Refined Impulsiveness

It is always interesting how some pianists’ reputations continue to grow after their death while others’ do not. The French pianist Alfred Cortot, for example, is still known by present-day piano lovers more than 50 years after his death – doubtless due not only to the great number of recordings he made but also the marvellous editions he produced of scores by Chopin and other great composers. And yet other pianists who were his colleagues and fine artists themselves have names that are all but forgotten.

Robert LortatOne of these is Robert Lortat. He was, like Cortot, a student of Louis Diémer at the Paris Conservatoire, and was also a friend of Fauré’s, performing many of that composer’s works yet strangely not recording a note of his music. He did record Chopin, however, putting down a cycle of the Etudes Opp.10 and 25 a couple of years before Cortot recorded his legendary sets. Lortat’s readings demonstrate a sense of adventurous and impulsiveness that he shared with Cortot yet with impressive technical precision and other admirable individual touches.

After some poor reissues of his recordings in the 1990s (the Etudes were badly pitched), there is a new release of some of his great Chopin playing on the Canadian DoReMi label that features some of his impressive recordings. His Chopin Preludes – presented below from an earlier reissue – are marvellous, featuring his full-bodied tonal palette, rhythmic drive, clear lines, interesting asynchronization of the hands, imaginative voicing, and some very impulsive touches despite a polished technique – exciting, musical playing by an artist well worth rediscovering!

The Valse Mélancolique

For fans of great music, the possibility of a new discovery is always tantalizing. However, there are times when a work is misattributed – the famous ‘Albinoni Adagio’, for example, was written centuries after the composer died. The Italian critic, broadcaster, and musicologist Luca Chierici has ascertained that one work recently attributed to Chopin, the ‘Valse mélancolique’, was in fact composed by Charles Mayer. Mr. Chierici, in response to my request to comment on his research, summarized the discovery (currently only published in Italian) as follows:

The Valse in F-Sharp Minor (called also Valse mélancolique) was apparently published in 1986 by Stanislaw Dybowski on the bi-weekly “Ruch Muzyczny”. I heard it by chance in 1987 since the italian pianist Bruno Canino played it as an encore in Milano, and I was immediately fascinated by the beauty of some melodic and harmonic lines. Stephen Hough and Garrick Ohlsson made recordings of the piece and YouTube is full of amateurish takes of the same Valse.

Now, it happened that in my recent orders of scores of the composer Charles Mayer (for some research I’m making about him) from the Berlin Staatsbibliothek I unexpectedly found that Mayer was the actual author of the piece. I wanted to write a short communication about my discovery and I immediately thought about the Chopin Institute in Warsaw. A very kind scholar wrote me back immediately saying that the Valse had been not included in the standard catalogue of Chopin works but that the news of a correct identification of the piece was very interesting. With one of the music magazines I collaborate for (the bi-weekly “Amadeus”), I arranged to have an article published. At the same time I visited Canino, gave him a copy of the score and asked if he wanted to record the Valse in the original form. This is a on-going project and the magazine announced that soon a link for downloading the audio will be available for the readers.

The particular values of Mayer’s composition are described in this article [currently at the top of this linked page, but that might change]. The most relevant detail is that the copy of 1986 which is currently circulating (and available at IMSLP) is a shortened version of the original Mayer’s one, and this fact (i.e. its poor architecture) was used to say that Chopin could never write a piece like that, apart the nice chopinesque themes and harmony. The original Mayer Valse is perfect in the sense of architectural balance and re-establish the value of the piece. By the way, another copy identical of the corrupted one had been published in 1936 : I examined it and found that is identical to the current shortened version. The “thrilling aspect” of the whole matter is: who published the shortened version ? Why he could only transcribe that version without consulting a copy of Mayer’s score?

In an email exchange we had relating to this discovery, Stephen Hough wrote (and gave me permission to publish) the following comments:

It was not so much the structure which made me think from the first time I saw the piece (1936 edition) that it couldn’t be by Chopin but the compositional mistakes. Chopin was fastidious about such things and there is false note-leading, inaccurate spelling of accidentals and rough harmony (too many thirds, bad spacing). I also never thought it sounded Chopin-esque but much more Russian. I only put it on as a curiosity and insisted that the notes explain its doubtful attribution.

But as it stands it’s an attractive piece and I’m glad I got to record a piece by yet another obscure composer!

To hear the work in a performance that is not quite as ‘amateurish’ as most on YouTube, as Chierici expressed, click here for Garrick Ohlsson’s lovely recording of the piece, indexed at the end of his cycle of Chopin’s actual waltzes – something that will no longer be the case in new recordings of the cycle thanks to this new discovery.

CD Review: Benjamin Grosvenor’s “Rhapsody In Blue”

The celebrated British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor has released the second CD in his much-publicized contract with Decca. After last year’s critically lauded solo disc featuring compositions by Chopin, Liszt, and Ravel, his new release focuses on works for piano and orchestra, giving listeners at home an opportunity to hear Grosvenor performing with an instrumental ensemble, in this case the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by James Judd.

The choice of works and presentation of the disc as a whole is an unusual one: Saint-Säens’ Second Piano Concerto, Ravel’s G Major Concerto, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, each followed by a solo ‘encore’ by the respective composers. The Ravel is an interesting bridge between the two works – he was French like Saint-Säens and his Concerto includes jazzy elements at times similar to Gershwin – but as an overall flow it is not the kind of programming that would necessarily encourage all-at-once listening, nor is a quieter solo composition after each larger concerted work ideal on the ear, with their different sound levels having one reaching for the volume control.

Personally, I’d have loved to hear the Saint-Säens with the Liszt Second that Grosvenor performed so magnificently at last year’s Proms, as well as with the Schumann Concerto (I’ve heard a stellar broadcast performance that was astonishingly mature). Whatever the reason for the repertoire choices, entitling the disc ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ when the Gershwin is the shortest concerted work featured seems a bit misguided, since all of the works here are equally worth hearing. However, when presented with what are profound and dazzling interpretations of great music, such objections and considerations are soon overlooked.

Grosvenor’s style, as I commented when reviewing his solo disc last year, blends an unusual degree of refinement and precision with old-school impulsiveness and ‘edge’. Regardless of the work he is performing, his sound is beautifully polished and refined, even at its loudest never becoming hard (the promotional videos filmed during sessions give the impression of brittleness, no doubt due to the mic’ing on the video cameras), and his phrasing is elegantly crafted, always with a sense of line and forward momentum.

The Saint-Säens is newer in Grosvenor’s repertoire – it seems hardly coincidental that the CD was released the same week that he performed the work at the Proms (surely a sign of Decca’s marketing machine at work). If this is a concerto that he hasn’t played as often as the Ravel (which he has performed since age 11), Grosvenor has clearly given his interpretation much thought and consideration – not that his playing seems to lack spontaneity or impetuousness. If midway through the first movement he opts for some stronger accents than I might have liked, the playing is never less than musical or effective. The first-movement cadenza is remarkable for its poetic phrasing, brought about in part by masterful pedalling and magnificent tone production. In the second movement, Grosvenor achieves great buoyancy while maintaining clear voicing and sparkling tone, while the finale features tremendous drive and the sense of risk-taking despite the phrasing never being uneven and tone never being harsh. Truly thrilling playing.

Ravel’s brilliant Concerto in G (1932) receives here one of its finest recorded interpretations. Grosvenor is the only pianist other than the legendary Michelangeli who I have heard create the uncanny effect of somehow enunciating the trills in the first movement such that one appears to hear notes between the semitones, like a zither or musical saw. He navigates through the first movement’s lyrical and virtuosic passages with a seamlessness that is stunning. The sense of flow in the second movement is impressive, with long lines and unobtrusive articulation, and the rapidly paced third movement poses no technical or musical challenge for Grosvenor as he brings the concerto to an exciting close.

For the disc’s title work Rhapsody in Blue, Grosvenor and members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – who provide admirable support throughout the disc but especially here – use the original 1924 orchestration by Gershwin’s colleague Ferde Grofé (which can be heard in the composer’s own abridged recording made the same year). The atmosphere in this more compact version is even more free-wheeling than usual, and here Grosvenor demonstrates that he is a master of whatever work he chooses to perform: an extraordinarily sensitive and refined an artist in ‘serious’ repertoire, he brings a jazzier, more popular work like this to life without lowering his musical or pianistic standards. Grosvenor unaffectedly fuses the work’s unique combination of jazzy and classical elements, with infectious vitality in his rhythmic drive, incredibly suave sensuality in lyrical passages, and crisply articulated passages flawlessly contrasted with fluidly phrased melodic lines. The measures leading into the famous secondary theme near the 9:30-mark may be the silkiest, most beguiling on record, and the subsequent rapid-fire repeated notes are technically brilliant while retaining purity of tone. This performance without a doubt ranks among the all-time greats.

The solo ‘encores’ presented between the major works are no less impressive. Godowsky’s arrangement of Saint-Säens’ The Swan is a perfect showpiece for Grosvenor, whose transcendent technique and Romantic sensibility enable him to bring out the transcription’s full potential: a primary melodic line that soars above the accompanying tracery, melting harmonies beautifully layered yet audible, timing wonderfully pliant and expansive. Ravel’s rarely-played Prelude in A Minor receives an exquisite reading that finds the composer’s experimental harmonies beautifully highlighted through Grosvenor’s delicate phrasing. The final solo, Gershwin’s Love Walked In, is one this young pianist has played for years. The trills, the balance of harmonies, and the incredibly supple phrasing are a marvel and provide a gorgeous closing to Grosvenor’s latest offering.

In short, this disc features performances as glorious as one could hope for. There is no doubt that the CD will be showered with justly-deserved praise, and hopefully sales will encourage the decision makers at Decca to record Grosvenor even more frequently, as one disc a year isn’t nearly enough for an artist of this calibre.

Twilight of a God

Alfred Cortot’s name is sometimes uttered with disdain for his technical ability at the keyboard. It is indeed a fact that some of Cortot’s performances have wrong notes, something that our sanitized ears today are not used to in an age of digital editing and soulless perfection aimed more at satisfying competition juries than touching the heart of a listener. Certainly one need not aim for wrong notes in order to imbue a performance with passion, but if in the heat of the moment a performer misses a note, should the interpretation be discounted and the pianist’s skill be called into question? I think not.

As was clearly articulated in Harold C Schonberg’s classic tome ‘The Great Pianists’, Cortot was an active teacher, school administrator, active performer, and prolific recording artist – with all this on his plate, how much time did he have to practice? There is no doubt as to his well-grounded technical capacity when one merely glances at his book of piano exercises, ‘Principes Rationnels de la Technique Pianistique’, or his study editions for great keyboard works of Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt, which contain brilliant exercises designed to make performances of these works easier on a physical level (in addition to adding great insight on other levels of awareness).

Indeed, Cortot’s digital dexterity was so brilliant that Horowitz made a trip to Paris hoping to learn the French master’s fingering for the treacherous ‘Etude en Forme de Valse’ of Saint-Saens, his 1919 recording of which the young Russian pianist had heard. (Cortot did not tell him.) Here is that amazing performance:

Unfortunately, while one can appreciate the great Cortot’s digital wizardry, there is less of an opportunity to recognize the beauty of his tone in these early recordings, which were made using the acoustical recording process (whereby a paper horn as opposed to a microphone captured the performance). From 1925, recording techniques improved considerably (microphones came into use), and in 1931 Cortot recorded the same work again – still brilliant fingerwork, though perhaps not quite as seamless, but with that gorgeous, rich mahogany tone that is instantly recognizable:

Despite a few splashy moments, the performance is brilliant on many levels. One accepts Cortot’s wrong notes, as Schonberg wrote, ‘as one accepts scars or defects in a painting by an old master’: it is worth experiencing a work of art so beautifully expressed even if there are a few superficial flaws.

In the 1930s, Cortot recorded a great many of Chopin’s works, among them the Sonatas, Etudes, Waltzes, and Impromptus. His recording of the Third Impromptu – hardly the most commonly played of Chopin’s works – has always struck me as one of his greatest and as the most successful of the work, with soaring phrasing, remarkably fluid timing that fits with the structure of the unusual figurations, and a varied tonal palette. This is the kind of playing that reflects the depth of Cortot’s essence:

Cortot recorded so many of Chopin’s works that one has the mistaken impression that he recorded them all. But while he recorded the Sonatas, Etudes, Preludes, and Waltzes multiple times over the course of three decades, in addition to a few other works, he did not record the complete Scherzi, Polonaises, or Nocturnes (Artur Rubinstein did) – although according to one discographer he made attempts at all of the Scherzi and Polonaises in the 1940s and the complete Nocturnes in the 1950s. My source at EMI France – a great Cortot fan himself – assures me that no traces of any of these exist in the archives.

Which brings us to the point of this post: a rare recording made in his twilight years while on tour of Japan of a work he regrettably did not record earlier. In 1952, Cortot gave an extensive tour of Japan that involved 18 performances in 13 cities, with four different programs. These photos of the elegant program booklet (photos copyrighted – credits at bottom of post) show that among the works he played was Gaspard de la Nuit, a work of which no Cortot recording has been found. (He did in fact record it at the same 1939 EMI session that brought us the wonderful Weber Second Sonata, but it was never issued, the masters have been destroyed, and no copies have been located.) Apparently it was obvious to even the less musical listeners that the treacherous ‘Gaspard’ was beyond the aging pianist’s capacity, though it would still be fascinating to hear if a broadcast recording were ever to turn up.

During this visit, Cortot spent two days at RCA Victor’s studios in Tokyo making a series of records that were only issued in that country. There is no doubt that he was past his prime, and the recordings feature playing with less cohesiveness than his earlier performances, but there is some value to be found in some of them. This series of discs has been issued twice on CD in Japan, the more recent issue featuring fine transfers from the original source material. Of particular interest is Cortot’s recording of Chopin’s Second Scherzo, which despite a few splashy moments and occasionally less fluid phrasing than was his norm at his peak, features some very poetic playing and gives us an idea of how he might have played the work in his younger years. (The Third Scherzo, sadly, is tough even for Cortot admirers to sit through.)

Listening to this performance might make us wish that he had recorded it a couple of decades earlier – hearing the Third Impromptu above gives us insight into how he might have played this Scherzo in the 1930s. How wonderful nevertheless to be able to hear him in this work, even if his playing was a shadow of his former glory.

To leave with a perhaps more unified impression of his art, here is what might be the last solo recording that exists of the artist: a 1957 Munich radio broadcast of Chopin’s Berceuse Op.57, in which his rich, penetrating tone and evocative pedalling help him create a truly wonderful dream world.

Photos of Japanese concert programme courtesy of Sumie Ueno, retired seasonal lecturer from the Osaka College of Music. Program courtesy of Hiroshi Fukuda, Professor Emeritus from Hiroshima Prefectural Women’s University. Thanks to Chihiro Homma for making these available for this posting.

Commanding Nobility

Rudolf Firkušný had the air of a warm-hearted diplomat. His elegant demeanour and refined presence came through both his playing and his interactions with the people in his life. The Czech pianist studied with the composers Suk and Janáček in his native land, and with the great pianists Alfred Cortot and Artur Schnabel, a combination which helped him fuse his love for the music of his country and European classics with an aristocratic and noble air.

As a pianist he had a wide repertoire that ranged from Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert through to the more Romantic Chopin and Brahms, and into the 20th Century with Debussy and as far forward as Barber. And yet more of his fame was due to his dedicated diligence in promoting the music of his Czech compatriots Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček (whose complete piano works he recorded), and Martinů (who wrote a number of works for him).

In his performances of music from his native land, he fuses impeccable charm and brio with his masterful technique to bring to life some lovely vignettes, as in this performance of Smetana’s Czech Dance No.10, “Skočná”.

But while artists could be in danger of being typecast as a performer of music from their country, Firkušný was recognized as a distinguished performer of the standard repertoire as well. His resonant piano tone, probing rhythmic pulse, and peaked phrasing brought everything under his fingers to life. His 1959 recording of Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, Op.58 reveals these qualities in his playing, with a strong sense of line and inner momentum.

Firkušný was remarkably human. As a teacher in New York (he had escaped there from Europe in 1940 and stayed there for the rest of his life), he exuded warmth and true concern for the well-being of his students. Sara Davis Buechner states that he was a “warm, encouraging mentor with a beautiful smile and gentle laugh” who was the epitome of aristocracy. “He was as affable and charming in person as he was commandingly noble on stage.” In his lessons, Buechner recalls, “he spoke to me in a relaxed manner as a colleague and that elevated our dialogue to the highest and most important level.”

This level of respect and connection in his personal life seems to have extended to the connection he forged with his listeners and with the composers whose music he played. Never does he appear to play a note that is less than important, and yet nothing sounds cold or academic, his tone always being beautifully burnished and his phrases as impeccably presented as he was in person. Later in life he played with a level of conviction and precision that belied his age. This 1989 concert recording of Schubert’s Klavierstücke No.1 D.946 is brimming over with an inner propulsion that never interferes with the lyrical phrasing, beautiful tone, and architectural and harmonic structure.

For all the distinguished nobility that Firkušný brought to the concert platform, his down-to-earth humanity was ever-present – he apparently had a fondness of Burger King Whoppers. In 1990, at the age of 78, he appeared in a Nike TV commercial with David Robinson in which he clearly excelled at piano and not at basketball. His rationale for his good-natured appearance? “I think it was good that for once serious music was put together with sports. Music needs all kinds of encouragement.”

In the hands of Rudolf Firkušný, music was indeed encouraged. His performances seem to have been propelled by an inner force such that they never seemed externally driven, giving phrasing a suppleness and enabling him to maintain a full-bodied tone. He was a favourite with audiences and critics alike. Alas, upon his death his name seemed to fade, and there is now a younger generation who seems less aware of his legacy. It is to be hoped that an enterprising producer will reissue his recordings (EMI had a Firkušný Edition in the 1990s) to help give his artistry the recognition it so clearly deserves.