embryonic form.
What is striking about these views is how incongruous they are with the man: by the time he gave these talks Leonard Bernstein was already internationally renowned as a leading interpreter of European classical music. In other words, he was a living example that an American can become an authentic practitioner of an European art – and living disproof of the view, so frequently expressed by American nationalist theoreticians, that Americans practicing European art can only be ridiculous – poor caricatures of European artists because the art is somehow not native to them.
The thorough and complete badness of the idea that an art not only can be, but indeed must be native to a people (Fichte?) is established beyond all doubt by the horrible quality of the output of all the nationalist schools of nineteenth century opera, which were all motivated by the same (American-style) chip on the shoulder: “until we have our own opera, we are not the equals of the Italians!” The idea is profoundly philistine — “Why do we consume Italian opera? We are Czechs!” — as if what mattered in Italian opera was Italian. The truth is opposite: Italian opera is great because it is good opera. Opera lovers love it because it is good opera. Good opera travels, it knows no boundaries, Japanese and Turks listen to it, because it is good opera, not because it is Italian. (By contrast, the totality of nineteenth century nationalist opera not only does not travel — it’s not even appreciated in its own milieu!)
Likewise, Bernstein’s pious prayer that out of the American pop music a great art music might one day evolve is silly: high brow art does not grow out of pop – yes, it can borrow the pop scales, or rhythmic structures, or a pop melody sometimes (Chopin did — twice) but these are NOT the reasons why the high brow art is great. A sine-qua-non condition for a great high brow art to arise is the artist’s decision to make a departure, a break away, a secession from pop art.
Upon analysis, it seems that the reason why Bernstein defended Jazz and the American Musical Comedy (backhand: by declaring them as potential future sources of great art) is that they were – American. He thought them somehow authentically native and therefore, as a good patriot, felt that they needed defending. Somehow, in his eyes, to condemn American pop art would be to condemn America. Ergo, in order to defend America, pop art must be defended.
This attitude – a kind of national cultural insecurity – is the source of the more recent theories of pop and high brow art emanating – again – from America, which insist that there is no difference between the two kinds of art except for the concept of gate-keeping (in brief, the theory is this: a gate-keeper – a figure of authority – a Louis XIV say – says “this is high brow, this is good, everything else is bad” and thereby establishes high brow, like paper currency, by fiat). You can clearly see the thinking: if pop is American, then America must be pop, and therefore it cannot be admitted that pop is bad.
This is all nonsense, and dangerous nonsense, too. The truth is that for people like myself – for us, the practitioners of the high brow – there is only one fatherland, and it is neither America, nor the Czech Republic, but — high brow art itself. Whether it speaks in Italian or twangs in Dixie does not matter a whit. To say that it does, in the name of some local tribalism, is not just false, it is dangerous in the same way in which a misdiagnosis of health and disease is dangerous: keep misdiagnosing the patient, and you will surely kill him.
Godowsky’s Java Suite in a way misses the point. The pianist/ Chopinist/ composer Godowsky travelled in the 1920’s to Java – and his trip proves the adage: travel does not broaden the mind. A new, exotic environment makes it is easy for an artists to be distracted by the surface phenomena — monkeys, banana trees, white beaches, topless women — the stuff of mass tourism — and try to turn that into art; but this is facile exoticism: there is no new language, no new structure, no new sound — at most a handful of textures, which soon become hackneyed, like the sound of the shamisen in a western movie sundtrack whenever a Japanese character enters the stage: the art itself, the idiom remains unchanged.
Indeed, contact with exotic novelty misleads the traveler: strong impressions help convince him, falsely, that he is actually learning something. It takes more time than most travelers have, and, who knows, perhaps it takes special mental powers, too, to move beyond the surface exoticism and see underneath, deeper: to see the difficult stuff, the the brainy stuff, as a Javanese would say — “the invisible kingdom”: the classical arts of the place.
When I set out looking for Godowsky’s Java Suite I was hoping for something along the lines of McPhee’s Tabu-tabuhan at least — a truly Indonesian composition, which would have told me that Godowsky heard and understood the method; but, really, secretly — dared I hope it? — for more: the Holy Grail: a new synthesis: a new kind of reflection on the nature of classical music as such – now that he has seen it from a new perspective, from a new angle, in a new light. I didn’t find it: the music was essentially the same old Godowsky as always with a few gamelan accents. As per formula: enter the Javanese character — clang! go the gamelan.
Are different classical musics – like different religions are sometimes said to be — different routes to the same end?
Yes. But the end is not a metaphysical entity, only a mental state. Like relaxation is achieved through massage consisting of a set of manipulative techniques executed in a certain order, the classical rapture is achieved through a set of tricks executed in a certain combination — tricks like sonority, melody and its transformations, modulation of keys, variations, structural complexity, development and resolution. Certain combinations of tricks have been found to produce the effect; true classical music is therefore a kind of… methodology. It is not clear that by borrowing elements from different methodologies a new one can be produced — either as effective, or — what is always the great white hope — more so. The possibility of successful fusion of different classical musics is yet to be demonstrated.
An analogy comes to mind: a sensible way for cars to get places is for all to drive on the left; or for all to drive on the right; but not for all to compromise (blend, fuse) by… driving in the middle.
Surely, Lesser does make a good point in the final pages of her book when she says that there is something special about the silence which falls at the end of a Shostakovich string quartet. In a way, this is true about all well-structured music: each string quartet, having established a key, then modulated away, then gone through all kinds of development, eventually returns to its point of origin — often to its opening bar; the satisfying sensation of completion which this creates can only be appreciated when the last chord has sounded (obviously). And this (and not Stalinism) is why the silence at the end of the quartet seems so rich, so resounding, so pregnant with meaning: it is filled with reflection: our minds are busy digesting: only now do we appreciate the enormity of what he have just heard; and it takes time to take it all in. Ovation always seems to come too early, interrupting reflection — and this is why we should all welcome Borodin Quartet’s brilliant invention to leave the stage silently without taking a bow, leaving us, the audience, alone with our thoughts.
I praise Lesser less enthusiastically for her discussion of silence in Shostakovich string quartets: she didn’t have enough material there for 11 paragraphs (four pages!). This is understandable, neither do I — nor, perhaps, does anyone; but the way to deal with that was, surely, not to go on and on and on extemporising? Is it not a sin for a writer to write more words than it takes to say what he has to say? Does it not disqualify a writer to write passages which sound rhetorically beautiful but mean — nothing? Is it not a sin to waste one’s readers’ time? Are they not mortal? Is their time here not limited? Is every second lost not more precious than gold? Is time lost ever found again?
It’s October, so there must be another high-profile classical soloist competition going on in Poland, right?
The winner of this year’s Wieniawski’s competition, the Korean violinist So-Young (Soyoung) Yoon did not occasion controversy: it was clear from the start that she had to win. She plays with extraordinarily rich sonority, and, if you are, like me, raised on the screechy/ deranged Kremer/ Argerich rendition (absolutely breathtaking in its own way), her Prokofiev’s sonata will knock your socks off with its… tenderness, intelligence, warmth, wisdom, measure and — yes! — beauty. (You can hear it about half-way down the page here).
I can’t resist a spot of physiognomancy: Soon plays the way she looks (in this photo at least): roundly, softly, agreeably, beautifully (none of which implies lack of depth in any way whatsoever). While Kremer… Kremer, of course, plays the way he looks. Which is also beautiful and incredibly moving — yet, it might as well come from another planet from Soon’s.
Like some plants, which, depending on the environment, can grow as either trees or creepers, or some flowers, which, depending on the soil, bloom either blue or pink, beauty is multifarious: it can manifest itself in a number of completely different, distinct forms; which is, of course, not to say that they can be any forms, or all forms. In the field of endless possibilities, there exist islands of beauty, like galaxies in an otherwise empty space.
I do not know by what miracle they came to do this in Lisbon — their concert schedule does not show the full cycle anywhere; mostly, for the anglos, they play Shostakovich 7 and 8, which is rather predictable; and even in ambitious Paris they only dared two days of Shostakovich back to back. But here, in Lisbon, they played the whole thing, all fifteen of them, in chronological progression, in a kind of staccato program: Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday, Monday.
Predictably, the large hall was more than 2/3s empty; interestingly, perhaps a quarter of the audience were foreigners, though I cannot tell whether anyone had flown in especially for the gig. It was a good audience, if somewhat tuberculotic (it is still summer here, what can possibly be the excuse for all this pulmonary obstruction?): we all stuck out with the whole cycle. Turning around I kept seeing focused faces, young girls listening intently with their eyes wide shut.
For me, the payoff was huge: I have always found listening to the string quartets a little hard going; but doing it this way — seeing it live, then going home to listen again to what I have just heard, somehow cleared the path through the mental thicket; every concert brought clarity and wonderment. I have found all of them accessible — all, that is, except for Nos. 10, 11 and 12, working through which was like clambering up New Guinea’s coastal range, through jungle, mud, and bugs, to arrive at last at in the rarefied, delicious air of the strangely beautiful upland of No. 13. Ah, the beauty of No. 13: I was literally struck dumb. Seeing me stupefied and holding my hand to my lips throughout the break, my escort laughed at me.
Like Haydn’s, Shostak’s string quartets are beautiful without being the least bit schmaltzy; unlike Haydn’s, they are introspective. By and large they are free of the ironic note so prevalent in his symphonies; discord — and there is a fair bit — isn’t sarcastic, it is thoughtful — the composer speaking not to an undifferentiated, presumably dumb crowd, but intimately, to his equals. Structurally they are classical, but thematically, they represent a kind of new continent with unknown plants and animals. Hearing them all this way gives one an impression of a kind of arc from the positively pixish No. 1 to the utter sadness of No. 15. (Shostakovich: “Tomorrow I will be 62. People at that age love to act coquettish in response to the question: ‘if you had it to do all over again would you live your 62 years as you have?” ‘Yes, certainly there were failures, there were hardships but, on the whole, I would live these 62 years just the same.’ But if that question were to be put to me, I would respond: ‘No, a thousand times no!'”).
The Borodin String Quartet make very beautiful sound. And, as if any heightening of emotions were necessary, they play No. 15, composed in the year of Shostak’s death, in candle-light; then blow out the candles and walk out without taking a bow. It does not feel like showmanship: we all understand it instantly: it is a special homage to the man’s memory and we observe a minute of silence.
This was by far my most exciting and enriching concert-going experience of the entire year; indeed, in several years. It felt absolutely miraculous. If they do it again, I will fly to wherever they do it to be there again.
My (new) countrymen, like all provincial folk, aren’t terribly au current, meaning that they pack the concert hall for performances of artists past their prime; and leave deliciously empty the up-and-comers’, over whom the 1st world presently fawns (and fights). And thus, last year’s Sokolov was full (and reviewed in the usual grateful/submissive/worshipful manner of the Hadrianopolinos and Lugudunenses); while this years’ Jerusalem Quartet played to a nearly empty hall.
For which, of course, many thanks. Would you not, too, prefer to hear your favorite living string quartet performing for you alone? I wish the other four people had not bothered to come.
The Jerusalemites played usually well. It wasn’t perhaps their best concert to-date, but the andante of Mozart’s No. 4 was extraordinarily beautiful and moved me to clap my hands and shout praise between movements, which shocked the ueber-correct old lady to my right and woke, with an unpleasant start, the half-dead gent on my left. As is usual with the Young Boys from the Old City (though, in fairness, let us not put too much emphasis on the young, please, at 25 Pergolesi was dead), the sound was delicious. Perhaps it was where I sat what did it, but the viola seemed especially fulsome. (As it always does).
Alas, ¾ of the concert was taken up by… Brahms. What is it about Brahms? Watching The Boys, I could see they liked the technical challenge – the sudden stops (“it ain’t the fall that hurts, it’s the sudden stop”), the crescendi and diminuendi, the whole go-carts/technical aspect of Brahms, but if they liked the music itself, well, they are more man than I know how to be. To me, Brahms seems perfectly and totally and completely impenetrable: his tunes bore me to death; the need to belabor them in variation escapes me; and the way they are belabored is simply inscrutable; not only do I not know the minute a piece ends how we ever got to where we got, I usually do not know it while the piece is still in progress. It all, kind of, somehow, faints into the wall-paper.
Invariably, when hearing a piece of Brahms, I wonder: if you took a piece of Brahms into your hands, and compressed it really hard into a very, very dense, tight ball (would it even be possible?) and then threw it, like some champion pitcher, at 90 mph or so, against a wall two meters away, would it… stick? (Mrs Sei says, thinking Brahms is mud-like, yes, I say, thinking Brahms is… cotton-like, no).
Honestly, Brahms has got to be worse than Tchaikovsky. I mean, the Tchaikovsky is at least so bad that it is funny, while Brahms… Brahms on the other hand seems… not to exist. For thirty minutes at a time. What kept the man composing? And why hadn’t someone stopped him. Brahms, at least, seems to have had the right measure of himself: some music, he said, is so beautiful, that it ought never to be played. He meant, no doubt, absolutely every single thing he ever wrote.
When I made this observation to my Portuguese musician-composer acquaintance, he gave me a wan, knowing smile: he appreciated my wit, but didn’t appreciate my judgment. Incredibly, it turns out, he liked Brahms. Incredibly, perhaps the Portuguese generally do: perhaps this is why everyone coming here ends up playing Brahms. Perhaps they are told to at the time of contract. Perhaps — an incredible thought — Brahms is a Portuguese-kind of composer? Would that explain something about Portugal? No… Impossible. There isn’t any content to Brahms. How could that explain anything?
(Or — could it?)
After the concert, I rushed back home to wash my ears and did so with the first thing that fell into my hands, and it turned out a damn good thing: an Aban Berg recording of Ravel’s string quartet. And, boy, was that incredibly good music, and easy to follow, and, boy, was it played well, incredibly well, unexpectedly, surprisingly, wisely, insightfully, like no one has ever played before it, especially the third movement seemed to place the whole work in a whole new light. The Aban Berg had looked into a hundred year old piece and saw in it something no one has ever seen. And, good god, good god, is it exciting, is it amazing, is it good.
Incidentally, if you ever hear Ravel play his own music, don’t laugh. It’s that bad. Saying “god-awful” don’t begin to describe it. Which makes you wonder: did Ravel understand his own work? Did he understand what he had wrought?
And more: does anyone, ever?
There is, after all, that famous story told by Borodin’s second violin about Shostakovich suddenly marching out of a rehearsal of his String Quartet No. 8, overcome with emotion: until he heard them play it, he may simply not have suspected what he had wrought.
What he had wrought.
(Special Christmas Issue)
Of all of the world’s musical repertoire, the one work that feels most intimate to me is — very oddly, I admit — Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. In part it is on account of the circumstances of my discovery of it, which took place in exile, in America: I felt deeply unhappy there and the work’s minor key suited the mood. More: in the alien setting of the New World, Mahler’s music seemed to me a breath of the old, familiar ways of Mittel Europa: an unapologetic assertion of high brow culture (elitist, arbitrary) and of the fundamental tragedy of life (depressing). To assert both simultaneously in the setting of an American liberal art’s college with a victorious football team seemed the very perfection of defiance.
The tragic — perhaps even hysterical — mood of the song cycle also had a therapeutic effect: in it, Chinese poets spoke about their sadness, despair and longing in ways which were both familiar and safe: familiar because I could recognize their feelings; safe because, after all, they were Chinese, on the other side of the planet, ten centuries ago: like a white man listening to Alabama Blues, I was cheered to know that others had had it much worse.
Perhaps, Das Lied von der Erde also played a role in the shaping of my future: a fin-de-siecle Viennese work became my introduction to the literature of Tang Dynasty China. Surely, Mahler’s song cycle has played some role in eventually turning one half of me into a sinologist.
Das Lied has remained with me since. I listen to it irregularly, in spurts: in good times never, but in bad times — a great deal. It has been with me through most crises of my adult life and through this association it has become encrusted with memories and meanings, acquiring a depth which it perhaps lacks for other ears.
Small wonder then that this website delights me. It sets out to trace just how the original Chinese (Tang) poetry became, through a succession of French and German translations — or rather, shall we say, manipulations — the libretto which we know today.
Chew’s paper (linked to from the site, read it here) adds an interesting discussion of this process of translation/transformation. Though his characterization of Chinese as syntactically loose is typical of the Edenic innocence of native speakers — (not having had to learn the rules of their own language, they imagine such rules do not exist) — everything he says about classical Chinese poetry as deliberately setting out to blow up syntax — in order to introduce greater ambiguity — is correct. The 20th century turn in western poetry towards the inscrutable — including silly things like refusal to punctuate or capitalize (as Chinese does not) — is an attempt to move in the same direction: to multiply possible interpretations of the text by intentionally confusing meanings. Empson and Reckert* seem to argue as much. No one has as yet suggested, though, surely, someone should have, that the movement is an imitation of the Tang.
On the other hand, the fact that the European translators of Tang poetry have chosen to infuse it with a burning hysteria which it does not have — the prevalent mood of the Chinese is one of meditative sadness; or to add — Hollywood-like — love interests where there weren’t any (in the Chinese original of Von der Schoenheit, for instance, there is no girl-boy thing, only the very aesthetic pretense of girls’ sadness at their flowers having been trampled by galloping horses) isn’t necessarily an East-West thing, as Chew suggests (i.e. of being untrained in the Buddhist world-view): it’s just the matter of insufficiently sensitive esoteric antennae of the individuals involved. Or, perhaps, should we say, of their emotional immaturity? Adult Europeans can and do — from time to time — reflect on the fleeting emptiness of life. We, too, can be saddened by trampled flowers.
Recently, a series of unfortunate events has made me revisit Das Lied. This time I chose to do it differently — and train the full power of file-sharing on the question of interpretation: I compared different performances — most of which have been unattainable prior to internet. Some seventy hours of of house-shaking playback later, my chief finding is that Das Lied is easy to blow — and even the great ones, by and large, blow it, Fischer-Dieskau, included. (Unbelievable!) I suppose that the intense hysteria of the work creates a powerful temptation to slip into mannerism, to “pull out all stops” (“to charge”, as Polish actors say, meaning, of course, cavalry charge): which misses the mark and turns the whole thing into a caricature. Emotional intensity is hard to do well: good actors know that in acting, the hardest scenes to do are those that involve shouting: one has to learn how to shout, as it were, quietly. As a result, my very first recording of Das Lied, (Klemperer, Wunderlich, Ludwig) remains the unapproachable paragon (even if one wishes Ludwig’s voice-coach had insisted on good diction more).
Perhaps this recording constitutes an argument in favor of Apostolic Succession? (Klemperer was Mahler’s student; he conducted Das Lied‘s world premiere, which was, from Mahler’s point of view, posthumous, making Old Otto a kind of Saint Peter).
As is the case with every return to a great classic, my attention this time was drawn to a new, formerly unnoticed aspect of the work. This time the lyrics of the first song, Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, seemed to jump out at me:
Ein voller Becher Weins zur rechten Zeit
Ist mehr wert, als alle Reiche dieser Erde!
Dunkel is das Leben, ist der Tod!
Das Firmament blaut ewig und die Erde
Wird lange fest stehen und aufblühn im Lenz.
Du aber, Mensch, wie lang lebst denn du?
Nicht hundert Jahre darfst du dich ergötzen!
(See full text and translation here).
While listening, I caught myself doing the math, surreptitiously: I am indeed not likely to ergötzen myself a hundred years; but even 75 — let us say — leaves a vast stretch of time yet ahead of me: indeed, as long again as I have lived since reaching adulthood. Plenty of time, then, right? Further, during the first half of my adulthood (if I am to look at it that way) I have achieved a good deal; perhaps it’s OK to hope that as much yet may await me in the future? And, while the main achievement of the first half of my adult life was to establish myself economically — earlier and better than most, perhaps — but at the inevitable expense of a lot of deferred satisfaction; the point of this deferral was, of course, that once I arrived at a certain level of comfort, I could stop deferring and — as they say in Detroit — put the pedal to the metal. And, in a way, this has worked: here I am on the cusp of the second half of my adult life, ready to party, and with the means to do so.
The future towards which I have been saving, then, is here.
Yet, how miserable the future turns out now that it has arrived! I can barely walk, so the longed-for and long-deferred mountain expeditions will not in all likelihood be possible; desired women tell me that despite my age I am still attractive and that therefore other women (get it?) will surely fall for me; a bronchial condition means I have had to quit the evil weed; and a fatty liver — wine only sporadically and in moderation. (Hence the significance of the Trinklied excerpt above: sporadically does indeed place a serious limitation on one’s ability to enjoy a full beaker of wine at the right time!). I now realize with consternation that of all the pleasures of my insufficiently sinful youth, I am left with the one I have always liked least — playing the markets!
Is this why I deferred satisfaction for all these years — only to discover that, when I am ready to have it, it is too late? That I have missed the chance?
I have once written an essay on the third age of woman — the, let us say, 40-55: the no-longer-nursing-mother but not yet crone. In the essay, I deplored the absence of cultural role-models for that un-recognized (and longish) age in which women find themselves trapped directionless: an age in which the old models — the pleasures and methods of their youth — no longer work; and yet an age at which they are not yet dead, not yet ready — not yet resigned — to be no more than kindly and ineffectual grandmothers. An age like mine today: in which the decline in appetites has not yet matched the decline in abilities. I wrote that essay with deep sense of pity, from the perspective of a somewhat younger age, when I still walked, and drank, and smoked, and when desired women were not necessarily different from the available ones . I had no idea then how quickly — barely half a decade! — my own third age would come. I guessed it would, but I figured I had time to figure out how to deal with it by the time it did.
But here it is and — like all those women whose fate I once becried — I find myself unready.
Now, surely you must agree, Dunkel ist das Leben!
*(Serendipitously, Reckert’s languages are almost all mine).
How much we could learn about the problems of music comprehension and interpretation if only pianists could speak about it! Alas, by and large they can’t: most, like Richter or Pogorelich, live with some sort of a speaking block (which is probably one reason why they choose their profession); a few, like Gould, talk voluminously, but make no sense, having as a result of the years of their professional isolation, lost their minds; and some turn out to be tenors — er, I mean — idiots — (I better not name the celebrated female exponent of this instance).
So, thank God for Charles Rosen who’s a great pianist, a brilliant scholar, and an insightful thinker. Here’s from his Piano Notes, one of the most brilliant expositions of the central problem of aesthetics, which is, of course, the central problem of all philosophy: epistemology — how much we can know and how we can know it:
Like every other musician, a pianist feels the music with the whole body, but unlike, say, violinist and flutist, more of the pianist’s muscles come actively and necessarily into play from the toes to the neck — and with grimaces and hair-tossing may go even higher. Sometimes the emotion, physically realized and experienced, paradoxically does not get translated into sound. (“You could see from his movements and from the expression on his face that he understood the piece and felt deeply about it, but it didn’t come out in the playing”, one conductor said to me about a pianist with whom he had performed.) Oddly enough, however, the musical sentiment can sometimes, in the end, be transmitted to the public visually solely through the pianist’s gestures and attitudes even when it is almost totally absent from the realization in sound. Many members of the audience, in fact, derive their comprehension of the music largely by watching the players or the conductor, and both conductor and pianist can abandon themselves physically to the music without being forced to listen carefully to what is happening.
In a perfect instance of this, I saw once a very exciting live performance of a Szymanowski string quartet — watching chamber music is one of the most delightful ways to experience music — and the excitement I experienced then I have never been able to reproduce by listening to recordings since; for the simple reason that the technical requirements of the piece produce better visual (energetic body bending, hair akimbo, etc.) than sound effects.
Hours and hours of mindless trawling through discussion groups and countless conversations picked up and random reveal the startling truth of the existence of the forked taste (which is an ancient theme here: two kinds of mind, two kinds of art): those who admire Avdeeva to a man could not care for Wunder; and miss the joy of Katada completely, as if they were blind.
Us against them.
There was a radio play like that once in which Rossini and Wagner quibbled about art (mindless pleasure vs. deep stuff). Rossini kept interjecting with inquiries about Wagner’s hair-do: how do you manage to keep all that hair, such a full head, so luscious, so perfect? At last it all clicks: different heads. Yes, that explains everything!
(I owe you guys some English language summaries from the PR2 coverage of the competion, above all from the night — the stunning night — on which Avdeeva won, but bear with me: aunt’s obsequies, et al. I’ll get to it, eventually. Meanwhile, I have something on my chest. Andrew should be happy: he wanted commentary. Well, here goes).
There is an unspoken party line in Poland. It holds that every Chopin work is an absolute masterpiece: like the heroes of socialist work of the Stalinist era — and unlike God — Chopin has never ever produced a less than perfect work.
Yes, sotto voce, there is grumbling. The cello sonata, one hears sometimes, wanders aimlessly. The fantasia-Polonaise is lopsided. Etc. Sotto voce not because of any fear of ostracism — the whole thing is a little funny and everyone concedes as much — but because, well, we all wish it were true. The notion that such a thing as absolute perfection can exist, and that we have seen it, touched it, that we live with it daily, is just too precious to throw overboard on account of mere facts.
Mere facts like… the first piano sonata.
It’s a scandal, announced C on the radio, that the jury failed Katada at second stage; but it is also a pity because, of all the participants, she alone was going to play the first piano sonata during the third round, and would it not be wonderful to hear that much underrated masterpiece it at the competition at last? A good deal grumbling in the studio followed. The tone of C’s next words, though never their content, indicated, indirectly, that he was a little embarrassed for having let himself get carried away by the enthusiasm of the party line moment: the First Piano Sonata sucks, and even C can see it. (But let’s not keep going on about it).
Chopin’s concerti are the grumblers’ poster child: youthful, inept, orchestra’s flat and mostly underemployed, etc.
For years, this was my view, too, until, well, until Wunder played the E-minor concerto during the finals. In fact, on the morning of his performance, while browsing through the Chopin Ekspres, the competition newspaper, and its review of the performances of the preceding day, and coming upon a commentary which proposed that the Warsaw Philharmonic was too heavy, too plodding, too old for the competition; that it overwhelmed the poor contestants, with their limited orchestra experience and all; and that a lighter, smaller orchestra should perhaps be assembled for the competition; I whispered to myself, shaking my head in disagreement: the problem ain’t the orchestra, you fool, the problem is… the concertos!
Yet, only six hours later out came Wunder — Wunder! — gave the maestro just what was needed — a low Habsburg bow , the first violin his most charming boyish smile, and a kind of hankie wave to the whole orchestra; they all smiled back; and it was all a cake-walk from there. They breezed through it, smiling at each other, bowing, nodding, gesturing mutual admiration and pleasure. I have never seen any concerto performance which the pianist seemed to enjoy as much; and which the orchestra supported with as much attention.
Attention? No. Relish.
Good, pleasurable interaction between performers is one of the most wonderful miracles of alchemy ever. One sees it sometimes in small ensembles: duos, or quartets; you can see it from the eye contact, from the movements of their bodies, welcoming and receiving, that they absolutely love each other’s work; that it suits them perfectly. The result, when that happens (and it does not happen all that often) is always, always great music making. (Which is why I bitterly regret not being able to attend 2nd stage of the Paderewski Competition to hear the required chamber music tests). But if this alchemy is rare in small ensembles, in big ones it’s hardly ever seen. But we saw it during Wunder’s E-minor concerto. No wonder he got the best concerto prize. It was the best concerto. Ever.
Part of this success, no doubt, was due to Wunder’s commitment to study in Poland and perform with Polish artists in Poland: it seemed clear that most of the orchestra knew him well before he came out on the podium that night. And, perhaps, he did absorb thereby some of the Polish way of playing Chopin,which, as Adveeva found out to her PR detriment, is the way. But, surely, a lot had to do with his sunny personality, his ease relating to people, which comes across as simple, uncomplicated joie de vivre.
It’s a rare character among pianists. Most are introverted loners, unhappy in their loneliness, rudely isolated from the world by their own sensitivity and inarticulateness; taking a kind of refuge in their keyboard: Ya sebya nye lublyu — I don’t like myself — ends the most famous of all Richter documentaries. He does not like himself, one clearly gets it, because he does not like homo sapiens per se.
It’s an old dichotomy in art — the joyful Mozart versus the brooding Beethoven — and it has demonstrated itself here. One of the most memorable — shocking, really — comments on Avdeeva’s victory came from a member of the jury, Fu Tsong, who objected to… Wunder’s smiling. “Chopin”, Fu Tsong announced (fu, in Chinese means “kill” and tsong means “joy”)* “Chopin is tragedy. When we play him we must suffer. Wunder smiles. He should be lucky to get away with the second”.
Fu Tsong (fu means “hard”, tsong means “of hearing”)* may be going senile as well as deaf — his defense of Avdeeva sounds retarded — sorry, no offense to the differently-abled intended — but he expresses here an eternal truth: the unhappy envy the happy their easy happiness. The accusation is that the happy must be shallow. (The view stands uncontested: there is no reposte: the happy don’t care to argue, they have already won the game of life: what need for them to justify themselves?)
But this is a lot of words, whilst what I had meant to say at the outset was really much simpler: which was this: that this is the most brilliant performance of the E-Minor concerto I have ever heard. And that this performance makes me faint with amazement at the concerto’s range of expression, its balance, its wisdom, its maturity, its perfection of vision; from an 18-year old man, who, clearly, but for bad performance, has never written a bad work.
So, the party-line’s proven right yet again.
Bring on the first sonata?
Avdeeva’s win at the 2010 Chopin Competition shocked many chopinists. Everyone I know personally, has not only complained about her interpretation inaccuracies – which, arguably, should not happen at a Chopin competition, but which are usually accepted in many virtuoso pianists as their “individual interpretation” – but, more importantly, has found her sound ugly. How could she win?
Surely, we thought, the jury got it wrong. We examined the voting rules and wondered whether there was a problem there. Indeed, many have flagged similar voting rules before as a) likely to favor non-controversial players at early stages; b) likely to result in a muddle in the event of sharply divided opinion in the final stage.
Surely, we thought, there was a voting mistake. After all, it’s alright for about ½ of the competition’s facebook fans to declare that they found Avdeeva’s performances brilliant, but they are, by and large, neither chopinists, nor even pianists; and we know that fans are often swayed by non-musical aspects of a performance: the artists’ looks, movements, facial expressions, gender or nationality, etc. But we, pianists and chopinists, we can see through those non-musical elements of the performance and train down on the actual music-making and evaluate that.
The idea here is of a trained, or educated, taste. Thanks to extensive record (Chopin’s letters, memoirs of his friends and students) and his minutely detailed score notations, we know a lot about Chopin’s taste; about five generations of constant research and debate around performing Chopin has created a kind of chopinist tradition. If you take what this school holds as axiomatic, then there follow certain conclusions for what makes a performance of Chopin good. We thought our negative reaction to Avdeeva was a result of this knowledge: her performance seemed to us chopinistically wrong. It was very good for non-chopinists to like her, but we chopinists knew better.
But read the article of Yuan Pu Chiao and you will discover that non only did some members of the jury like her (Dang, Danilovich); and Zimmerman found nothing wrong with her playing (I cannot get over this); but you will see Mr Chiao arguing that it is precisely his trained taste that leads him to judge her performance masterly. If this is true, then, clearly, we were wrong to think that there is such a thing as a trained taste; and, likewise, Mr Chiao must be wrong to claim that such a thing exists. If the jury was divided sharply concerning Avdeeva – one assumes it must have been if they awarded both her and Wunder – to like both seems impossible – then there would appear to be two different branches of trained taste: the taste of the chopinist tradition has forked into two divergent, mutually incompatible aesthetic schools.
Or else, there is no such thing at all.
Which would be a huge hit to one theory of taste: the idea of educated taste makes some sense from the cognitive science point of view: you take like brains (it seems reasonable to assume that a shared quality like “liking Chopin” is due to some kind of structural brain similarity) and expose them to massive amount of identical experience, which further shapes the brain in a particular way and therefore makes these already similar brains only more alike. Presumably, in a roomful of such brains, disagreements could only be minor. (Fourth decimal place, as they used to say in physics).
A: This must surely have been the wildest ovation in the history of the National Philharmonic. B: This is perhaps the most difficult pianistic competition in the world and the fact that it consists entirely of one composer’s music makes it especially challenging. Each stage is extremely demanding in its own way, but the last one — the concerto — is a kind of stage of truth. We often see those who’d done very well until then suddenly fail in the last dash; the opposite is sometimes true: those as to whom there were some doubts, here surprise. It’s a kind of marathon, so it’s hard to remain in good form until the end; but perhaps some do not expect to make it to the final stage and therefore come underprepared; or perhaps some are so relieved to have made it to the final stage that they just over-relax? C: Perhaps it’s as much relaxing in the final stage; or insufficient preparation for it; because we often see that errors which had cropped up earlier simply come to the fore in the last stage. Consider Khozyainov.
C: A very talented pianist; but we have seen rhythmic anomalies in his mazurkas. Now, we see the passages of short notes ending in a longer note; not only does he cut short the last short note, even though, as it’s separated from the long note that follows by a bar mark, it should require special care; but he accentuates the final, longer note — the crowning note — whereas he should guide the phrase softly. Or take accents. In the third part, where we have that unhappy Krakowiak — A: Why unhappy? C: Because no one does it justice. Now, the second quarter-note should be just barely delayed, because that’s the agogic accent there; but instead, forgive the expression, he kicked the first note. Such errors do not from exhaustion; but a kind of gulf — a disconnect — between the stress his pedagogue places on the pianistic competence and the development of his musical sensitivity. A: Mikhail Voskresenskiy. C: Well yes. B: A famous teacher. C: A famous teacher, yes. But it’s something we see everywhere now. For instance, Rosalin Tureck, was very talented; she devoured several preludes and fugues a day; and suddenly, one day, she experienced a revelation — a metanoia — she suddenly saw what Bach wanted to say; and though she already knew these works, she went back to working on them, taking just a few lines a day. My heartfelt wish for this pianist is that he experience such a revelation. Tureck came by it on her own; but the pedagogue and the teaching technique has a lot to do with it. A: Well, he’s only 18. B: Zimmerman was 18 when he won. C: Yes. And Arnellini, rejected in the 3rd stage, never made such errors. C: Michelangelo: do not underestimate small things because perfection is made of small things. B: Well, he seemed a little helpless. A: He didn’t keep the tempo. B: Now went faster, now more slowly.
A: In her short interview after the concert, Avdeeva said she’s peformed the concerto many times, but my impression was that she hadn’t really prepared. C: Perhaps she does not understand some of the figures — typical of style brilliant — and played them as individual, naked notes, while in fact they are part of the harmony [? i am out of my depth here] and behind the harmony there lies a melody. Her rubato was also very unstable, very whimsical. A: She played four sixteenths as dotted rhythm again. C: Well, in the third part of the rondo, when the theme returns again, there is a chromatic upward progression which is supposed to prepare the return of the theme; it has been marked by a double bar by the composer. But she just blew right through those 16ths without much concern. There is a question: at what stage does the artist stop his learning of a work. Some say that the difficulty lies in the artist himself. How long it takes to understand and master the work depends on the artist’s talent. A performance by an artist who has understood a work is, properly speaking, a revelation: he reveals to us the true meaning of the work he’s performing. It seems to me that Avdeeva’s performance is an example of a limited understanding of the score. B: It seemed to me that her Allegro Maestoso was so very slow because she may not have learned it. A: Though with all fairness, the failure of lights may have upset her. B: Yes, yes, of course. But also helpless rubato in the romanza, smeared pedalling… A: I remember seeing her in Duszniki during the Chopin competition: she gave me the same impression then as she did today.
C: Let us begin the praise with details. Note the softness of the phrase: from a man! Wonderful ability to differentiate color in repeats. Passages wonderfully threaded onto the harmony. B: Filligree. C: Yes. Clarity of the score: the upper plan — the melody — and the counterpoint elements in the right hand are respected, but they do not clash; then, in the left hand we have a kind of cantus generalis and arpeggios. In addition, everything is played with a kind of nobility. Then, in the first part there are octaves — a strong dotted accent which rises over the orchestra — in his hands it does not shout. Finally, the upward passage in the third part which I have mentioned: it quiets down, there is minimal ralentando, a short pause — an accent really, since silence is an accent — that’s like a voice which says “attention, attention, here comes”. B: Beautiful rubato in the Krakowiak. A: And what execution of the arches [?]. B: Everything fulfilled. There is another virtue which Chopin valued highly: simplicity. Nothing strange, nothing odd, nothing overinvented or overinterpreted. B: He did not feel constrained by the orchestra. On the contrary, I had the feeling that the orchestra payed greater attention to him, tried to follow him more closely. A: I have heard from orchestra members that they found practicing with him easiest of all. A great pianist gives wings to the orchestra.
A: What impressions? B: I was pleased that all performances of the E-minor today represented satisfyingly different interpretations and the F-minor was presented in a way very different from all the E-minors. [Some general comments on the nature of the two concertos]. C: All four pianists took the concertos seriously (there is a tendency among pianists to take them as youthful, not very successful, not very important works). D: Yes. One sometimes sees that competitors who have gotten to the final stage end up taking the concerto lightly, relaxing as it were, if thinking that this was the easy part. Perhaps one could say that about today’s Bozhanov’s performance. A: Yes, after all he’d given us so far, this was a little less than we could have expected. B: The third movement, yes.
A: What of his interpretation? B: I looked and… didn’t find any. No objections from any technical point of view; academically speaking, perfect. One can only have one complaint: that the performance did not succeed in overwhelming us. It didn’t knock us out, it didn’t elevate us. But it was not in any way bad; it did not sound ugly. C: What do we say? Colorless? Dispassionate? B: One could try to be more specific. In the first part there are these games… now sixth degree, now third, now Neapolitan… A: You mean harmonies. B: Yes. It’s all very charming. But here these were not emphasized as especially beautiful in this performance. Or in the final section there is a kind of rocking-horse figure (hums) and it is possible to play it in such a way that listener’s mouths will just open unawares in a smirk, but that did not happen. We just had (hums) and nothing more. Two sixteenths and an eighth, that’s it. C: Alright, but the refrain in the rondo is a kind of Kujawiak and it begs at least a minimum rubato; and if one does not give it at the outset then, I suppose, consequences follow naturally. A: I wrote “unclear dynamic”. B: Color, too. D: Kultyshev seems unable to move us. Perhaps it’s because he isn’t moved himself. He plays with perfection, but the perfection of a pianola. Remember Gerald More: tempo markings aren’t made of steel. One can show some differentiation. He also plays with a kind of mannerism — and in his rendition it irritates: the base of a chord comes just a little ahead of the upper voices. A: That was a virtuoso mannerism at the turn of the last century. The competition was meant to uproot it. D: Yes, yes, but those virtuosi widly moved, hypnotized their audiences. A performer must, so to speak, be born again to the work he is playing, he must himself be amazed by its power and beauty so that he can convey some of that sense to us. B: There is one very good aspect of his play and it is that he has not undermined simplicity. A: Very true. B: The themes of the first part were presented with the simplicity of Harry Neuhaus from the 1940’s. A: Yes, I wondered if that was the inspiration.
A: Played on a Fazioli. His first performance of that concerto with an orchestra. B: He moved me deeply with his love and feeling for the music he plays. His treatment of the middle movement was full of great poetry. If there is any complaint, I would say that the left hand was not sufficiently emphasized. But very beautiful performance, hard to believe it was his first. His colors of sound are wonderful. And his modulations — that’s really the heart of this concerto. C: Yes. Delicate, legattissimo. Very touching. And his ability to create colors of sound, especially in the high register. D: Like baby bells. C: Yes. We have heard Fazioli several times at the competition, but it has never sounded this beautifully. Hats off! B: Yes, hats off. I didn’t like this performer during his first appearance, but each time I like him better, it’s a magnificent thing when it happens, when one is surprised positively. And special ability to manipulate tempi. There was one interesting solo moment during the rondo when he suddenly sped up — surprised the conductor and the orchestra — I spoke to a member of the orchestra and she said it did not happen during the practice session; this was completely spontaneous, on the spur of the moment — but he did it so well that the orchestra was able to follow him. His ability to manipulate the tempi is wonderful. While his predecessor played as if he had a metronome in his heart, he was able to give each theme and each repeat a slightly different tempo and do it well. C: And yet avoid cheesy sentimentality. D: There was no doubt all this came from him, not from his teacher, not from years of playing, but from him. It was very fresh, very youthful, very virginal almost, very moving. A very promising artist. Only 19!
A: Very delicate performance, unlike so many others who have at this competition played too fast and too loud. But to me there seemed to be an absence of rhetoric. His colors are beautiful, very beautiful sound, but the tempo was sometimes confused and there were moments of… well, kind of gurgling. B: Well, the use of the rubato in this concerto is supposed to soften up the written tempo somewhat, but in a manner that’s accessible, comprehensible and clear. and I think this performance did this well.
A: After all the brilliant performances this pianist gave us earlier, but I have to say I was disappointed B: It was a bit matter of a clash with the orchestra; perhaps better I should say that it was a little as if the orchestra acted as a restraining corset. But there were things he did wrong himself. For instance, his idea that every time you repeat the same phrase you must play it differently, well, yes, it’s a good idea but his execution of it seemed a little excessive at times. The second question was the left hand: I think his left hand was too marcato, too dominant. C: Too loud. B: I did not like his treatment of the theme of the third movement: H H E Gis, the first Krakowiak motif, the Gis must be delayed; there is a film footage of Wit demonstrating this to Argerich; but he did not do it. A general remark: this is a great artist in a class of his own, but perhaps we could say that his style of play belongs in the category of artificialis. And artificalis, I think, is not in keeping with Chopin’s aesthetic ideals which are simplicity and naturalness. Which does not change the fact that I think he is a great pianist and a fascinating personality. D: To me he remains amazing, though not always in positive sense. There were elements of the rondo that sounded almost wooden. The middle section did not sound interesting — there were sections which seemed to beg to please be played appasionato, but he didn’t. Yet, he also did absolutely brilliant things: the transposed the c-dur etude (number 1) which appears in the finale was absolutely phenomenal, for instance. A: I had the impression that the fantastic machinery — technical and interpretative — which amazed us in Stage 3 somehow disappeared. B: Problem cooperating with the orchestra? C: I have seen him play Weber with orchestra before in which he was able to actually lead the orchestra. D: I wrote to myself that the dialogue of the first theme of the first movement was over-dramatized; but then immediately noted also that the second theme was wonderfully sweet and calm. And the rondo, I think he made an elementary mistake there: there are all sorts of emotions in the rondo, but there is no tragedy and I had this feeling that Bozhanov really wanted to find — or put in — tragedy there. But, he is a great pianist and he knows why Chopin writes octaves in the middle section. Octaves were used to increase the power of the old piano; ergo, where there are octaves there is supposed to be storminess, agitato. No other interpretation of a cantilena written in octaves is possible. And he does that. Today, everyone melts into some sort of sweet sound, no, no, that’s wrong and Bozhanov is right. C: but the dialogue of left and right… for instance, there is a half-note with a dot in the right hand, then the left hand takes the lead and realizes stress; and if in a syncopation the first note of the melody is in the right hand, then the left hand dictates the pulse, etc. A: Yes, yes C: No other pianist did that! Only Bozhanov. Well, OK, sometimes he exaggerated the dynamic or volume. B: Yes, manipulation of tempo and volume which he did so brilliantly in the 3rd stage, today sometimes his piano sounded like forte or forte as mezzo-forte. C: A great artist and a great personality. We could say that he came out in order to meet Chopin but the meeting didn’t take place. A: Not in the final stage. C: No, not in the final stage.
A: this kind of performance really ought not to happen at the competition. B: Generally speaking, far eastern performers, whatever one likes to say about their lack of familiarity with the cultural milieu of western classical music, etc., etc., are always very serious, very well prepared… well, in this case… we were dealing with someone who didn’t seem to prepare at all… C: this player holds a Master of Music from a reputable American institution… D: B just said that the performer lacked preparation… well, I would like to say that perhaps his teacher lacked sufficient ethical cross-bone to say to his student: look, Xin, take no offense, but I must say this: this is not your metier; in art there is no room for people mildly talented; this is not your cup of tea; although this will mean a loss of income to me… have you considered informatics? B: A question of the ethos of teaching? D: Whenever a teacher meets a new student, his first duty is to ask himself: does this student pose a challenge I am qualified to meet? If not, well, then it is our duty to say: look young man (or: woman), go seek education somewhere else. It’s immortal to do otherwise.
A: A very interesting pianist, uneven, but so very charming that many loved him. Probably will become the audience’s favorite as a result. B: Divided opinions. Some criticized him for the liberties he took with sacred Chopin, others – like me – really liked him – if it weren’t for a lot of technical mistakes… many good points… he uses the pedal sparingly, knows how to use Chopinesque ornaments… If he only managed to be error-free.. but no one has managed it so far (except perhaps Wunder and even he not entirely)… C: He plays with a mannerism which is easier to take in a shorter concert of a fewer, shorter pieces… As a result he was easier to take in Stage 1. But when he plays longer pieces, that wobbly rubato of his… a kind of caricature of early Horowitz… I had the impression of sitting in the lobby of Warsaw’s Hotel Sheraton… A: And eating breaded cutlet? C:… he he… and watching those gilt cardboard decorations… B: Cardboard? What are you talking about? C: Cardboard, you know, cardboard. B: Oh, come on. C: I mean, look, in the beginning of his Etude E-minor from opus 25 he played all those small notes which change every 8 bars, but by the time of the middle section you could no longer hear the difference between triols (?) and quartals (?) [anyone understand it]: generally, I found myself surprised and delighted by his one idea only to find that it leads into a confusion, an incomprehension. D: He is a wild, uncontrolled spirit. You may find a piece of wonderful cantabile and then immediately hit a piece of unexpected roughness, here a good thought develops well, then suddenly it comes to an unexpected stop… he is a very talented musician but has lacked a good teacher who might help him shape his gifts… reconstruct his musical consciousness… he has a lot to say, but it is often in a doubtful taste.. someone said about him that he came here to make fun of Chopin… that’s not right.. he just needs someone help him organize it, rearrange the mental furniture… who will teach him to read the music in the light of established canons, which would make him a very special, very powerful personality in the world of music… He’s very humble… perhaps even troubled by his presence in this world… “I am sorry that I am here, but since I am, I will play…” I would like to remind you all his F-major etude… he had a really wonderful idea for the performance of that hackneyed, overfamiliar piece.. a kind of view of a swallow diving in the sky… a very good idea, and well executed well, too.
A: This is a typical bombardier of the piano; he represents a kind of axe-hacking of the piano. I keep saying: let us begin with good sound. I am really disappointed to meet someone like this at a major music competition. This pianist locates himself in a counter-culture of sound. B: I was totally deafened. C: And I was surprised because I realized from stage 1 that he was a good professional, who knew what he wanted, but, perhaps something went wrong during this performance because, if you noticed, he refused to come out for the second bow at first. The performance was marked by false rubatos, and a kind of primitive accelerating scheme of tempo. Something bad happened, some accident. B: He seemed a little helpless to me. A: Well, if you play with his kind of sound, there is no Chopin left… there is just a kind of slug-heap of sound. D: Aesthetic of ruins? B: An excess of decibels, for sure. B: His program wasn’t planned well, either, two polonaises back to back. A: Kawai is a delicate instrument, but it has a decibel limit, and, I think, Zhdanov exceeded that limit.
A: This was not a successful production. B: I remember her well from five years ago. I noticed then that she played with a certain mannerism: in every phrase she had a rhythmic anomaly in the form of a rubato at least three times: beginning, middle, and end. A: there isn’t much left then. B: Well, you can’t play everything sostenuto, because then the sostenuto has no point of reference. I think her future, and salvation, will lie in chamber music where other musicians – her partners – will enforce different habits. Maybe they can root out the problem. A: Root out? She’s 28. B: I liked her a lot 5 years ago. She made a beautiful sound, she did not ram the piano with excessive volume. But today she makes the same mistake, she’s lost for the same reason. It’s a kind of… groaning. C: Well, there was something there in the mazurkas, a beautiful cantilena, I mean this person has learned something… but her ballad was noisy and messy… her waltz.. well, one cannot play it without breathing, without emphasizing the rhythmic contour of the left hand…
Comments on the results:
Commentators were surprised by the exclusion of Airi Katada, Fedorova, Da Sol Kim and Kortus. They felt a lot of “mainstream” (one could interpret this as “mediocrity”) was included which could easily have been skipped. Especially exclusion of Katada rancoured. The last several minutes of the program were dedicated to playing parts of her performance.
Here’s a summary of the evening commentary on PR2 on October 13, 2010:
Comments regarding the participants who performed on October 13:
Large spread of qualities, from superb Wunder to frankly scandalous Xin Tong; and a lot of “average”. (Mainstream?)
A: Bracha; surprised me with the beautiful quality of his sound. Rondo C-minor was very clear, good time accents, mazurka E-minor very well differentiated, and mazurka A-minor interesting differentiation of mood between variations: what Romans called varietas. B: I disagree, I don’t think the quality of the sound was all that sophisticated. Moreover, I think mostly it was not terribly interesting. This is a typical problem with Polish pianists: pretty sound, but not much interpretation; but I liked the B-minor scherzo which scared us at some places and played the Christmas carol slowly, like a child. And – and – a soft cry before the reprise – most performers usually make that very dramatic, but he made it soft, almost resigned. A good conception. C: Not enough variety of articulation, imho. D: For me, there was a lack of a dry, un-pedalled sound. Why are the young players afraid of this?
[A quote from Bracha in which he pronounces himself happy with audience response].
Commentator: Do not pay too much attention to the warm reception by the Warsaw audience. The audience means to be supportive and almost everyone gets a good ovation. It means very little.
Btw, why are Polish pianists refusing to talk to the press?
[Bracha says it’s because Blecharz didn’t.]
A: For me, this was the most even performance of the whole day. B: Saying this not enough. He has developed very greatly since last time he was here. C: He showed a different aspect of his person in each piece. In scherzo E-major all kinds of colors. Also, great ability to play slowly – what Italians call pienezza del suono: fullness of sound: mastery of speaking slowly (when an actor speaks slowly, he automatically compels the audience to listen to him more carefully). How he establishes a hierarchy of grounds: there is the main thought, then the parenthetical thought, then some interjections. And the way he trails of in mazurka e-minor trails off into silence and all you can here is the Mickiewicz phrase only the echo rang. One could write a book about his Andante Spianato, super-colored, fable-like fioriture, as if one ran his fingertips along the tops of the strings, not the keys. And note his brilliance in the polonaise: unlike him, most pianists fall into loudness immediately and from then on it is heavy. D: No one has played andante spianato the way he did; he was in no hurry at all! C: Garcia wrote about it in the 1830s; this is full, quiet, well-breathing legato like a perfect Bellini voice. D: He closed his small phrases brilliantly and built the big phrases out of these blocks. And his pause in the waltz during which everyone smiled! And the phenomenal unisono of left and right in the B-minor Mazura – a single perfect tone! B: Scherzo E-major: there is an idea to perform it by creating a kind of seraphic mood; but that’s not enough: that piece has a great depth; and he managed to go out into that great depth!
[Wunder]: Five years ago I was a different man.
A: He studies with a wonderful teacher, and commands a superb range of tools, but there is a great distance between his range of tools and the content of his interpretation. He seemed to have nothing to tell us. Also: there was a kind of overuse of tempo variations and a certain carelessness about the articulation of details; the F-minor fantasia seemed to lack a spiritual depth, it struck one as musically primitive: his consciousness seems insufficient for the technical tools he commands. B: He seemed to play differently in the beginning and at the end. His mazurkas sounded promising, in a kind of Soviet school of the 1950’s, but his fantasia lacked grace, it lacked simplicity — probably because he lacked a conception of how to play it. The forte in his waltzes was completely unnecessary, well, vulgar, really, a kind of axe-whacking. C: He began his waltzes originally, in a soft, slow, quiet leggero, very promising, but then suddenly he went straight into forte, very thick and muddy, and from then on went on banging away. D: A kind of thudding sound. A: Also, note his program: in the middle, three big pieces in the F, one after another. Who can handle that? B: Conservatory ought to teach program composition. It’s an art sui generis.
[part 2 will follow soon]
Cute: on this board pianists are discussing the broadcasts in real time. Some express their pleasure with the high level of the coverage, comparing it favorably to the coverage of Van Cliburn which they find too personality driven. Their complaints about the inaccessibility of the commentary (exclusively in Polish) have motivated me to post a summary of the more interesting comments from the 23:00 bulletin here. Henceforth, expect one every day, starting tomorrow.
I neither recorded last night’s, nor took notes, alas, which I now bitterly regret — as the commentators are knowledgeable, erudite, follow the performances with score in hand (which they annotate for reference and therefore can and do discuss in great detail); but here are a few things which I do remember from it which appear worth mentioning. I mention them below. Please forgive the emphasis on catchy snide… I promise to focus more on the musicology starting with tomorrow’s summary.
- The bulletin opened with a discussion of the perceived inability of all of the participants who performed yesterday (Oct 12, 2010) to read and interpret the score, a failing which it was generally agreed was on the rise in the profession in general.
- While one commentator thought Mei-ting Sun’s performance was clear and transparent, others complained about his fortes which they thought were brutal.
- Concerning one Russian performer they all agreed that his talent had been ruined by bad education; in particular they objected to his inability to maintain rhythm as written in the score. (One kindly observed that perhaps in time the pianist might overcome this difficulty, to which another rejoined sourly that at that age (26), Pergolesi was already dead).
- Likewise one Japanese performer was said to be unable to maintain rhythm; one commentator puzzled at how it was possible to memorize and play from memory a piece which apparently made no rhythmic sense. (Another suggested it was like memorizing a poem in a language one does not understand: it can be done, but never well).
- The commentators have found Yuliana Avdeeva a very well trained professional, but thought her range of expressive tools was poor; in particular they objected to her insistence on over-using the left pedal (one called it “the leftist deviation”); though they noted an epidemic proportion of general and indiscriminate over-pedaling among young Chopin pianists.
- The performance of Marcin Koziak occasioned comments on the topic of Kultura Dzwieku — a concept which I suppose could be translated as “sound education” — specifically, “education in the sound of Chopin” — with one commentator recommending that every music school ought to have a Pleyel piano and some required work with Chopin’s instrument. (The comment’s probably wise musicologically but also funny because the opposite of Kultura is Brak Kultury — “lack of culture” — barbarism — which makes the comment a pretty painful backhand slap, if you read it carefully).
- There were more of the now daily complaints about the general failure to play Mazurka in the Mazurka rhythm; on which occasion one commentator recalled a quotation from Chopin himself who famously once said that he himself only managed to play Mazurka well — well enough to deserve listening — perhaps once a year; the rest of his playing being robota (“mere labor”). (Chopin Ekspress — the competition daily newspaper — observed yesterday that playing a dance well is probably not possible for someone who’s never danced it).
I chuckled at the mention of the well known story of a walk in the park taken by Chopin and Delacroix, during which Delacroix was querying Chopin about things like… the difference between counter-point and harmony. What Delacroix recorded of it in his journal is well-nigh incomprehensible: I guess he was no more knowledgeable about music than he was good at painting! How did that friendship work? “Chopin, I’ll paint your portrait!” “Oh, well, if you insist”?
Better sound, in video, live, at the competition website, here. (Still no on-demand, though).
1. The topic of the recent discussion being the lamentably declining interest and attendance at classical arts events, I imagined those expressing such views, and living nearby, would jump at the news of both Huelgas and Brabant Ensembles singing only 2 hours’ drive away. Alas, no one had time to make the trip — Saturdays, apparently, are not off for the class in question. For this there are three explanations: a) the respondents wished to avoid me, b) were really too busy to make the trip, or — most likely — c) didn’t care. Here’s your clue, dear friend: the people who occupy themselves professionally with high-brow art, do not actually consume it for their pleasure. Like a girlfriend I once had, they probably relax on Saturday afternoons with Sade and a Mary Huggins Whatshername as if the brain were a muscle, needing to rest after all this Goethe and Josquin.
2. On the bus, four mousy-looking young women behind me and two elderly ladies in front of me talked loudly and incessantly. My partial ignorance of the language protected me from the content, but not from speculation: what on earth could possibly deserve such energetic discussion for two hours straight? It was not Jacob Clement’s motets, I was sure. And I was pretty sure it was not the budget crisis, either. What was it then? The young women may have been discussing nail polish; or (fancy me) sexual techniques. But the old ladies? Their grand-children’s teething problems? Chatting among humans, say Evolutionary Psychologist, is like grooming among monkeys: the content does not matter. I had my proof.
3. To my disappointment, the concert was given in the Cathedral. Cathedrals are cheap places to perform, of course, and the audience may be fooled by the fool’s gold dust of spiritual association rubbing off on anything taking place in a church, but churches, dear friends, are about the worst place to perform and hear music. The sound travels up and then back down where it clashes with the sound made a split second later, the result being a kind of congealed soup of standing hum in which nothing can be heard clearly — nothing, that is, except the labials: mumble mumble XCELSIS mumble PACE mumle S mumble SS mumble SANCTUS (maybe). The best Renaissance choir singing in the focal point of a cross-shaped church sounds like a hot-bed of whithering, snarling snakes.
I thought this had been conclusively proven in Halle in 2004, during a famous Handel concert conducted in a church, at which the RAI reporter swore to me he’d never contract anything sung in a church again (the concert was broadcast by Euroadio). Yet, here we are 6 years on and this stuff still goes on. Why? The only possible reason is that the performers know the audience don’t know. Oh, they’ll like the interior; the atmosphere; the paintings. Who cares if they cannot hear our music?
4. The medieval builders knew that the altar of the cross-shaped church was the worst possible place for acoustics. This did not matter for what happened there: incantations in Latin, which no one, thankfully, understood, sounded only more mysterious when obscured by the congealed acoustic boom; the actual music was intended to take place elsewhere: in the choir, which, being located in the back, over the entrance, and high up — right against the ceiling in fact — delivered a different sort of sound. And better sound it was, I am sure of it: the builders knew what they were doing; and so did the composers and choir singers and choirs conductors. In other words, the pros agreed music-making belonged in the back. So, why can’t modern musicians, if they insist on singing in churches, sing from the choir? The reason, old friend, is that they have come to believe themselves the priests of the modern age: they want to take the center; and, what is worse, the audience expects them to. In the past, the musicians stayed back, producing the music which helped the listeners in front of them achieve the aesthetic rapture which they then confused with whatever they had in front of them, which, in a church, happened to be God. Today, the musicians perform out front: no God, no aesthetic rapture, just a bunch of OK looking middle aged singers whom you simply cannot hear. Come on. You sing beautifully, but, if you want me to enjoy your work, back in the choir with you lot. It was good enough for Bach.
5. Paintings. Wow. The paintings. Don’t get me wrong: I love this country, its people, its food, its… well, everything. But if there is one thing these people cannot do, it is — paint. Would they please stop already?
Alright, let’s be serious: why didn’t they stop while still painting? Did the painters not notice that their work looked like hell? And, more importantly, did not their sponsors? Were the sponsors perhaps the verbal sort, who, when looking at a painting, simply cannot tell that it is crooked and ugly — cannot tell anything, in fact, but its content? (“Jesus? Good. Naked Chicks? Bad”?) A painting is a painting is a painting? It’s a painting, and paintings are art, so, great, here we have a painting, at last, let’s hang it up?
6. Though I have tried to shield my eyes from the sight, I could not: the stuff burnt into the retina of my eye like a branding iron. And while staring at it, I realized that, clearly, expressionism was not invented in 1880’s France and Germany but in 1500’s Portugal: same convoluted gracelessness, same ugly colors, same contorted, tortured expressions. Suddenly, I was struck by the unfairness of it all. Why should Shiele and Munch get all the money and all the praise and all the credit? When a Frenchman does it (or a Norwegian but in Paris, or Berlin), it’s great art, I suppose, but when a Portuguese does it in Portugal, it’s provincial kitsch?
7. At the hotel — cute as per usual, if, as per usual, substandard — at least the mattress was not the usual National Sponge — it turned out that absolutely all rooms look out on the only busy road in Evora — cobble-stoned, too, for added acoustic effect. The guidebook hadn’t mentioned that: it’s writer may not have noticed. The hotel owner disagreed, when I did: oh, it’s very quiet here. I took a double-take. Really? Did she really think so? If so, had she no ears? (I mean it: clearly, paintings in the Cathedral show us that some people have no eyes, so why should not others have no ears, either?) Or did she perhaps have ears but assume that the placebo/hypnotic power of suggestion would take care of the problem: “No, dear sir, it’s not noisy here, it’s all in your mind”. “Oh, it’s all right then.” (?) Is that how’s it’s supposed to work?
And the concert? Other than all the above, it was very beautiful.
Probably. For all I heard. Reminded of how beautiful they were, I rushed back home to listen to my library of Huelgas recordings.
PS. As I waited in front of the Cathedral for the concert to begin, a cold front slowly rumbled in, sending forth across the blue sky the wispy tender tendrils of the first autumn rain. It looked rather good: see above.
I bet you have always wanted to hear the entire Chopin competition from beginning to end? Well, you can hear this year’s, here. You have missed today, the first day, so you must trust me when I say that the level is extraordinarily high — easily everyone here — well, almost everyone — is better than Ashkenazy; that the Japanese (!) have fielded a very strong team; and that Antoine de Grolee has made the biggest splash on the first day. But here are the upcoming dates for you to train your computer on and hear for yourself. All times in CET (Central European time: Warsaw, Paris, Rome, Berlin). Your chance to hear the greatest — as yet unfamous — of the new generation — and a lot of Chopin you’d otherwise never get to hear.
October 3: 23:00
October 4: 10:00, 12:30, 15:15, 17:00, 20:00, 23:00
October 5: 10:00, 12:30, 15:45, 17:00, 19:30, 23:00
October 6: 10:00, 12:30, 15:45, 17:00, 19:30, 23:00
October 7: 10:00, 12:30, 15:45, 17:00, 19:30, 23:00
October 8: 22:00
October 9: 10:00, 12:10, 17:00, 19:10, 23:00
October 10: 10:00, 11:40, 12:10, 17:00, 18:40, 19:10, 23:00
PS. The competition broadcasts the performances live from its own website, here.
Plus, for what it is worth: God Almighty only knows how long it will be up there, but you can (sort of) see and hear Antoine the Gorilla here. The dude is good.
So, I went to see this. Nearly didn’t make it: the trip from South Ken to the Barbican — a distance of 5.5 miles — 8.8 km — took me 1.5 hours! I could have made it faster if I had walked. What a ridiculous city!
The concert itself was pretty lame. No one had any voice to speak of (except Vicky, of course). Who are the great singers of today? It seems the greats who were going strong when I first took interest in opera — Kirkby, Battle, Troyanos, McNair, Botte, Te Kanawa — have all died, lost their voices, or gotten too old or too sick to sing. Last night, besides Vicky, the only good performance came from the conductor, not because he conducted especially well, but because he was entertaining: he was very small, cute and jumped up and down energetically in a manner which made me imagine pink shrimp dancing.
You know: French.
Ms De Niese was also very entertaining — she’s gaining weight in the delightful way of Indian ladies of a certain age — and she was wearing a body-clinging, bright red piece of silk which brilliantly emphasized her generous thigh-o-hip complex, which has already reached the mature form of a single, undifferentiated body part. (Rather like the Spanish jamon iberico).
Which is not a bad thing, you know. There are gentlemen who rather like ladies that way.
It’s a pity I didn’t sit closer to feast my eyes.
I should remember to bring opera glasses next time.
Good thing I don’t need to bring a hearing aid.
Though in this case, it would have made no difference, actually.
And herein resides a philosophical reflection: that in some sense, live classical music (the French say musique savante, that is, “educated music” — how very smart of them to have invented the right word for the phenomenon, but then again that’s their greatest forte, is it not, the bon mot), well, as I was saying, the musique savante, then, in the age of recorded sound becomes gradually more and more… irrelevant. There are recordings which simply will never be matched. Period. And once such a recording has been made, well, we have reached the end of art, have we not?
(Yes, yes, I know, this is not what Danto meant, but what he meant seems irrelevant, while what I mean is hugely pertinent).
It was interesting to observe the audience. First, it seemed more adequate than the American audience: they knew what to applaud and — when. (They recognize the false cadenza in London, even if no one at the Met does).
But they were rather mean to Ms De Niese, I thought. Surely she was not the worst singer on stage that day, even if she did subcontract “Myself I shall adore” to a side-kick; and tended to substitute arches for trills. (Trills are hard. I know. I can’t do them at all).
No. After all, there is no need to single out Ms De Niese for special criticism: there really, honestly are no great sopranos today.
(Well, with the exception of one. Perhaps Monsieur Philippe could be convinced to try Semele? I should suggest the idea to my friends in Chiang Mai. A sexually-transposed/differently gendered Semele would fly there).
No. The audience were mean to her not on account of her singing but on account of her preening, flagrant sex-appeal. Ladies don’t like it. Gentlemen in the company of their ladies dare not contradict.
Well, I didn’t care. I applauded. (I may even have whistled). OK, so she sings nothing special, but, surely, she is a magnificent girl plus she sings. (We have an expression for that in India: “more girlfriend”, we say).
I was struck by something else, too: when I first began going to opera — nearly 20 years ago today — I was usually the youngest person in the audience. Last night, twenty years later, I was still the youngest man there; and I spied only one nubial-age female. I wonder whether there are any statistics: is opera dying because of the graying of the audience? Or was opera always an art form for the rich and therefore old (people typically reach peak-earnings around 55).
It took me an hour to travel the 5.5 miles back home and by the time I got here, I was falling on my face with exhaustion. What a busy, exhausting life this is: museum in the morning, library in the afternoon, opera at night. I am practically harried: museum, opera, book, cinema, theater, book, book, cinema, opera, museum, lecture, book, library, institute, workshop, museum, concert. I am running short of breath some days.
I can’t get this through my head: how do people find time for work??
And the answer is, of course, they don’t. And this is why they are so bloody ignorant — and, says Mrs Sei, dull: they simply don’t have the time to educate themselves. There was once, before the great socialist leveling, a leisure class whose job was to sponsor and consume art, and, as a result, we had once pretty decent art. But today, the leisure class is gone, and with it any sensible art. All we have now, it seems, is the the conceptual, zen-like… rhino stool: “Geddit?” “Yeah, yeah, I geddit”, etc.
Hu Shih once wrote a brilliant article in which he explained — with ample historical proof — that Zen was unalloyed hippopotamus cowplop.