Monday, June 26, 2017

When the World Stopped to Listen

For a great many years, the only books written about the pianist were The Van Cliburn Legend by Abram Chasins  - a book that took many liberties with facts about Cliburn, and Howard Reigh’s Van Cliburn, which is better researched, but still rather one-sided. Within a year, however, there have two books written about the pianist. Last year, Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights gave a more in depth and comprehensive picture of Cliburn’s win in Moscow, as well as the impact he had on the musical world. This past weekend, I finished reading Stuart Isacoff’s When the World Stopped to Listen – Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath (Alfred A. Knoff, New York, 2017).

In this latest volume, Isacoff begins by revealing some interesting information about Cliburn’s mother, an accomplished pianist in her own right, as well as the young pianist’s upbringing. Starting at four years old, Cliburn had to wait on his parents at the dinner table, “as if they were guests, and then to do the same for neighbors.” Cliburn’s parents believed that this would instill a sense of humility in the young man, as well as prevent him from feeling too special. According to the author, “serving graciously became a life refrain”, and would affect Cliburn’s attitude towards his many fans and audience members. Isacoff writes: “This was especially true in the concert hall, where he came to view the audience as guests to be served, a notion that brought such attendant pressures it could turn routine musical occasions into ordeals.” Even to his dying days, Cliburn was known for his courteousness towards even strangers. Perhaps it was this attitude to please that prevented him from having an aloofness of spirit, something that all great artists need.

It was also a great surprise for me to learn that Cliburn’s legendary teacher, Rosina Lhévinne, was not the original choice of Mrs. Cliburn to be Van’s teacher. Cliburn’s friend and fellow pianist Jimmy Mathis was studying with the (at the time) even more famous Olga Samaroff. It was only Samaroff’s sudden death that led his parents to consider Lhévinne as Van’s teacher. As in the Cliff book, Iscaoff reveals how much Lhévinne was hurt by Cliburn’s failing to acknowledge her teaching – not to mention the many hours of free lessons he received from her before the competition – as his famed rose after the competition.

For me, the most interesting chapters were the ones addressing the socio-political landscape of the Soviet Union and the evolution of the Tchaikovsky Competition, as well as the chapter giving a picture of Russian society at the time. It was the year of Sputnik, when the Soviets were “basking in its scientific glory in the space race,” and they wanted to show their superiority in the sphere of music. The organizers of the competition were certain that the winners would be Soviet pianists and violinists. It was a common belief among Russians that in spite of great wealth, American society was “brutish and empty.” In that way, Cliburn’s love affair with Russians, from Khrushchev to ordinary men and women, went a long way into altering that perception. Both Cliff and Isacoff point out in their respective books that Cliburn’s win at the Tchaikovsky sowed the seeds of democracy that led eventually to Gorbachev’s Perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Isacoff also reveals some startling facts about Cliburn’s personal struggles with fame. According to the author, Cliburn came to rely heavily upon the treatments of Dr. Max Jacobson, whose patients included, among many celebrities, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy who was well known for his health problems. You can read more about Dr. Jacobson in many of the presidents’ biographies.

We now know that Jacobson’s infamous injections were a cocktail of amphetamines, vitamins, painkillers, steroids, and human placenta – a frightening pharmacological combination. Jacobson’s license to practice medicine was eventually revoked. It was also revealed in the current book that Cliburn had come to depend on astrology in making his personal and professional decisions, to the extent that “he did not make a move without consulting an astrologer.”

Cliburn’s eventual win at the Tchaikovsky, according to Isacoff, was far from a forgone conclusion. In the Appendix of the volume, the author includes the breakdown of scores for the pianists in the second-round which show that the race was very close between Cliburn and Lev Vlassenko, the leading Soviet contender, and Liu Shikun, the leading pianist from Communist China (who was to suffer grievously during the Cultural Revolution). It was only Van’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 as well as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 that propelled him to the very top. If you listen to his magisterial performances of these two concerti in the final round, you would understand why. I believe that in that great hall, and in front of that audience, Van Cliburn was truly inspired to give his all. And perhaps nothing that came afterwards would match the intensity and inspiration of that moment.

For me, Cliburn’s greatest impact had to be his elevation of the status (and financial well being) of concert artists, as well as, perhaps unfortunately, focusing our attention towards music competitions, and for its proliferation. There had been other American pianists who had captured top prizes at international competitions. None of them really captured the imagination of the world like Van Cliburn did.

If you were to ask pianists or musicians to name their favourite pianists, probably very few would list Van Cliburn to be among them. No, Van Cliburn’s place in music history is, for me, a result of his really creating for our generation this image of the artist as hero, and for perhaps bringing many people towards an awareness, if not an appreciation, for classical music. I believe that Van Cliburn would be for my generation what Ignacy Jan Paderewski was to the early decades of the century – an inspiring, even larger than life personality, more than a musician or a pianist.


Anyone who has an interest in music, in cold war politics, and in Soviet history and society, would find Isacoff’s well-researched and eloquently written volume a very rewarding read.

Patrick May
June 26, 2017

Monday, June 19, 2017

A Strauss Feast in Seattle

No one says goodbye quite like Richard Strauss. And not just in obviously elegiac works like the Vier Letzte Lieder or Metamorphosen. Listen to the final moments of Der Rosenkavalier, Capriccio, the death scene in Don Quixote, or the coda of Eine Alpensinfonie, and you would hear these very beautiful and special moments of farewell.

When I saw the programme for the Seattle Symphony’s concert this past weekend, I knew that I would have to make the trip down to the Emerald City. Vier Letzte Lieder in the first half and Eine Alpensinfonie after the interval – life just doesn’t get better than this. And it is always a treat to hear this wonderful orchestra in beautiful Benaroya Hall.

Soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin was the soprano soloist in the Vier Letzte Lieder, with Thomas Dausgaard sensitively weaving the gorgeous orchestral texture Strauss provides. Barkmin has a voice that could easily sail above any orchestra. Look at the operatic roles she tackles – Marie in Wozzeck, Isolde, Sieglinde, Emilia Marty in Věc Makropulos, to name just a few, and you would realize the kind of voice she needs to have. On Saturday, the power of her voice was of course evident, but there was also sensitivity in how she paints the words in music. It was a deeply moving performance, especially in the final two songs, and her singing of the final lines of Im Abendrot, “Wie sind wir wandermüde – ist dies etwa der Tod?” was especially heartfelt and affecting. She obviously meant what she sang. Thomas Dausgaard was most effective and sensitive in bringing out the beauty of Strauss’s orchestral writing. The French horn and violin solos in Beim Schlafengehen were particularly beautifully played.

The tear ducts were barely dry when Barkmin granted us an encore, Morgen, also by Strauss. It was a wonderfully intimate performance of one of Strauss’s most loving and lovely songs, and the wonderful violinist (I wasn’t sure of her name, as the orchestral personnel lists the concertmaster and associate concertmaster positions as currently vacant) who played the solos deserved equal credits for the meltingly beautiful performance.

A substantially enlarged orchestra – everything but the kitchen sink, almost - filled the stage after the interval for the composer’s Eine Alpensinfonie, which conductor André Previn referred to as “giant piece of strudel.” I personally find this to be one of the composer’s most endearing tone poems. Dausgaard, not surprisingly, reveled in the music, and successfully marshaled the huge orchestral forces and inspired them to play their best. I was so taken with how lush sounding the Seattle strings were on Saturday. There was, however, a feeling of riding from climax to climax, rather than presenting the work as an organic whole, with a sense of totality. This is easier said than done with this large work, as the many “tunes” are so very irresistible. The strings and bassoons played the opening descending B-flat minor scale with a palpable sense of mystery, and the four trombones and tuba at rehearsal 1 matched this atmosphere.

The celli and basses played the opening of Der Anstieg with gusto as well as the necessary weight in sound. I thought that the Jaghörner von ferne at five measures after 18 could have been much more boisterous. It was a little too reserved for my taste. The interplay between the woodwinds and strings in Am Wasserfall was most effectively done. In Auf dem Gipfel, Dausgaard deftly paced the strings in leading up to the oboe solo at 77. The oboe solo was extremely well played. What I missed, however, was this sense of breathless wonder, especially in the off-beat 8th notes at one measure after 77, when the mountain climber beholds the scenery below. However, the slowly emerging theme in the strings (79) unfolded beautifully, as was the brass theme at 80.

In Elegie (100), I thought that the strings could have played with a greater weight of sound. Yes, Strauss did write piano, but he also added espressivo, which I think is more crucial in creating the sadness, the feeling of regret, in the string colours.

The clarinet solo (7 measures after 103) was effectually played, and conjured the sense of impending danger in Stille vor dem Sturm. The orchestra was most impressive with their virtuosic playing in effectively conjuring up the storm. From my seat in row 4, the sound and the force of the orchestra were palpable.  The brass section was most convincing in conveying the feeling of majesty at 128, the few measures leading up to Sonnenuntergang. I was especially looking forward to the organ entry at 134 (Ausklang), since Benaroya Hall is one of the few halls blessed with a beautiful pipe organ. I was not disappointed. I did, however, think that the initial entry was a trifle too loud (Strauss indicated only forte), which took away the feeling of sacredness in the moment. The string playing of the beautiful theme at 138 was most heartfelt. In Nacht, Dausgaard effectively evokes the sense of mystery that was so apparent in the opening.

What a great privilege and pleasure it had been to hear these two great works of Richard Strauss. I am guessing that Eine Alpensinfonie is rarely done not only because of its difficulty, requiring heroic playing from every member of the orchestra, but because of the expense. Dausgaard and each and every one in the Seattle Symphony certainly rose to Strauss’s challenge, and gave all of us an indelible musical experience this past weekend.

Patrick May
Vancouver, Canada



Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ending on a High Note

It is always sad every year to realize that the concert season is winding down. The Vancouver Recital Society’s season ended a couple of weeks ago, and the Vancouver Chopin Society presented its final concert of the 2016-2017 season this past Sunday with a recital by the Armenian-born, Russian-trained, American pianist (and famed pedagogue) Sergei Babayan. I had never before heard him in concert, and so it was certainly a treat to have experienced the artistry, musicianship and pianism of this wonderful pianist.

Babayan began his performance with, I am guessing, the Vancouver premiere of Russian composer Vladimir Ryabov’s Fantasia in C minor, in memory of Maria Yudina, Op. 21. This is an incredibly intense and challenging work inspired by the repertoire and life of the great Soviet pianist Maria Yudina. I doubt that many people in North America had heard of Maria Yudina, since she didn’t – or couldn’t – play outside of her native Russia. But she was a pianist in the same order of a Richter or a Gilels. In the piece, there were allusions, or quotes, of themes from pieces that Yudina frequently played, as well as references to Orthodox Chants, because of the pianist’s Christian faith. Babayan’s performance of this demanding work was stunning, capturing the rapidly shifting moods and colours of the work. The work ended, as indicated in the programme notes, with “a dream-like perpetual motion punctuated by bell tones that seems to disintegrate into shattered silence.” The silence and attentiveness of the audience indicated to me that Babayan was successful in conveying the essence of this music.

The pianist continued with the rest of the first half with music by Chopin and Rachmaninoff, playing the pieces without a break. Indeed, Babayan created such a mood of intimacy, especially in the Chopin works, that I felt that he was playing for himself, and that the audience was almost eavesdropping upon this incredible performance. In the Polonaise in C-sharp minor, Op. 26, No. 1, Babayan captured the contrast between the drama and heroism of the outer sections with the lyricism and longing in the middle section. In the great Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2, I thought his playing of especially the descending scale at mm. 13 to 16 to be meltingly beautiful. The challenging B section of this waltz sounded as effortless and light as it could possibly be.

The pianist’s playing of the Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60, was very different from the performance given by Georgijs Osokins last season. Osokins brought out all the colours of this great masterpiece, while Babayan’s interpretation was more inward looking, more intimate. He did not try to make the Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, No. 2, bigger than it is, but played it with just the right degree of melancholy and an intense musicality. The Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 29 was stunning in its gossamer lightness and breathlessness.

Instead of the Ballade No. 3 that was originally programmed, the artist decided on a last minute programme change, playing instead three short works by Sergei Rachmaninoff – the Etude Tableaux in E-flat minor, Op. 39, No. 5, the Moment Musicaux in E-flat minor, Op. 16, No. 2, and the Moment Musicaux in C major, Op. 16, No. 3. The programme change showcased Babayan’s affinity for the music of the Russian composer. His performance of these works highlighted not only his awesome pianistic abilities, but also the beautiful sound – especially in the lower register of the piano – that he evoked from the instrument (this was also evident in his performance of the Ryabov), a sound that is so well suited to Rachmaninoff’s music.

Ever since hearing Glenn Gould’s stunning first recording of Bach’s monumental work, I have always had a personal bias that the Goldberg Variations as something that Canada owns. An artist like Babayan would obviously have its own interpretation of the work, one that really can lend itself to so many different views. Rather than, to paraphrase Gould’s words, looking for some kind of mathematical correspondence between the theme and the 30 variations, I believe Babayan was trying to convey the character of each individual variation. That said, I thought that his playing of the variations had a logical and natural flow from one to the next, as well as a palpable sense of totality that eludes many artists. In the 25th variation, he did not fall into the trap of wearing the tragedy of the music on his sleeve, but infused it with just the right degree of pathos. Babayan told me afterwards that he was inspired by the attentiveness of the afternoon’s audience.

After hearing Sergei Babayan, I understood why artists like Martha Argerich, Danil Trifonov, and Valery Gergiev regularly sought him out as collaborator. I am already looking forward to his next appearance in Vancouver.



Wednesday, May 10, 2017

In Search of Chopin's Soul

It takes a special pianist that has the stamina to play an all Chopin programme. The challenge is compounded when the recital encompasses both books of the Études (Op. 10 and 25) as well as the Preludes, Op. 28. And so it was that Canada’s own Louis Lortie graced the Orpheum stage for just such a performance. It was an evening of incredible pianism, but musically and emotionally somewhat less than entirely satisfactory.

It was impressive to watch Lortie launch right into the Études in C major, Op. 10, No. 1. I appreciated the clarity of his playing and his refraining from excessive pedaling. In the second Étude, the pianist’s fingerwork was immaculate, and he brought out the lightness and bounciness of the left hand. The celebrated Étude in E major, Op. 10, No. 3 had a beautiful return to the A section at the end of the work. Both the fourth and fifth Études were technically stunning. I particularly liked the glittering effect he achieved with the right hand triplets. Lortie successfully negotiated the subtle harmonic changes in the Rachmaninoff-like Étude in E-flat minor, Op. 10, No. 6, although I felt that there could have been more gradations of colours. I appreciated the clarity of texture and his voicing of the right hand in the Étude in C major, Op. 10, No. 7 as well as how he drew our attention to the beauty of the left hand in the Étude in F major, Op. 10, No. 8. The pianist underplayed the drama in the beginning of the Étude in F minor, Op. 10, No. 9 until the octave passages beginning at m. 49, and played a lovely ending bringing to life Chopin’s leggierissimo indication. The pedaling was particularly well done in his playing of the Étude in A-flat major, Op. 10, No. 10, which created some beautiful blending of sounds. Although the broken chords were immaculately executed in the Étude in E-flat major, Op. 10, No. 11, there was unfortunately a feeling of sameness in the sound. I thought that he missed Chopin’s dolcissimo indication at m. 44. This indication can only be found in the autograph and not the printed version, but it does make sense to have a different feel to the chords toward the end of the work. The so-called Revolutionary Étude (Op. 10, No. 12) was played with a great deal of sweep.

After only a brief pause, Lortie continued the first half with his performance of the Op. 25 set of Études. Unfortunately, the brightness of the piano took away the very subtle beauty of the music in the Étude in A-flat major, Op. 25, No. 1, but he did achieve the lightness that the music calls for. I have never understood Chopin’s seemingly absurdly fast metronomic indication (half note equals 112) for the Étude in F minor, Op. 25, No. 2. I feel that one would miss the beauty of the right hand triplets with such a quick tempo. Perhaps Lortie’s playing of the work has its own logic, since it created a lovely blending of sonorities. I was somewhat surprised at the very heavy handed playing of the third and fourth Études of the set, although I did admire his incisive attacks of the right hand chords in the fourth Étude. His playing of the Étude in E minor, Op. 25, No. 5 was far too heavily pedaled, and took away the gentle humour of the music. I believe that the opening section should be played much more dryly. He did, however, successfully convey the beauty of the left hand in the B section. Lortie’s performance of the frightfully difficult Étude in G-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 6 was perhaps the highlight of the evening. To be sure, the rapid thirds in the right hand were perfectly played, but the beauty of the work, as Vladimir Howoritz said, is in the left hand. I think Lortie understood this, as he played it with grace and subtlety. His performance of the Étude in C-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7, was successful as well, conveying the utter bleakness, sadness and despair that is inherent in the music. The transition to the B-flat major 6/4 chord at m. 27 was like a ray of sunlight that suddenly shone through. The artist pedaled the Étude in D-flat major, Op. 25, No. 8 most effectively, and played the short piece as if it were one long phrase. Unfortunately, the Étude in G-flat major, Op. 25, No. 9 (refer to by some as the Butterfly Étude) was far, far too heavily played – the butterfly was much too earthbound. He brought out the strange beauty of the B section in the Étude in B minor, Op. 25, No. 10, and his pacing in the return to the A section was most effective. The pianist really observed the composer’s risoluto indication at m. 5 of the Étude in A minor, Op. 25, No. 11. I find it interesting that most of Chopin’s indication in this very dramatic work is forte only, not fortissimo. In fact, the first fortissimo indications come only as late as m. 61 and 63. I thought Lortie understood this, and really let the music build rather than giving it all right at the outset. The last work of the set was also well played. He resisted pedaling the work excessively, which lent the work a clarity that we don’t often hear.

I missed the feeling of desperate longing and anticipation in Lortie’s playing of the Prelude in C major, Op. 28, No. 1, as well as the dark, menacing colours of the Prelude in A minor, Op. 28, No. 2. The pianist completely missed Chopin’s leggiermente marking for the Prelude in G major, Op. 28, No. 3, and played the left hand as if it were Czerny. I also missed the slow build-up that the music calls for in the Prelude in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4, as well as the Prelude in B minor, Op. 28, No. 6. Strangely, he seemed to have played the work with just a single colour. Again, the Prelude in D major, Op. 28, No. 5 was far too heavily played, and he failed to convey the beguiling beauty of the music. The Prelude in A major, Op. 28, No. 7 was played simply and gracefully, exactly the qualities that the music calls for. The opening of the Prelude in F-sharp minor, Op. 28, No. 8 sounded mechanical to my ears, but things did improve later on, but I did like the dignity he conveyed in his playing of the Prelude in E major, Op. 28, No. 9. I also liked the lightness of his right hand in the Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 28, No. 10, and his beautiful playing of the Prelude in B major, Op. 28, No. 11. Lortie successfully brought across the wildness of the music in the Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 28, No. 12. He achieved a rare real feeling of intimacy in his performance of the Prelude in F-sharp major, Op. 28, No. 13, and a feeling of buoyancy in the A section’s right hand chords. The playing got too loud too soon in the Prelude in E-flat minor, Op. 28, No. 14, and I missed the “weirdness” of the unison writing that is so apparent in the music. The artist gave us a lovely opening for the Prelude in D-flat major, Op. 28, No. 15, as well as effective transitions to the C-sharp minor B section and then back to the A section, although the climaxes in the B section could have been much more shattering (without being heavy).

Lortie certainly took no prisoners in his dramatic reading of the Prelude in B-flat minor, Op. 28, No. 16, although his sparse pedaling in the opening runs worked less successfully in this work. There were some lovely colours in the unique sonorities of the key of A-flat major (Op. 28, No. 17), even though I missed the richness in sound that the work calls for. The pianist captured the unsettling feeling in the Prelude in F minor, Op. 28, No. 18, and achieved in the Prelude in E-flat major (Op. 28, No. 19) the lightness and that had quite often eluded him last evening. There was lovely voicing of the middle voice in Lortie’s playing of the funereal Prelude in C minor, Op. 28, No. 20, but the right hand forte and fortissimo chords were much too heavy in the Prelude in B-flat major, Op. 28, No. 21. His playing of the Prelude in G minor, Op. 28, No. 22 was appropriately stormy, and technically impeccable. There was wonderful contrast between the aforementioned Prelude and the Prelude in F major (Op. 28, No. 23) that followed. Here, Lortie beautifully conveyed the picture of blue skies and calm waters. Likewise, the he captured the high drama and utter destruction (at the end) of the Prelude in D minor, Op. 28, No. 24.

Although there was much to admire in Mr. Lortie’s performance last night, honesty compels me to say that I found the essence of Chopin only in very few of the works performed. Part of the problem, I thought, was the instrument of the artist’s choice - that beautifully built concert grand of Italian origin that has been attracting fans amongst both musicians and the very wealthy. The sound was simply too bright, too booming, and it does not, in my view, possess the large tonal palette of the Steinway. There was much in Lortie’s playing that was heavy, and the very big sound that he commands does not always work for the composer’s music.

From the standpoint of piano playing, Lortie’s performance was beyond reproach, and it was obvious that every element in his conception of the pieces had been thoroughly worked out down to the last detail. I would like to believe that an artist with the talent and musicality of Louis Lortie would some day arrive at an ideal interpretation of Chopin’s music, if he continues his quest. In his encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, he gave us a tantalizing hint that he is able to capture Chopin’s soul in his beautiful interpretation of the much loved work.

Alfred Brendel was correct in saying that a pianist either plays Chopin or everything else. And the entire evening reminded me yet again of how difficult it is to really interpret Chopin. Of all the composers, the essence, or the soul, of Chopin is most elusive to even the greatest pianists of any time. I am quite hopeful that Louis Lortie will one day find the true essence of Chopin in his artistic journey.

Patrick May
May 10, 2017