March 30, 2011

MARTINA FILJAK: Gold Medal, 2009 Cleveland Int'l Piano Competition

HAYDN:  Sonata Hob.XVI.20
BEETHOVEN:  Sonata Op.106
CHOPIN: Etude Op.25 No.10
RAVEL:  Une barque sur l'océan  (Miroirs)
SCRIABIN:  Nocturne Op.9, No. 2 (for left hand)
BERIO:  Six Encores (Wasserklavier, Feuerklavier, and Luftklavier) 

Bolton Theater (Cleveland Playhouse)

Sultry looks and a serious decolletage may give the impression that Martina Filjak is one of those dreaded "Classical Babes" which periodically materialize as embodiments of delusional hopes nurtured by marketing departments of classical record labels.  The truth, however, is that Filjak is a first-rate musician whose instrumental craft is highly polished, and whose pellucid tone has that special glow which speaks of masterful fractional pedaling.
Filjak's musical personality struck me as being essentially lyrical, but I heard nothing musically soggy in her interpretations.  Her Hammerklavier is bracing and propulsive, yet there is always a singing quality to her melodic lines, and the tone never becomes brittle or harsh even in fortissimos.  With its flowing tempo the Adagio emerges as a wistful elegy instead of a funereal dirge, and the music only gains from the underlying subtle sense of urgency.  Filjak's expressive, melancholy, yet rhythmically taut Haydn C-minor sonata is among the most memorable interpretations of that piece that I've heard.  And her playing of the Scriabin Nocturne reflects the palpitating, vertiginous, intoxicating qualities of Scriabin's romanticism.

Although I think that other contestants gave more striking performances of individual works, Filjak impressed my as being the more complete musician.  Perhaps my impression is partly due to the fact that, at the age of 30, Filjak was the oldest and, thus, the most experienced among the competition contestants.  Be that as it may, I think her victory was amply deserved by the breadth of her musicianship and the beauty of her pianism.


March 22, 2011


What if Schumann had Prozac or lithium? Would his creativity have been helped or hampered by these modern, so-called wonder drugs? Would his autobiographical Second Symphony tell a different story? As it stands, I hear the music pulsing with Schumann's journey from abject depression to triumph and joy.
Conductor Marin Alsop, interview on National Public Radio.
... the interpreter must possess a special empathy for Schumann the man and troubled creator. ... It must never be forgotten that Schumann ... was desperately holding back the gates of madness. 
David Dubal, Art of the Piano.

Why is it that, when it comes to Schumann's music, musicians are expected to act as Schumann's self-appointed psychiatrists, and to treat performances of his music as exercises in postmortem psychiatric profiling?  Schumann's mental life wasn't pretty, true.  But then neither were those of good many other important composers:  rabid antisemites (Wagner), pedophiles (Saint-Saens), anguished closeted homosexuals (Tchaikovsky), Nazi sympathizers (Webern), Communist sympathizers (Shostakovich), or just plain mean and vindictive bastards (Britten).
       Why is it, then, that Marin Alsop does not hear Saint-Saens' "Egyptian" concerto "pulsing" with lust for prepubescent boys?  Why doesn't David Dubal insist that interpreters must possess "a special empathy" for Tchaikovsky "the man and troubled creator"?  (And troubled Tchaikovsky was, if anyone can be meaningfully called 'troubled'!)
       Why does it seem informative for Dubal to refer to Schumann's "highly personal and psychological formal shapes", as if the formal shapes in the music of Bach or Mahler are impersonal and carry no psychological imprint of the minds that created them?  (Surely Bach and Mahler were not composing with their kneecaps or livers.)
       And, most importantly, why is it that those who insist on placing Schumann's music on the psychiatrist's couch never bother to ask themselves such basic questions as:  What exactly is the perceptual difference between a sforzando marked by composers with bipolar disorder, and one marked by composers with 'healthy' minds? (Since the answer is clearly "None", such questions would be rather uncomfortable for those who indulge in the above kind of psycho-blabbering.)

I hold this wide-spread pseudo-musicological idiocy responsible for frequent maiming of Schumann's music on record and in the concert hall.  Fortunately, the young generation of pianists does not seem to see anything important (musically or otherwise) in Schumann's psychological condition.  Or so I think based on what I hear in their playing, which focuses my attention on the natural beauty of Schumann's harmonic and melodic imagination, while avoiding the hysterical dynamical and rhythmic excesses of Schumann performances from decades past.  Perhaps for young musicians, who grew up in the world where Prozac and Ritalin supplement Gerber Baby Food, a psychological case like Schumann's may be utterly ordinary.

March 20, 2011

My crocodile tears for the classical recording industry

Hans Heinsheimer - who was an executive at the music publishing company Universal Edition before WWII - emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1930s and spent the rest of his career working for American music publishing houses (Shirmer and, before that, Boosey & Hawks).  He wrote several wonderful books about the music world/business in America, among which his first - MENAGERIE IN F# - is hilarious, passionate, and, ultimately, rather sad.  In these books Hansheimer has much to say about the plight of the living composer in America, who cannot make a decent living because everyone in the classical music business - from performers to record companies - wants to make money at the composer's expense.  The details would be nightmarish if they weren't bathed in so much good humor, stoic sarcasm, and absolute, unconditional love of music as a living art.  With Heinsheimer's books in mind, here is what I think of the recent and still ongoing hand-wringing in the media about the imminent demise of the classical recording industry:

March 19, 2011

Michelangeli's Chopin

Artur Schnabel once declared (with his customary pompousness) that he plays only music which is better than it can be played (i.e., Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert).  Judging by Schnabel's recorded legacy (including a few live broadcasts from the 1940s), he should have played just about everything written for the piano, since at least this much music is better than it could have been played by Schnabel - when "better" involves better than 50/50 ratio of correct notes to those that are wrong or missing.  (Upon hearing that Schnabel was rejected for military service back at the time of WWI, the great piano virtuoso and wit Moritz Rosenthal quipped: No wonder!  The man has no fingers!)*
If I ever needed a proof that Schnabel's profound musical intellect was sabotaged by his snobbish worship of music from the Austro-German Classical period, Chopin's G-minor Ballade would be high on my list.  Of all the countless performances of this composition that I've heard over the years, only a few came close to realizing the ideal balance of its structural organization, emotional content, and technical display; and only one convinced me that it actually captured this ideal.  

Michelangeli is one of those "keyboard giants" of the 20th century (Horowitz is another) who never succeeded in making this piece sound as good as it actually is.  While the technical demands are met with astounding and seemingly effortless perfection, the music emerges as a succession of quasi-independent episodes, sculpted with piercingly beautiful tone and punctuated by explosions of technical wizardry.  I treasure this performance precisely because it shows so strikingly how elusive great music can be even for the most prodigiously gifted musicians.

*    Yeah, yeah, I know all those worshipful references to Schnabel's profound musicianship, which supposedly outweighed the devastating shortcomings in his pianistic craft. I think this attitude is laughable.  After all, no amount of intellect and scholarship could ever save a performance by an actor with a severe speech defect.  And I'm supposed to believe that performances by a pianist who frequently "stutters" and swallows one out of three musical syllables can be seriously described as great performances?   

March 16, 2011

Life lessons...

Years ago my daily walks usually took me through a tiny city park called Tompkins Square, located in the slowly gentrifying but still filthy and smelly Manhattan neighborhood known as the East Village.  One time a young guy sitting on a bench asked me for a cigarette.  This he did with politeness completely unexpected from a typical Tompkins Square junkie: his hair had not been washed in months, some of his front teeth were missing, and his body was not far from reaching the state of a dessicated mummy.  I had about a quarter of a pouch of Drum tobacco with me (enough for about 5 cigarettes), so I gave it all to him since I was only a couple of blocks away from home where there was plenty more.  My "generosity" seemed to make the guy quite happy, and, perhaps as a way of showing his gratitude, he suddenly augmented his thanks with a cheerful "Lighten up, man!"

I suppose this parting bit of advice was inspired by my perfectly neutral but decidedly Eastern European facial expression, which most natives perceive as being somewhere between a frown and a scowl.  Be that as it may, the thought that kept spinning in my mind for the rest of my walk home was:

Fuck me!  I just received some life coaching from a mummified junkie with missing front teeth!

March 13, 2011

ZHANG ZUO plays Bach, Haydn, Schumann, Liszt, Chopin, Ginastera

BACH: Partita No.1 BWV 825
HAYDN: Piano Sonata Hob.XVI.40
SCHUMANN: Symphonic Etudes
CHOPIN: Etude Op.10 #10
GINASTERA: Piano Sonata No.1
2009 Cleveland Int'l Piano Competition

SCHUMANN: Abegg Variations
LISZT: Piano Sonata in B minor
CHOPIN: Etude Op.10 #7
2009 Fort Worth, Texas

Zhang Zuo, piano

It is a very subjective thing, I'm sure, but I just can't resist Zhan Zuo's personality which shines through everything she plays: sunny, happy, boisterous, and absolutely in love with the piano. (Unlike so many pianists, especially among competition constestants, Zuo shows not a trace of an adversarial relation with the instrument.)  She has a splendid technique, but does not seem to care too much about an occasional finger slip (of which there are next to none), which only ads to the natural feel of her piano playing.  What I found especially impressive in her playing is a palpable sense of structural continuity communicated in the large scale works - Symphonic Etudes and, especially, the Liszt Sonata.  This is not to say that the continuity comes at the expense of details and transitions.  These elements are given just enough emphasis, rather than being heavily perfumed.  In fact, I felt that the most Romantic elements of these works had a lighter, almost Schubertian flowing lyricism.  (It helps that Zuo's beautifully rounded tone never becomes milky in piano or clangorous in forte.)  I keep returning to these performances again and again with undiminished admiration for Zuo's musicianship.
      Her Haydn sonata is the only strange performance: the first movement (marked 'innocent' by Haydn) is played with no inflection and sounds strikingly matter-of- fact compared to everything else.  I'd guess she probably wanted to set the contrast for the "release" which comes with the finale. Strange performance, but at least she was experimenting, which makes it more interesting for me than all those many coy, precocious, porcelain Haydn sonatas I've heard over the years.

Kirill Gerstein

A Gilmore Award winner ($300,000.00 !), the Russian-born Kirill Gerstein has received much drooling critical praise. If his live recording of Bach's English Suite  BWV 807 from the 2009 Verbier Festival is representative of his musicianship and instrumental craft, the Gilmore Award jury must have been composed entirely of deaf people.  In that recording Gerstein's tone clatters like the dishes in an apartment next to the train station, his articulation is arthritic, and his melodic lines are spasmodic.  Aside from unpleasant tone, I could accept such struggling playing from the nonagenarian Horszowski, but not from a young pianist breathlessly described as an astonishing virtuoso. By the time Gersteine limped through the Sarabanda, I was simply laughing... 

Well, at least the Gilmore Foundation seems to be consistent in rewarding music making that is as memorable as a roadside motel in Kansas where you once spent a night on your way to California...

Sean Chen

BACH: WTC II, Prelude and Fugue BWV 892
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata Op.109
SCHUMANN: Kreisleriana Op.16
CHOPIN: Etude Op.25 No.12

, piano
Bolton Theater (Cleveland Playhouse)

These spectacularly recorded concert performances have fascinated me for several months now, but not because of any revelations about the music. The fascination is at a meta-musical level:  I keep thinking that I am not supposed to like these performances, yet I have listened to them (without a gun to my head, so to speak) well over two dozen times by now, and I still don't feel like I am "done" with them.

The playing is very objective and emotionally reserved, but Chen's marbled tone, immaculate finger technique, and eminently sane tempos somehow keep the music from feeling cold.  Just when I think (for the umpteenth time!) that Chen's playing is simply a perfect example of a glossy Juilliard product, I recall a good many performances of Beethoven late sonatas, by "brand name" pianists, which (unlike Chen's Op.109) I would not hear a second time unless threatened with grave bodily harm.  And when I think of Chen's minimally inflected Kreisleriana as an oblique homage to Stravinsky, I huff and puff a bit, but then quickly recall all those metallic, ugly, hysterical, kitschy, or just pianistically unkempt performances I've heard over the years.  And suddenly feel grateful for the cool elegance of Chen's refined pianistic craft.

In the end, I still don't know what to make of these performances.  I suppose this fact alone already means something.  If only I knew what...

March 12, 2011

Honest lying...

I was simply curious to hear how much musical value Sony got for their $3,000,000.00 advance paid to this musical midget, so I brought the "Lang Lang live in Vienna" CD home from the library.  What I heard on this CD told me unequivocally that Sony got about as much for all that dough as (I would guess) one could get for a few hundred bucks from a Las Vegas whore: a cynical and vulgar substitute for the real thing.

March 11, 2011

BMG's special place in Hell

As part of the HOROWITZ: THE ORIGINAL JACKET EDITION, RCA (and Sony) included a CD of the pianist's 25th Anniversary Carnegie Hall Concert of Feb.25, 1953.  On the CD cover (presumably the original LP cover reduced in size) it is stated clearly and boldly, albeit in smaller print:
ACTUAL recording of the Carnegie Hall concert of February 25, 1953

As the first cursory listening of the Schubert B-flat Sonata revealed, this "ACTUAL" recording is full of post-concert edits.  The edits are not properly matched in "perceived volume".  And at least one splice - at 5:47 of the Finale -  MISSED THE LAST NOTE OF THE BAR (1/8th value)!

Any apologists for classical record companies out there, who want to explain to me why this does not constitute a clear case of consumer fraud? And if the present day re-issue "specialists" at BMG-Sony simply did not notice all the splices and botched editing before charging unsuspecting music lovers for this fraudulently titled piece of sonic garbage, their level of incompetence is truly staggering.