Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Sergei Babayan's Rachmaninoff Recital

For a while, Sergei Babayan was the best-kept secret in the music world. Everyone knew him as a great teacher, mentoring an entire generation of distinguished pianists. Thankfully for music lovers, Mr. Babayan has recently been much more active on the concert stage. A few years ago, in a recital in Vancouver, I was moved and stunned by his beautifully idiomatic Chopin and his incredible pianism in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  With his new recording contract with the Deutsche Grammophon label, I am certain that his name will soon become a household word in the music world, as he deserves to be.


In this latest album of the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Babayan has chosen a wonderfully diverse recital of the composer’s solo miniature works. In the opening Prelude in A-flat major (Op. 23, No. 8) and G-sharp minor (Op. 32, No. 12), as well as the composer’s own transcription of Lilacs (Op. 21, No. 5), the pianist plays like a master painter, drawing from his incredibly wide sound palette, and his magical pedaling, painting for us a multitude of sound colours. In hearing these pieces, one “sees” splashes of colours in front of our eyes, and hears a sort of “liquid sound”. In his playing of Lilacs, Babayan acts as both singer and pianist in a perfect blend of vocal and pianistic colours. Indeed, throughout this entire album, the word “colour” keeps returning to my mind. 


We then hear a different side of the composer, when Babayan’s plunges into the Prelude in F minor (Op. 32, No. 6), where he not only towers over the not insignificant technical demands of the work, but underscores the forward-looking harmonies that the composer is not often given credit for.


In three Études-Tableau, Babayan draws upon the darker harmonic colours in the composer’s music. In the Étude-Tableau in C minor (Op. 33, No. 3), he underscores the contrast between the drama of the opening and the lyricism of the middle section. His playing of the Étude-Tableau of the same key (Op. 39, No. 1) is, in a word, sweeping. Babayan has an incredible sense of the horizontal aspect of the music, no matter how dramatic the playing is, or how big the sound, the playing never becomes heavy. In the Étude-Tableau in A minor (Op. 39, No. 2), he highlights the composer’s unique melodic inventiveness, as well as the gently swaying melodic figures of the accompaniment, and gives us a performance of intense lyricism. 


The towering Prelude in B minor (Op. 32, No. 10), for me the climax of this recital, is given a very memorable performance indeed. From the pale colours of the opening, Babayan masterfully builds the music to its shattering climax before the tension abates once again. His ability to bring out the lyricism of Rachmaninoff’s music is also evident in the Volodos transcription of the composer’s Melody (Op. 21, No. 9), where he manages to keep the melody afloat amidst the pianistic figurations swirling around it. With an uncanny sense of programming, Babayan gives us the brief Morceau de fantaisie in G minor, serving as a perfect palate cleanser before the balance of the recital. In the justly famous Prelude in D major (Op. 23, No. 4), the pianist brings out the incredible sensuality of the music, and stunningly plays off the beautiful melody with the almost as beautiful counter melody, or descant, the two floating around each other in an ocean of sound. 


The final part of the recital is a contrast between the lyrical and the dramatic. In the Étude-Tableau in E-flat minor (Op. 39, No. 5), Babayan highlights the composer’s penchant for bell-like sounds. The Volodos transcription of the Andante from the composer’s Sonata for Cello and Piano (Op. 19) received an interpretation from Babayan that made me forget the cello. He ends this Rachmaninoff recital with masterful playing of two contrasting works, the Moment musical in E-flat minor (Op. 16, No. 2) and the triumphant Moment musical in C major (Op. 16, No. 6). 


In Babayan’s own words that he shares with us in the programme notes, he writes, “Only a composer of the highest gifts can have a craftsmanship of the level where music sounds like an improvisation, born spontaneously.” I believe he might as well have been describing his own playing in this album, because only a pianist with the highest gifts can make the music sounding so spontaneous, like an improvisation. So closely does Babayan identify with Rachmaninoff’s music, I feel that he almost takes on the identity of the creator.


Mr. Babayan’s first album on Deutsche Grammophon was one dedicated to the two-piano music of Prokofiev, where he shares the recording studio with Martha Argerich. As much as I admire and love the art of Argerich, I am grateful that we get to hear Babayan on his own, in music that he so obviously loves. I hope that this incredible album will acquaint many more people to the art of this master pianist and artist.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Chopin Preludes with Charles Richard-Hamelin

The 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw introduced to the world some truly unique artists, who are now all forging their own unique paths in music. Seong Jin Cho, the gold medalist, has been branching out to music by composers other than Chopin, as well as active in collaboration with other musicians. Prizewinner Eric Lu went on to win first prize at the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition, impressing judges and audience members with the depth and maturity of his interpretation. Charles Richard-Hamelin, silver medalist from the competition, has been continuing his exploration of the music of Chopin and committing to them on disc, in addition to maintaining a busy performing career. The fruits of this young artist’s artistic growth are evident in this latest recording of Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28 as well as the Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22 (Analekta).


From the Prelude in C major, it seems evident that Hamelin chooses to let the music speak for itself. There is great naturalness in his approach, and he does not “stretch” or pull the music too much in this brief work. He aptly conveys the relentless sense of gloom in the Prelude in A minor, one of Chopin’s darkest works, as well as faithfully observing the composer’s slentando indication. His playing of the chords in the final bars evokes a calmness and religiosity, as well as giving a much needed resolution. Hamelin plays the G major prelude with elfin lightness, highlighting the quicksilver quality of this music. The contrast with the Prelude in E minor that follows is startling. He achieves the buildup of musical tension through the composer’s subtle harmonic changes, and he quite deliberately avoids a cataclysmic climax at m. 17, as the composer indicates only a forte here. In the Prelude in D major, Hamelin’s subtle rubato gives the feeling that the work is made up of one long-breath phrase. He achieves a beautiful cello sound in the left hand in his playing of the Prelude in B minor, giving us a true legato by his magical pedaling. 


In the miniature gem that is the Prelude in A major, Hamelin really takes time to bring out the beauty of each phrase, but managing to give the work an overall arc in its structure. He highlights the dark colours and undercurrent, as well as the swirling harmonic change in the Prelude in F-sharp minor. In the Prelude in E major, he chooses not to bring out the relentless, almost obsessive quality, in this music, but rather its nobility, achieving it with a richness of sound in his playing, as well as by not overdoing the dotted and double-dotted rhythmic figures that recurs over and over again. He plays the Prelude in C-sharp minor with a breathless quality, as well as highlighting the playful, glittering quality of the right hand melody. The beautiful Prelude in B major – my own sentimental favourite – is played with a euphoniousness of the melodic line and an acute awareness of its shape.  Hamelin certainly brings out the absolute wildness of the music in the Prelude in G-sharp minor.


The pianist plays the Prelude in F-sharp major with a real sense of buoyancy in the right hand chords and with great beauty in the left hand accompaniment figures. The transition into the Piu lento D-sharp minor section is magical. He plays the Prelude in E-flat minor with greater clarity than many other pianists, highlighting not so much the dark swirling harmonies (which are there, but just not the focus), but taking us through the contours of the melodic line. In the Prelude in D-flat major, I feel that he is highlighting the obsessive quality, with the repeated notes in the left hand, that pervade the entire work. He achieves effective contrast between the tranquility in the opening section and the funereal middle section. Hamelin’s playing of the Prelude in B-flat minor takes my breath away. He underscores the surging quality of the music, and conveys the feeling of a wild chase with the music. His performance of the Prelude in A-flat major gives me the feeling of a complete happiness and contentment. I find his playing of the repeated A-flat pedal notes very beautiful indeed, so beautifully evoking the sounds of distant bells. In the Prelude in F minor, Hamelin plays out the rhetorical nature of the right hand melody as well as the feeling of a brief but violent outburst in this music.


In the Prelude in E-flat major, Hamelin effective pedaling highlights the subtle beauty of the harmonic changes. He underscores the sense of broadness Prelude in C minor, and I find the final pianissimo phrase particularly affecting and beautiful. His playing of the Prelude in B-flat major invites us to hear the harmonic changes in the left hand, providing a cushion of sound to the “Chopinesque” right hand melody. The pianist conjures up a little storm in the Prelude in G minor, playing up the composer’s Molto agitato indication to the hilt. The Prelude in F major is played with a beguiling smoothness that evokes the tranquility of the surface of a lake on a beautiful morning.  If the G minor prelude evokes a little storm, the Prelude in D minor is a veritable hurricane – pianist Fou Ts’ong refers to this piece as “Genghis Khan”. Hamelin certainly plays out the utter storm-tossed wildness and abandon of the music, and maintains the almost unbearable tension until the three sonorous low D’s that end the piece, and the set. 


In his performance, Hamelin manages to convey the unique character of each prelude, but also a sort of organic unity that ties the pieces together as a set.


The artist is utterly convincing in the Andante spianato et Grande polonaise, Op. 22. In the opening andante, one of Chopin’s most lovely melodies (and that’s saying a lot), he spins out the long and smooth legato line like an opera singer. This opening andante serves as a perfect foil to the brilliance of the Grande polonaise. For me, this is one of the composer’s trickiest compositions to play. On top of the considerable technical demands, the even greater challenge is to play the theme, which returns many times, in a way that captures the listener every time. Hamelin succeeds in all counts here, with his uncanny ear and musical instincts bringing out each recurrence of the theme with different colours and inflections. On top of all this, he delivers a performance of this work that is beguilingly stylish.


Charles Richard-Hamelin’s latest recording drives home a belief that I have, that every generation will have great Chopin interpreters that will bring fresh and new ideas to the composer’s creations. Like all timeless music, the music of Chopin will continue to beguile, challenge, inspire, and, ultimately, move both musicians and listeners with its otherworldly beauty and a startling originality, no matter how many times we have heard or play these same works. Even in the very crowded catalogue of great Chopin recordings, there is, or should be, room for this one addition. I am certain that this would make a very welcomed addition to your Chopin discography.





Thursday, April 15, 2021

A New Discovery

I just finished watching and listening to the online Canadian premiere of Juliusz Zarębski’s Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 34.


Juliusz who? You might well be asking this very reasonable question.


Well, he was a composer and pianist with a pretty impressive CV. Juliusz Zarębski was born on February 28th, 1854 in what would be today’s Ukraine. He studied piano and composition at the Vienna Conservatory from 1870 to 1872, and then at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, obtaining the title of free artist in 1873. More significantly perhaps were his years of private study with Franz Liszt, from 1874 to 1877, becoming one of the master’s favourite pupils. In 1880, Zarębski was appointed professor of piano at the Brussels Conservatory – he received a letter of congratulations from Liszt on his appointment. The promise of a brilliant career and happy family life ended when he contracted tuberculosis and died just a few years later at age 31.


Like his compatriot Chopin, Zarębski’s musical compositions focus mostly on the piano. At the end of his short life, in 1885, he composed this masterful Piano Quintet in G minor. Liszt thought highly of his music, and worked actively to promote it. The G minor piano quintet does betray the influence of other composers, but the end result is a highly original late-romantic masterwork of chamber music, music of great yearning and tension. Unlike compositions of many 19th century piano virtuosi, this quintet is very much a genuine chamber music work for equals, and not a closet piano concerto with string accompaniment.


The Chopin Society of Atlanta and The Vancouver Chopin Society have put together a stellar ensemble of participants for this performance – the distinguished Silesian String Quartet and pianist Wojciech Świtała, an artist very much known for his playing of Chopin. The production team filmed the performance beautifully indeed, with varying camera angles that highlight the excitement of the playing as well as the interplay between musicians. The picture resolution is high, almost as sharp as that of a BluRay disc. The recorded sound captured very naturally the balance of the instruments, as well as the piano sound.


The performance is a deeply committed one. The musicians had obviously thought about the score thoroughly. The playing reveals the participants’ deep feelings for and understanding of the score. Świtała brilliantly rose to the many pianistic challenges – not the least of which is the fiercely difficult third movement - but managed at the same time to integrate his playing into the fabric of musical texture. 


The presenters have done the music world a great service in presenting this performance. I hope that this performance of Zarębski’s piano quintet will not only attract music lovers to the composer’s creations, but also musicians in taking up this work as well as the composer’s other scores.





Saturday, April 3, 2021

Jan Swafford's "Mozart - The Reign of Love"

When contemplating the enormity of Mozart’s creative genius, it is tempting to think it to be the job of theologians, tantamount to asking why God created the world, and why in seven days. Yet, as any good biographer of the composer would tell us, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was very much human, a musical genius who, just like the rest of us, did his best to navigate through the challenges of the world around him. 


Jan Swafford’s Mozart – The Reign of Love (Harper Collins Publishers, 2020) – is a highly readable (a musicological page-turner, actually) and insightful biography of the composer. I had previously admired Swafford’s Beethoven biography, but I enjoyed reading this present volume even more, perhaps because of the author’s obvious passion for the music. In his analysis of the many masterpieces of Mozart, there is a sense of wonderment that one senses between the lines. In fact, as I was reading, I could sense the author’s passion, his brimming with enthusiasm, as he shares his many discoveries about Mozart and his music. Also different from the Beethoven volume is that the author seamlessly weaves the copious musical analysis - not surprising, considering Mozart’s output - of the music into the narrative flow. 


Mozart was very much a child of his times. Unlike Beethoven, there is no evidence to show any rebelliousness against the ruling class, nor did he share Beethoven’s gift for the “business” of music in terms of “marketing” his creations. Musically, Mozart was not a revolutionary, and he had no sense of his works immortality. With some notable exceptions, many works were written to fulfill a need, or to meet his often not inconsiderable expenses. 


Realizing his two children’s musical talent, Leopold was quick to give them a thorough musical education, and even more quick to exploit his children’s musical gifts. Indeed, the proceeds from the many concert tours with Wolfgang and Nannerl – both the cash they pocketed as well as the proceeds from sale of the many gifts they were given – would provide comfortably for Leopold to his old age. Leopold took care of every detail of the tours, told the children what and how much to play, and took care of the money. That said, in spite of his successfully nurturing of young Wolfgang, Leopold would become, in time, an obstacle for his son to have to deal with, simply because he was incapable of understanding what his son had become, and what he had become to his son. Perhaps this is a recurring theme in the parent-child relationship. The greater the child’s talents, the larger the distance between the child and the parent; given Mozart’s towering genius, one can only imagine the chasm of misunderstanding that would come to separate father and son.


Contrary to popular myth, Mozart did not immediately start writing timeless masterpieces from the get-go. Rather, his early efforts in composition shows him to be a brilliant mimic, but one with an incredibly steep learning curve, absorbing and internalizing the style and technique of older composers, making them his own, and create something that is entirely unique to him. Toward the end of his life, everything he touched turned into gold, and almost everything he wrote by then became, in the words of Swafford, “historic”.


According to the author, the first piece that gives us a hint of Mozart really finding his own compositional voice would be the “fetching and gently puckish” Andante of the Cassation, K. 63. The development, Swafford says, “was not in opposition to convention…but largely within convention.” Mozart composed in pretty much every major musical genre we know of today, and the author deftly incorporated many of these compositions into the various chapters of the composer’s life.


In his lifetime, Mozart would witness the piano quickly overshadowing the harpsichord as the predominant keyboard instrument, and he would create a body of works that still challenges today’s pianists. As a keyboard player, contemporary observations seem to show that Mozart was more a harpsichordist than a pianist. When the young Beethoven heard Mozart play, he was heard to remark that the older man had “no legato” – interesting especially considering how Mozart would emphasize a singing style of playing, saying that the music should flow like oil – suggesting perhaps that by Beethoven’s standards, “Mozart still had the fastidious style of a harpsichordist.” 


In 1777, Mozart met the piano maker Stein, tried his instruments, and was impressed with them. Swafford states that probably, “he understood at this point that the harpsichord was on its way out and the piano was the clavier of the future.” The author adds that the meeting with Stein would probably have been the moment when Mozart began the transition from harpsichordist to pianist. Later that year, Mozart performed his Concerto in F major, K. 242 (for three pianos) on three new Stein pianos, modestly taking the considerably easier third piano part.


Once settled in Vienna, Mozart started presenting his own series of concerts, presenting himself not only as composer but featuring himself as piano soloist. The result was of course the series of magnificent piano concerti he would compose in the last decade of his life. According to Swafford, starting with the Piano Concerto in E-flat, K. 449, arguably the first of his mature concerti, his piano concerti would become “more substantial, bigger in sound with a full wind section, the orchestra no longer a simple and obedient accompanist to the soloist.” Moreover, the author adds, the concerti were becoming more symphonic, and richer in material, where, “(t)hemes are multiplying in the first-movement exposition, longer and more searching developments becoming the norm…Before long in his concertos, the soloist will be adding substantial new ideas to the dialogue, the conversation of orchestra and soloist getting more elaborate and varied.”


Perhaps the pinnacle of Mozart’s concerto compositions would arguably be the Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466. As Swafford eloquently states, the “D minor is an advance over the splendid concertos of the previous year. Here begin the works that set the genre on the path it would pursue for the next hundred years and beyond.” Moreover, the D minor concerto and the Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 467 that followed it, would be “models and inspirations for a subsequent social and artistic era that prized the shadowed and demonic and called itself Romantic.”


Swafford conjectures that the C minor concerto may have been premiered at a concert at the Burgtheater on April 7th, 1786. After this concert, there would be a winding down of his busy public performing schedule, which suited him, as he was busier as ever as a composer.


On January 5th of 1791, Mozart premiered his Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat, K. 595. As this would prove to be his last creation for the genre, it is easy to conjecture whether the composer knew it to be his valedictory work, but there is no hint of him saying farewell. On the contrary, Mozart was entering into, if he had lived, probably the most prosperous period of his professional life, as well as the advent “toward a new chapter in his art.”


Mozart started as a symphonist at around 1764 with a Symphony No. 1 in E-flat, K. 16. His first four-movement (this was the prevailing form in Vienna) symphony was the Symphony in F, K. 43. Throughout his life, he would fluctuate between the three-movement and four-movement forms of the symphony. Between December 1771 and the end of 1774, Mozart was to write seventeen symphonies, heard in house concerts around Salzburg, where he regularly played. These symphonies would be written in a more “Viennese-oriented style”, meaning they would be more four-movement works. The tone of these symphonies would be “weightier, and with less of the frothy atmosphere of Italian opera buffa.” There is an interesting discussing on Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183, his first in this key, about whether the work was “inflected by Sturm und Drang”, or if it was a reflection of some personal tragedy at the time – Swafford feels that the answer would be no to both speculations, because even though “there was likely a whiff of Sturm und Drang in the zeitgeist…it was not fully developed, and there is no real record of his contact with it.” Neither is there any evidence of any sad events in Mozart’s life at the time of composition. As the author points out further, “Mozart did not require tragic feelings at the moment to write a tragic work.” The composer already made a musical sketch in G minor when he was eight years old, and so this key “has already invaded his sensibility, taking him to places in his personal and creative consciousness that were acquainted with obsession, tragedy, sorrow, wrath.” 


In October 1777, Mozart arrived in Mannheim with his mother. The city was known for its justly famous orchestra – consisting of twenty violins, four violas and four celli, two basses, flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns (two each), and clarinets, an instrument that is just becoming a regular part of the wind section. The Mannheim orchestral style – with such novel features as the “Mannheim crescendo”, “Mannheim rocket” thematic figure, and the two-note “Mannheim sigh” – would all figure prominently in the symphonic works of Mozart. The author feels that his Symphony in D major, 297/300a – came to be known as the Paris symphony – would be his first Mannheim style symphony, premiered by Paris’ enormous Concert Spirituel orchestra, with twenty-one violins, five violas and five basses, eight celli, the wind section included clarinets, four bassoons, as well as a pair of trumpets and horns. Another symphony that calls for a full wind compliment of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets is the Haffner Symphony (K. 485), which was premiered in the first of a triumphant series of concerts Mozart would present in Vienna for the next few years, on March 23rd, 1783. 


With the Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504, the so-called Prague symphony because of its premiere in that city, Mozart was really experimenting with form. The first movement begins with a long introduction, something the composer rarely does. There is elaborate counterpoint in the development section, and Swafford points out that Mozart’s sketches show him experimenting with thematic combinations. He adds that by now Mozart’s recapitulations “are less likely to be literal; this one keeps working over the material as if it were an extension of the development section.” In the final movement, the first theme returns at the end of the exposition, and it was extensively worked over in the development. The final surprise comes at the end, when the recapitulation starts with the second theme before returning to a varied first theme.


In 1789, Emperor Joseph declared war on Turkey, a war that would lead to a severe downturn of the Austrian economy and a decimation of concert activities in Vienna. Yet through it all, Mozart continues to compose. In the summer of 1788, he produced the three symphonies that would crown his career as a symphonist – the Symphony No. 39, in E-flat, K. 543, Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, and Symphony No. 41 in C, K. 551. Such is the perfection of these three works, so stark is the contrast between their respective moods, that a previous writer compares them with the joyful (E-flat), sorrowful (G minor) and glorious (C major) mysteries of the rosary. Although these last three symphonies were not commissioned, and there was no record of them being performed in the composer’s lifetime, Swafford argues that Mozart did not compose them for posterity, but with an eye for upcoming performing opportunities. He adds that for the composer, these works do not mark an endpoint, but rather a new beginning, and “(w)ith what he had achieved, it would have appeared to him that there was plenty of time for more symphonies. Plenty of time.”


In 1768, the emperor casually asked Leopold in the course of their conversation, without really meaning it, if Mozart would write an opera. The result of La finta semplice, and in the compositional process Mozart learned not only the art of writing an opera, but also the politics of getting it produced. The opera was never publicly performed, but given a private performance in Vienna. During the long period of (mostly Leopold) trying to get the opera produced, Mozart had in the meantime composed another opera – Bastien und Bastienne, which was given a read-through at a private home, with either small orchestra or just piano. More significantly, perhaps, is the fact that Mozart saw an opera by Johann Adolph Hasse, with libretto by Metastasio, while visiting Cremona. The opera was La clemenza de Tito, a story that would follow him to the end of his life. According to the author, it is in Lucio Silla that Mozart came into his own as an opera composer, as the “melodies are sure-handed, the orchestral sound rich and varied…There is an indefatigable – call it wholly Mozartian – rhythmic energy in the accompaniments.” In spite of some birth pains, the opera would turn out to be a hit, ran for a total of twenty-six performances to full houses, and with the prima donna’s arias regularly encored – encores for popular arias were standard practice.


In Munich in 1780, Mozart received the commission for Idomeneo. According to the author, Mozart preferred composer opera seria, and had, by that time, “learned to work more freely around seria’s rigmaroles of form and character and story.” He adds the insightful comment that, “Mozart never felt constricted by convention but instead worked comfortably within it, stretching and bending it as needed. He took what the world offered him, digested it, and gave it back in his voice.” This is a statement that can probably be applied to every compositional genre Mozart laid his hands on. Swafford further comments that artists in Mozart’s time would, in their creations, tried to “express some universal essence pertaining to humanity or nature of God.” In contrast to artists of the 19th century who would write “from inside out”, Mozart would write “from outside in”.  Part of what was outside was emotional and expressive, but would also comprise forms, rules, conventions, genres, and expressive devices. Mozart, probably more than any composer of his time, was able to interiorize the rules and conventions, meld them with his personality, and create something of beauty. For Mozart, what we now called the sonata form was a given, even if “within it one had a great deal of flexibility.” As mentioned before, for Mozart, and also Haydn, the highest praise for a work was that it was natural, meaning that the creation “reached something universal, came off as if it had written itself.”


In November of 1780, Mozart traveled to Munich to finish work on Idomeneo. At the time, the opera libretto was taken more seriously, and held to be on a higher artistic plane, than the music. Mozart “would be the composer who changed this dynamic.” The correspondence between Mozart and Leopold would provide the only record of how the compositional process was progressing. Although the opera was only moderately successfully received, Swafford states that, “Mozart would call this time with Idomeneo the happiest period of his life. He would never again enjoy such relatively unobstructed control over a production, at the height of his powers, surrounded by admirers and with no significant enemies, with audiences eager to hear what he would give them.” Mozart’s comments on the rehearsal would show that the theatrical aspects of an opera production, as well as the singers’ acting abilities, were paramount to him. And in the character of Ilia, “the idea of a heroine who serves as mediator and savior was entirely to Mozart’s tastes.” His later operatic masterpieces would give us many such strong, wise women. In terms of instrumentation, Idomeneo would produce the richest orchestral writing among his operas, with some beautiful writings for the winds – including two clarinets – as well as the first time trombones were used in opera. Trombones were not used in the premiere, only because the overseer of the production balked at the cost of hiring extra musicians for a few bars of music. Swafford concludes that this opera would herald a leitmotif that would mark Mozart both as a dramatist and as a man – the triumph of love.


On June 8th, 1781, Mozart would make his final break with his native Salzburg, and the hated Archbishop Colloredo. In June of that same year, Mozart arrived in Vienna to begin the final decade of his life. In this move he received no help from his father, who kept all the funds from their early tours until the end. He arrived in Vienna during the reign of Joseph II, the self-declared Volkskaiser, who set out to promote “a free and enlightened state by dictatorial means with no element of democracy”. One of Joseph’s many reforms that would eventually touched Mozart’s life was his new regulation for funerals and burials. In order to move cemeteries out of the city, the emperor “decreed radical procedures for common burials: after memorial ceremonies in town, bodies were to be sewn in a sack, hauled out to the countryside, and tossed into a common grave.” The idea behind putting the body in a sack was to speed up the decomposition process.


In terms of music, Joseph wanted German singspiel as well as Italian comic opera, and thereby turning Mozart into the supreme composer of opera buffa. In addition, the emperor’s simplification of the use of music in church meant that Mozart turned his attention more toward instrumental music, most notably his last glorious series of piano concerti.


Mozart’s reputation preceded him, and it did not take long before he gained a foothold in Vienna, as a teacher, composer and performer. He had a talented student, Josepha Barbara Auernhammer, who became a noted interpreter of his works, to the extent that Mozart allowed her edit and supervise some of his publications in Vienna. Together they performed Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365 as well as his spirited Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K. 448. Mozart was commissioned to write an opera, which resulted in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, creating a sensation at its premiere on July 16th, 1782, and firmly establishing him as a composer in Vienna. Unfortunately, Mozart was never able to write another opera that became nearly as popular in his lifetime. 


In addition to his discussion of the opera, Swafford presents us with interesting insights into the relatively minor character of the palace servant Osmin, which on the surface appears to be an exotic buffoon, not to mention a racial stereotype - especially in today’s hypersensitive eyes concerning such matters – cruel, lustful and stupid. The author proposes, however, that there is more than what meets the eye. Swafford states that Mozart took up the convention (the ostensibly stereotypical figure), “tugged and twisted it for his own purposes and for the gratification of his performers. If he made use of conventions, he was not interested in clichés. Osmin ended as one of his great creations for the stage, a more dynamic and idiosyncratic character than any other in the cast.” Likewise, Mozart humanizes the figure of pasha Selim, who puts aside his feelings and want for revenge, putting Selim in the company of “the forgiving kings of Mozart’s opera serias, the clemency of Idomeneo and Titus.”


In 1786, at the heights of his creative powers, Mozart would begin work on Le nozze di FIgaro, his miraculous divine comedy. He was anxious about working on Beaumarchais’ controversial play. The fact that Joseph approved the play had to do with his reforms, which partly aimed at reducing the power of the aristocracy, and thereby enhancing the emperor’s power, and so an opera about the excesses of the aristocracy would perfectly suit the emperor’s programme. That said, Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte had to streamline the convoluted plot, take away the truly inflammatory parts, simplifying the characters, making them archetypes. As Swafford says, “(t)he depth of these figures would have to come from the music.” - which it does, and so much more. 


For me, as it seems to be for the author as well, the most sublime moment of the opera comes with those few measures of music sung by the Countess in the final act, when she expresses her forgiveness for the Count. The music elevates that simple line into a Christ-like forgiveness of sins. The author writes, “This is what Mozart brings, beyond Da Ponte’s understated finish: forgiveness is sacred. All join in the hymn that rises to a majestic peroration.” He adds that at the end of the opera, what remains is love, “a love of hearts and minds and bodies.” I agree wholeheartedly with Swafford that, “Figaro is as close to perfect as Mozart ever came, which is to say as close as opera ever came.”


The opera enjoyed only a modest success in Vienna, but within two years of the premiere, the opera would be performed throughout Europe, enjoying in particular a wild success in Prague.


The original scenario of Don Giovanni called for an opera within an opera, where a traveling opera company decided to present this “marvelous bit of filth” as one way to alleviate its financial troubles. Although an opera buffa, the character of Don Juan, in Mozart’s hands, would turn out to be “a figure fascinating but hardly funny.” From the first moments, with the searing chords in D minor, Mozart’s demonic key, we would hear some of his most foreboding music, and this introduction would “foreshadow the music and drama at end of the opera”. With the title character of Don Giovanni, the author suggests that Mozart does not make musical judgments or prophecies for the character. In composing, he was acting the text, “giving himself to the reality of the moment, evoking the emotion at hand”, just as an actor would in a drama. Both the text and the music show the character to be both rapist and murderer, and one who corrupts all around him. The ending of the opera, Swafford writes, “has an insistent moral logic: God has to stop Don Giovanni because nobody else can. He is the primal and ungovernable power of sexuality embodied. He precipitates a crisis in the moral order, and only God can restore the balance.” In seeing the opera, he continues, the audience becomes complicit in the crimes. We are seeing an evil person getting away with his wrongdoings, and part of us wanted him to get away with it. In Don Giovanni, Swafford concludes, “we have seen the demon and he is us.”


There seems to be no record of when Mozart started working on Cosi fan tutte. Swafford states that Da Ponte seemed to have originally written the libretto for Salieri, who rejected it. One could argue that this remains one of Mozart’s most misunderstood operas. He suggests that perhaps the story is Da Ponte’s own views on love, which is something both “secular and provisional…ruled by inconstancy of humans in general and of women in particular, everybody helpless in the grip of desire.” The author does not feel that Mozart would be “on the same page” as Da Ponte, in the sense of taking such a jaundiced view of love. In the music, he writes, “he would usually portray the emotion at hand, expressing the truth of the moment and not necessarily what was in the hearts of the characters, who in the case of the men much of the time, are lying.” He goes on to argue that maybe this is why “Cosi is most unsettling when it is most beautiful.” And there is much in this opera that is ravishing to the ear. Essentially the opera “is acting about acting, putting masks on masks…and acting is a form of lying we sanction and love because it can move us profoundly.” It is difficult not to think that there is some degree of misogyny at play here, but the men are also portrayed as foolish. Perhaps we are not meant to take the story of the opera as our philosophy, just as a piece of theatre with very splendid music. The sheer improbability and ridiculousness of the whole scenario seem to suggest that we are not meant to take it seriously.


With the death of Joseph, the crown got passed to Emperor Leopold II, who decreed three lavish coronations in spite of the still recovering economy. The Prague impresario Domenico Guardasoni offered opera commission of La Clemenza di Tito – part of Leopold coronation festivities - to Mozart, again after Salieri had turned Guardasoni down. At this time, Mozart had already started work on Die Zauberflöte, and had received the commission for the Requiem. The heavy workload of this year would ultimately prove to be detrimental to his health. By the evening of Tito’s premiere, the composer was already exhausted and ill. The premiere performance was a failure, because of inadequate rehearsals, but the opera would eventually find an audience in Prague, even though it would remain one of Mozart’s less frequently performed mature operas.


Mozart’s friendship with Emanuel Schikaneder dates from his Salzburg days, when the actor, director, playwright, and impresario, arrived in town with his troupe. Schikaneder was befriended by the Mozart family, a friendship that would last until Mozart’s last days. 


In the spring of 1791, Mozart would sit down with Schikaneder and talked, planned and sketched out the scenarios for Die Zauberflöte. By Mozart’s standards, the pace of composition would have been positively leisurely. Schikaneder was aiming for entertainment value, and had no ambitions toward depth for this work, but with Mozart writing the music, the results would turn out to be quite otherwise. Both men did set out to write an allegory of Freemasonry. Swafford feels that any pontifications about women would have come from Schikaneder and not Mozart, as he has amply demonstrated in his operas that, “was not interested in submissive women.” The idea of an allegory was also to get around the increasingly ubiquitous censors that had permeated every aspect of Austrian life. He also conjectures that the name and temperament of Sarastro may have been inspired by Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest.


Right at the beginning of the first act, Mozart turns our expectation upside down. Tamino, the prince, the hero, collapses in the face of danger, and had to be saved by women.  When in Act II, one of the brothers wonders if Tamino would survive the ordeal of the tests, as he is merely a prince. To that Sarastro replies, “No, he is more than that. He is a man.” This statement, argues Swafford, is not to say that a man is superior to a woman, but that to be such a man, a hero, is much more consequential than to be a prince. Further on in the drama, Mozart adds another element Masonry had not yet embraced, Pamina would be initiated into the Brotherhood as well. 


When, later on, Tamino states that he is ready to go alone into the ordeals, Pamina appears, and it is now understood that she must go with him, “not behind him but leading him.” Here, Mozart “makes the guide toward the light a woman. She is woman as an image of the power of wisdom and of love.” The love we witness in Die Zauberflöte “is a different and more exalted matter than the love of Figaro and Susanna, which is sensual and playful, or love in Cosi, which is manifestly sexual.” In this opera, love between man and woman is elevated, it is “transcendent, joined to the order of society and of the cosmos.”


Although Mozart also started early as a composer of string quartets, the early quartets were pretty much centered on the first violin, with the cello playing a simple bass line, and the second violin and viola playing “fillers”. The same can be said of his early piano-centric violin sonatas, as well as piano trios. One notable piece of chamber music that deserves to be mentioned is the Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Winds, K. 452, a work that demonstrates not only Mozart’s love for the colours of wind instruments, but showing once again how Mozart would look past the convention of writing a light divertimento when wind instruments are involved, but coming out with a highly substantial “concerto for five instruments in a concerto-like three movements.” The young Beethoven was no doubt inspired by, and would model his own quintet for the same combination of instruments on, this work of Mozart’s.


More than any composer in the 18th century, Haydn was the one who turned the string quartet into a “dialogue of four equal participants, and the supreme demonstration both of a composer’s craft and his creative soul.” The author considers the first of the set of “Haydn” quartets (No. 18) as the first of his truly important quartets. No doubt Mozart was influenced by his knowledge of the older composer’s quartets. With the oft-repeated story of how Mozart composed as if dictating from God, Swafford points out that these Haydn quartets “cost him many months of desultory and frustrating labor, some of the manuscripts showing sketching and revising and false starts far beyond what was usual for him. In these quartets, one notices the “steady presence of counterpoint in the discourse” as well as “a new weightiness of tone.” In 1790, Mozart finished the first three of the six Prussian quartets, an endeavour that took much time and energy. The result of his labour would be, perhaps for the first time, works “with the cello in a featured role beyond anything done in a quartet by Haydn or probably anybody else.”


With the sensational success of Die Zauberflöte, and the increasing popularity of La Clemenza di Tito, Mozart would have been entering the most successful professional period of his life. Constanze Mozart had begun to take over the finances of the family, and turning out to be good at it. Mozart was paying off the debts he incurred the last few years, and his letters from this period were invariably cheerful in tone. Even the earlier rivalry with Salieri had turned into a mutual respect, even friendship. In his later years, Salieri reportedly always spoke of Mozart in the most respectful manner.


Here is probably a good opportunity to delve briefly into two sacred works from Mozart’s last year. On June 17th he completed the brief but astounding Ave verum corpus, a setting of the old Eucharistic chant, once sung at churches at the elevation of the Host. In this brief three-minute work, Mozart achieved a sense of perfection, “an ideal object impeccable to the last note.” Swafford’s eloquent words regarding this work deserves our attention:

“He had reached a place inside himself where his inspiration assembled technique and tradition into a sense of revelation…As to the beauty of the work, there are no adequate words. The radiance of the music is joined to a singular prayerful introspection…If there is a comparison, it is to the transcendent refinement of Palestrina, in its crystalline transparency and its subtle expression of cuius latus perforatum (whose pierced side)…a sacred music that goes straight to the heart of common humanity.”


Perhaps Ave verum corpus is the kind of music Mozart would have written more of had he been Kapellmeister of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. 


Mozart probably started working earnestly on the much written about Requiem after the premiere of Die Zauberflöte. As in Ave verum corpus, there is a kind of beautiful restraint in its restricted orchestral forces, orchestration – which mostly doubles the choir – and with each of the relatively short movements developing a small range of musical ideas. With the Requiem, the overriding affect is one of resignation, peace and acceptance. As he had once written to his father that death is man’s best and truest friend. Swafford concludes that, “He had learned that from the Masons: only when you know death can you truly live.” It was in the midst of putting down thoughts for the Domine Jesu and the Hostias that Mozart probably realized that he was dying. According to his sister-in-law Sophie, “the last sound he made was trying to sing the timpani part from the Requiem.” Sophie said that she could still hear that sound in her head even decades later. 


We end this appreciation of Jan Swafford’s splendid biography with a few words about Mozart’s letters. It is perhaps in his voluminous correspondence that Mozart truly reveals himself as a man, and in reading all these letters we can probably get quite a good picture of the man. In a letter to his wife, written during one of the children’s many tours, Leopold Mozart asked her to carefully preserve all his letters – was he already thinking of Wolfgang’s place in music history? According to Swafford, Mozart would adopt very different tones in his letters to different individuals. His early letters to his sister was full of verbal high jinx and horseplay, full of veiled and not-so-veiled references to sex and scatology. Later on, as their relationship cooled, the tone would become much more sober, even business-like. 


Mozart early letters to his father would touch on musical and practical matters, like a 1777 letter when Mozart addressed the subject of tempo rubato in his music. Then there were the series of letters from Vienna singing the virtues of the Weber sisters, first Aloysia, and then Constanze, who would become his wife. His letters to his wife would always be filled with love and devotion, although he does betray his jealousy when they have been separated for long, as in some of the letters in his last years when Constanze had to spend long periods of time at Baden because of her health. Then there are the pleading letters to friends during times of financial crisis, asking for loans. His friend Michael Puchberg would be a frequent recipient of such letters. Finally, there are letters to his musical friends and colleagues, with much clever word play and verbal jousting.


In spite of the oceans of ink that have been spilled over the subject of Mozart, a man so complex as he can always welcome another volume that shed new insights on him a man and a musician. Anyone reading this splendid volume would indeed be rewarded by many such insights into not only Mozart’s musical creations, but also the socio-historical background against which they were written. I find his comments on Mozart’s many operas particularly perceptive. Indeed, I find myself, sometimes excited, other times moved by his passion for the subject, and for his eloquent insights into the composer’s many musical creations, highlighting the genius behind the music’s logic. 


Finally, it is difficult for me to contemplate Mozart without invoking God. To think that music of such overwhelming beauty and perfection could have been written by a man who is merely a product of genetics, would be wholly inadequate indeed.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Zlata Chochieva's re(creations)

There was a time, in the first half of the 20th century, when concerts hall would resound with the resplendent sonorities of transcriptions of music from earlier times.  Of course we can immediately think of Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral transcriptions of the organ music of J. S. Bach, the most famous of which would have been the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, so thoroughly exploited – in every sense of the word – by Walt Disney in his film, Fantasia. We can also remember a time when piano recitals would inevitably open with Bach-Busoni, Bach-Siloti, Bach-Liszt, Bach-Tausig - the list goes on.


In more recent times, with our awareness of, or obsession with, performance practice, or historically informed performances, transcriptions have been almost frowned upon as dated, if one is kind, or wrong, if one is not.


We forget that transcriptions have been regular practice since the time of Bach, who had no compunction in borrowing materials from other composers and rewriting it for a different medium. From a practical standpoint, we also must remember that in centuries past, the only way one gets to hear any piece of music is to play it yourself, which led to piano, four-hand, transcriptions of symphonic and operatic works. Franz Liszt was prolific in transcribing a plethora of works by other composers for solo piano – the nine symphonies of Beethoven, excerpts from Wagner and Verdi operas, and Schubert Lieder. Of course, many of these incredibly technically challenging works, goes far beyond the ability of most amateurs, and have found their ways into the repertoire of performing artists.


Zlata Chochieva has done music a great service with this latest recording – (re)creations – where she performs with great aplomb piano transcriptions by a range of composers. Some of the works in this album will be very familiar, at the same time giving us some real discoveries as well.


As she is such a great interpreter of the compositions of Sergei Rachmaninoff, it is perhaps no surprise that many of the works represented here are by that great composer and pianist. Indeed, on the very first track we hear Rachmaninoff’s astounding transcription of J. S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006. If there needs to be a justification for a transcription, this is it. Rachmaninoff took Bach’s composition for a single melodic line and transforms it into a rich and pianistic masterpiece. Chochieva plays this music without apologizing for the richness of the modern piano sound, but respecting at the same time the quicksilver lightness that the violin could achieve. Her playing of the Gavotte brims with charm and good humour, while the Prelude and Gigue shows her understated virtuosity as well as her complete identification with Rachmaninoff’s pianistic idiom.


The album continues with more Bach – the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048, the Siciliano from the Flute Sonata in E-flat major, BWV 1031, and the Tempo de borea from the Violin Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002, all in transcription by Ignaz Friedman. Again, Chochieva plays these works as piano pieces. That said, in the Brandenburg, she effectively highlights the interplay between the ripieno and concertino of Bach’s Concerto Grosso. In the familiar Siciliano, known to me only in the transcription by Wilhelm Kempff, this reworking by Friedman is much more in the 19th century vein. Chochieva identifies with this, and plays it, not so much in a perpetual motion kind of way, but more highlighting the beauty of the piano’s sonorities and harmonies implied. In Tempo di borea, the little dance bounces to life under her fingers, and her interpretation takes on a perfect balance between the vertical and horizontal.


Chochieva then turns to transcriptions by Franz Liszt of Lieder of Schubert and Mendelssohn. Her playing of the Schubert Lieder especially moved me; to my ears she really highlights the character and affect of each lied. Hearing these songs, I was drawn, not to the superhuman technical demands set down by Liszt, which of course is considerable, but towards the melodic genius of Schubert. Her playing of Wohin (S. 565, No. 5) conveys the sense of wide-eye wonder and innocence of our wanderer, not yet disillusioned by love lost. Litanei (S. 562, No. 1) was played with an apt sense of reverence. Under her hands, the water ripples in Auf dem Wasser zu singen (S. 558, No. 2), while the little trout dances in the rippling water in Die Forelle (S. 564) before meeting its final fate. In Ständchen (S. 560, No. 7), she plays the lied with a simple ardent quality, at the same time maintaining the buoyancy and forward motion of the music - a quality, forgive me, missing in the Horowitz recording.


The transcriptions of the three Mendelssohn Lieder are played with a disarming simplicity and directness. I feel that her playing of the beautiful Auf Flüfein des Gesanges (S. 547, No. 1) – translated in countless children’s piano books as “On Wings of Song”, is particular deeply felt. 


One of the most difficult pianistic “stunts” has to be Rachmaninoff’s transcription of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When recording this work, Rachmaninoff himself reportedly did more than forty takes before finding one that satisfied him. Chochieva transcends Rachmaninoff’s pianistic hurdles, with nary a thought of its difficulties, and gives us a breathless and breathtaking performance of great flair and beguiling lightness – yes, one could almost see the fairies dancing. I heard Ms. Chochieva play this work in recital, and yes, it is just as electrifying.


The recording follows with more Rachmaninoff – his transcription of the charming Minuetto from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite No. 1, Op. 23bis, WD 40, where Chochieva highlights the composer’s melodic inventiveness, and squeezes out every ounce of Gallic charm from the music. 


Chochieva then gives us a real rarity – Friedman’s transcription of the Tempo di Menuetto, the second movement from Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 3 in D minor. One of Mahler’s most charming creations, Friedman’s ingenious transcription makes it sound completely like an idiomatic piano composition. In her deeply felt recreation, Chochieva gives us all the gemütlichkeit the music calls for, as well as guiding us into the many darker harmonic corners as well as quasi-hallucinogenic moments set down by Mahler.


We have two further transcriptions by Rachmaninoff – Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby, Op. 16, No. 1, and Mussorgsky’s Hopak from his comic opera, The Fair at Sorotchintsy. Chochieva’s performances really showcases Rachmaninoff’s uncanny understanding of the resources of the piano, as well as her own identification with the composer’s piano writing. Her comic timing in her playing of Hopak is impeccable. 


The recording concludes with two transcriptions by Friedman. We hear first the beautiful Adagio in G minor by Giovanni Battista Grazioli, played with great style, depth of feeling, grace and simplicity. This thoroughly enjoyable disc ends with the first of Friedman’s own Six Viennese DancesTempo de Valse lente, after Gärtner, a perfect dessert after this delectable pianistic feast. 


I have always been fascinated with the art of transcription – this transference of the same musical material from one medium to another. As much as it is necessary to have new interpretations of Beethoven and Schubert sonatas, this disc certainly makes a welcomed addition to the recorded literature, and Chochieva’s artistry makes a very strong case for the validity of transcriptions as a musical art form.


Zlata Chochieva played one of the best recitals of the concert season in Vancouver before life was put on hold because of the pandemic. I am certainly grateful for this new recording of “recreations”, which allows us to enjoy her pianistic art, as well as the musicality of her playing. Let us pray for an end to this manmade catastrophe so that we can once again join with each other to experience the joys and excitement of live music making.

















Monday, January 25, 2021

A Disturbing Masterpiece

I finally had a chance to watch Parasite, the South Korean film by director Bong Joon-ho that has been receiving both popular and critical accolades this past year. While I agree that it is a masterpiece of filmmaking and storytelling, I have to temper this statement by adding that I find it to be a disturbing masterpiece. 


A family of con artists from the lowest social stratum of South Korean society scams their way into the life of a wealthy family. Their plans were going smoothly, when an unexpected development leads to a battle between different parasites, and ultimately, tragedy. 


Personally, I feel that this movie can be looked at from many different angles. We can view it as a sociological study, highlighting the large chasm between the “haves” and “have-nots” in modern society. We can look at it as a psychological study, of how human beings could manipulate the minds of others. We can see it as a cautionary tale, or a morality play, that evil deeds will not go unpunished. We can even look at it from a theological standpoint - a parable of how the devil works – by insinuation, manipulation, and by spreading falsehood.


In the beginning of the film, we see that this family of con artists is destitute. They live in a sub-basement, and they even have to “bum” the Wi-Fi of neighbours or restaurants nearby. One day, the son is asked by a friend to tutor the daughter of a rich family who lives in a house worthy of Architectural Digest, and there the story begins. Who do we blame for the ultimate tragedy? Is it, as they say, society’s fault, that these people have to resort to such extreme measures in order to survive? Is the director making a comment about current South Korean society or, for that matter, modern society in general? Of course, these are questions without answers. Watch the film and judge for yourself.


The director really highlights the stark contrast between the living conditions of the rich and poor, and yet, the wealthy people are not cast in a negative light. They are successful, and live well, but they are, even for the mother of the poor family, “nice”, if highly naïve, even gullible. But she then adds, “If I were rich, I would be nice too.”


This film also offers a glimpse into the depths of the wickedness of man, of psychological manipulation to achieve one’s ends, and of how easily it is to manipulate someone, as well as how human beings can be so easily manipulated sometimes. Once the con artists made their first dent in the wealthy family’s psyche, there is no stopping them. 


As a morality tale, I could not help but think whether justice is done at the end, or if the con artists got what they deserved. Of course, from a Judeo-Christian standpoint, wickedness and evil are not always punished in this lifetime. This present film reminds me very much of C. S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters, a satirical novel where a senior devil instructs a junior one how to lead a man to “Our Father Below”, which is of course the devil. In the film, the con artists use every trick in the devil’s playbook, looking for weaknesses in each of the family member and attacking it accordingly – insinuating, spreading lies and falsehoods, obfuscating, and manipulating. The novel, however, is written in a much more lighthearted manner. The present film has a much darker way of conveying the same message.


This is not an “enjoyable” film experience, not in our usual definition of movie as a way of enjoying our leisure. It is, in a way, a very difficult film to watch, to witness the unfolding of evil acts. Many friends say that they had trouble getting through it. To watch the innocent family being toyed with like laboratory animals is an almost oppressive experience that leaves me holding my breath many times. 


As much as I admire this stunning piece of filmmaking, I do find the sum of the experience somewhat unsatisfactory, and I come away with the feeling of having lived through an unsettling experience. There seems to be a lack of some degree of resolution, not a “happily ever after” type of resolution, but a rationalization of the irrational events described in the story. I guess for me what is missing at the end is some sense of redemption. That said, perhaps that is exactly what the director intended, to highlight the absurdity of real life.


Parasite is a sobering tale about the human condition, as well as humanity itself. It is a masterpiece to be sure, but as much as something portray evil can be referred to as such.









Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Fou Ts'ong (1934 - 2020)

I was about twelve when I was taken to my first piano recital. The pianist was Fou Ts’ong. I don’t know why, but I remember the programme – Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511, Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, and Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960. After that initial encounter, I had opportunities to hear the pianist on several occasions, and I still treasure the half dozen or so recordings of his in my library. 


Fou lived through tumultuous times in China’s history – growing up in pre-revolutionary China, he witnessed the tragedies of the Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese Civil War, and the greatest tragedy of Mao Tse-Tung’s so-called “liberation” of the country. He had the opportunity to study in Poland, winning third prize at the Fifth International Chopin Competition and the special prize for his playing of the mazurkas. He remained highly regarded in Poland, and served as jury member at the Chopin Competition on many occasions. He concertized extensively throughout the Soviet Bloc countries, but managed to escape to England (that in itself is a story worthy of a movie), narrowly avoiding what would have been humiliation and certain death had he returned to China. His own parents committed suicide in the 1960’s, unable to bear the shame and dehumanization of the person during that time. Fou quickly established himself, first in England, and then throughout the world of music with the sensitivity and poetry of his playing, and had been performing and teaching throughout the world. 


Somehow, critics (except on rare occasions) had refused to acknowledge him as a truly great pianist and musician. But he certainly had his friends and admirers among his musical colleagues – Martha Argerich, Radu Lupu, Leon Fleisher, Sviastolav Richter, Daniel Barenboim, and Vladimir Ashkenazy, to name just a few. He performed with some legendary artists – Yehudi Menuhin (his one-time father-in-law), Benjamin Britten, Hugh Maguire, Jacqueline du Pre, Kyung Wah Chung, and the aforementioned Argerich, one of his closest musical friends.


Although known for his poetic interpretations of Chopin, Fou was equally at home with Mozart, Scarlatti, Schubert, and Debussy – composers whose music made up the core of his concert and recorded repertoire. His deep knowledge and appreciation of Chinese classical literature and poetry gave him a unique window to look at the canon of western musical literature with fresh perspectives. 


Fou had never been a barnstorming virtuoso. A relatively late starter at the piano, Fou himself freely admitted to be technically inferior to the many young pianists he taught, and struggled with pianistic technique his entire life. Some of his performances could be technically disastrous – this was true of many pianists in the last century – Schnabel and Cortot were notable examples. I remember a Vancouver recital where he sounded distinctly uncomfortable in Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110. On another visit, his all-Chopin recital at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts was memorable, especially his performance of the Préludes, Op. 28. And yes, his playing of Chopin’s very elusive mazurkas is truly magical, capturing the rhythmic and musical essence of these dances of the soul. What Fou Ts’ong always had to offer was the originality of his interpretation, the poetry, the soul, of his playing, and his ability to reach the emotional core of the composer’s sound world. 


Fou Ts’ong did not have a large discography, but he did make some fine recordings. Among his recordings, I treasure his set of Chopin Nocturnes (Sony Classical), playing that is pure poetry. There is also some wonderful playing in his recording of the Chopin Mazurkas, but the record suffers from an overly resonant and bright-sounding piano. He also recorded a beautiful disc of 32 Scarlatti Sonatas, playing that captures the humour, romance and quirkiness of the composer’s keyboard writing. In his Debussy albums, one on Collins of the Images and Estampes, another of Book I of the Préludes and Book I of the Études, recorded in the studios of Polish Radio (Ermitage Concerto) we hear the almost Oriental aesthetics of the composer’s creativity. He had always been a very fine Schubert interpreter, as is evident in a live 1998 recording of the composer’s autumnal Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960, recorded at London’s St. John’s Smith Square (Meridian).


In an age where originality is often sacrificed for technical polish and, sometimes, clinical perfection, Fou Ts’ong will remain in my mind an artist whose imagination, poetry and sensitivity animate that music that he played. I shall cherish in my mind the many fine performances I witnessed over the years. 


During his life, Fou Ts’ong had suffered many setbacks as well as personal tragedies. At the end of this long journey, may he now finally Rest in Peace.