Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Men of Faith

Two CD’s that I acquired recently featured the piano music of Bach and Liszt: A friend gave me pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s Bach album entitled Bach – A Strange Beauty. I had bought pianist Janina Fialkowska’s Liszt album after her astonishing recital in Vancouver.

The title of Simone Dinnerstein’s album came from a quote from Sir Francis Bacon, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” In an interview with the pianist in the accompanying booklet (which also features artwork by the pianist father Simon Dinnerstein), she points out that Bach’s music is more than just about patterns, symmetry and logic, but that “everything about the way he writes is mysterious and unexpected. He doesn’t give you the music as you would think it should be.” Indeed, it is perhaps this beautiful strangeness in Bach’s music that we find so captivating and fascinating, even several centuries after they were written. She adds that Bach’s music is “both in motion and static, and expressive and passive.”

Simone Dinnerstein’s recording features two keyboard concerti – No. 1 in D Minor, BWV 1052 and No. 5 in F Minor, BWV 1056, the third English Suite in G Minor, BWV 808, as well as three transcriptions by three great pianists of the 20th century. Dinnerstein gives us one of Busoni’s chorale preludes, Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639, Kempff’s transcription of the opening prelude of the Cantata Ich rufe zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639, and Dame Myra Hess’ celebrated transcription of Jesus bleibet meine Freunde, BWV 147, better known as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. These transcriptions represent Bach through 20th century eyes, and call for the pianist to create a completely different sonority from Bach’s own keyboard works, the third English Suite, for instance.

I was very moved by Ms. Dinnerstein’s playing. The sound she created in the three transcriptions reminds me of the playing of Dinu Lipatti, and I can think of no greater compliment. In the keyboard concerti, there was complete accord and wonderful interplay between soloist and members of the Kammerorchester Staatskapelle Berlin, playing without a conductor. It was obvious from the performances that the musicians carefully listened to each other.

The pianist’s performance of the third English Suite was also highly convincing, from the concerto grosso-like Prélude, through all the dances, the pianist managed to bring out the character of the each movement without losing a sense of the whole suite. Perhaps her playing is not quite as rhythmically bracing as Glenn Gould, but these are certainly highly valid and beautiful performances nevertheless, certainly more arresting than, say, Angela Hewitt’s Bach playing, which I find bland and completely lacking in character.

On an equally high level is Janina Fialkowska’s Liszt album, which contains many of the pieces she played in her recent Vancouver recital – the Valse-caprice No. 6 (Soirée de Vienne, S. 427), the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, and the Gounod-Liszt Valse de Faust, S. 407. On top of these works, Fialkowska also gives us Liszt’s transcription of Chopin’s Six Chants polonaise, S. 480, as well as the composer’s transcription of Gretchen, the 2nd movement of the Faust Symphony.

In the more virtuosic pieces, Fialkowska calls upon her considerable pianistic abilities and give us performances that are more than exciting, but contain an easy elegance that is found in great Liszt players like Horowitz and Cziffra.

Franz Liszt wrote many transcriptions of orchestral works, operatic arias, as well as songs by other composers. The best of these transcriptions, like the ones heard on this album, faithfully reflects the musical intention of the original composer. It is a mystery to me why pianists do not play these Chopin-Liszt songs more frequently. Not only are the original songs beautiful, but the transcriptions are masterpieces in their own right. Fialkowska captures the character of each song to the last detail.

As in her recital, the emotional core of the album is found in Liszt’s great masterpiece, the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude from the composer’s Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses. I personally consider this one of Liszt’s greatest works for the piano, and Fialkowska’s performances of it (both in the album and at the recital) were magical.

Listening to Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, as well as the music from Dinnerstein’s Bach album, I cannot help but think of how both composers’ music are imbued with their faith. For Bach, a staunch Lutheran, every act of creativity was a mean to serving God. Pianist Murray Perahia once said that although it seems like a cliché to say that Bach’s music is spiritual, he cannot really find a different way to describe it. Indeed, even in Bach’s secular music, such as the instrumental suites or concerti, there is always a sense of awe, and of the Divine.

In the case of Franz Liszt, I believe that his music is really an outlet or a reflection of his Catholic faith. Unlike Bach, who was really a church musician first and foremost, Liszt never really wrote music for ecclesiastical purpose. Yet, in many of Liszt’s works, certainly all of the Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses, and even in a work like the Sonata in B Minor, there is, like Bach, that extra spiritual dimension.

It is serendipitous that I was introduced to these two recordings in the same week, and it is fascinating to hear how these two composers’ faith became an integral part of their respective creativity.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Suffering and Beauty

We live in an age where whatever it is that we do, suffering is underrated, minimized or even trivialized. In general, we want to do away with suffering. Listening to pianist Janina Fialkowska in recital last Sunday, I am reminded how an artist must sometimes go through tremendous suffering for his or her art.

After an auspicious beginning as a concert artist, launched by no less than Arthur Rubinstein, and promoted as Rubinstein’s protégée, Fialkowska went through a period of crippling depression and anxiety, so much so that she had to stop playing and seek professional help. It was only through the help of her doctors and the encouragement of Mr. Rubinstein that she gradually resumed her concert career. In 2002, a tumour was discovered in Ms. Fialkowska’s left arm. Only after surgical removal or the tumour and muscle-transfer procedure was she able to resume playing again.

I cannot presume to know the effects these experiences must have had on Ms. Fialkowska’s spiritual and musical - I very much believe that the two are very much connected - growth, but I cannot help but guess that such challenges must have deepened her insight into her art.

Ms. Fialkowska opened her recital with Schubert’s Sonata in A Major, Op. 120, D. 664. A pensive and songful middle movement is framed by two outer movements that are gentle and joyful. The pianist made much of the expressiveness called for by the music and the beauty of sound. Many years ago, I attended Vladimir Feltsman’s much anticipated Carnegie Hall recital debut, where the pianist began his recital with the same Schubert Sonata. I must say that Ms. Fialkowska brought out the depth of the music much more than Mr. Feltsman did.

The pianist continued with three pieces by Franz Liszt, the Valse-caprice No. 6 from the Soirées de Vienne, S. 427 and the transcription of the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust, S. 407. In between these two pieces, Ms. Fialkowska played what I feel to be Liszt’s greatest piano work: the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, from the composer’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S. 173. For the Valse-caprice and the Waltz from Faust, Ms. Fialkowska unleashed all her considerable powers as a virtuoso, bringing out all the pianistic fireworks one associates with pianists like Horowitz – her performances were on that level.

In the Bénédiction, it was more than beautiful playing that distinguishes her performance, but a lyricism and depth of feeling, as well as an absolutely magical use of the pedal that remained with me long after the concert.

The second half of the concert was devoted to the music of Chopin. Ms. Fialkowska was one of Arthur Rubinstein’s favourite students, and she must have received many valuable insights from the great pianist. But Ms. Fialkowska’s performance of Chopin was very much her own. For me, the highlight of this portion of her recital was her playing of two mazurkas, the early B-flat Major, Op. 7, No. 1 and the later C-sharp Minor, Op. 50, No. 3. From the high spirit of the early Mazurka to the piercing sadness of the C-sharp Minor, Ms. Fialkowska captured the essence and the soul of the composer in these elusive dances. We must be grateful to Ms. Fialkowska for playing the less frequently played Polonaise in E-flat Minor, Op. 26, No. 2, which is less flashy but no less great than some of the more popular Polonaises.

Vladimir Horowitz said that the Scherzo in B Minor, Op. 20, calls for the pianist to demonstrate his demonic as well as angelic sides. Ms. Fialkowska certainly brought out both aspects of this stormy work, and her playing of the middle section, when the composer quoted from the old Polish Christmas song Lulajże Jezuniu, was as beautiful as one can imagine it to be.

We are thankful that the Vancouver Chopin Society for bringing an artist as distinguished as Ms. Janina Fialkowska to share her artistry with us. Although she appears to be in the best of health, I could not help, while hearing her play, thinking of the pain artists go through for the sake of their art. It is a cruel twist of fate that an artist endowed with talent should be afflicted with ailments that would potentially cripple them. What is it about great music that draws us to continue to probe its many depths, in spite of great suffering and difficulties? The mystery in our search for beauty is that the journey may be one of many impediments. But the rewards, if not the promise, of the music, makes it a worthwhile journey.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Barber of Seville

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t “get” The Barber of Seville. Perhaps what I am about to say is sacrilege to many opera lovers.

Rossini’s opus is perhaps one of the most popular operas of all time, and yes, it is performed all over the world, to the point that the aria Largo al factotum was immortalized in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I saw it for the third time this past Saturday, in a new production by Vancouver Opera. I have to admit that my reservations regarding the opera were not changed by the performance.

Both Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville were based upon plays by Pierre Beaumarchais, with pretty much the same cast of characters. But this is where the similarities end. Mozart’s Figaro is a divine comedy, with meltingly beautiful music that one never tires of hearing. Yes, The Barber of Seville has memorable music too, but the few great arias in the opera are interspersed between music that is rather bland and trite. Where Mozart’s opera is both sublimely beautiful and supremely funny, Rossini’s music is merely pretty, and its humor superficial. And whereas Mozart’s characters and drama is a commentary on humanity, Rossini’s merely serves to give us an evening of light entertainment. Yes, both operas feature the same Figaro, the same Count Almaviva, the same Rosina, and the same Doctor Bartolo and Don Basilio. But how Rossini’s portrayal of these same characters pale in comparison with Mozart! Mozart’s characters are real, with flesh and blood, whereas Rossini’s remain two-dimensional stock characters to give us a few laughs.

I find that in The Marriage of Figaro, the most humorous scenes are sometimes also the most moving. In the scene when Figaro realizes that Marcellina is actually his long lost mother, I often find myself weeping tears of joy. There is one genuinely funny scene in The Barber of Seville, at the beginning of Act II, when Count Almaviva poses as Rosina’s “substitute” singing teacher. But even this scene is no more than merely funny, and the drama never really raises above the level of Blake Edward’s Pink Panther movies.

Vancouver Opera mounted a good production of Barber of Seville, with wonderful voices singing Rossini’s demanding music. But updating the opera to a movie studio in the 1940’s did not add anything new to the drama. Yes, there are tunes in the opera that sends you out humming, but one does not leave the theatre walking on air.

Is this too much to expect from a work of art? Absolutely, I think. A great work of art should lift us above our everyday existence and elevate us into a higher sphere of well being and awareness. I’m afraid The Barber of Seville falls short of this criteria.

Of course art can be entertaining, but entertainment is not necessarily art.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Wittgenstein's

Knowing of my fondness for Vienna and things Viennese, a friend passed on to me a book that she assured me would make interesting reading. For the next couple of days, I sat completely engrossed in The House of Wittgenstein – A Family at War, by Alexander Waugh, himself the grandson of Evelyn Waugh, famous Catholic convert and author.

I have known some dysfunctional families in my time, but the Wittgenstein’s top them all. In fact, when I think of the story of the Wittgenstein family of Vienna, I immediately think of Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” According to an article in the New York Times Book Review, “the Wittgensteins of Vienna could give the Oedipuses a run for their money” when it comes to dysfunctional families. To varying degrees, I suppose we are all victims of our upbringing.

Waugh’s book on the Wittgenstein family offers not only fascinating insight into a famous and fabulously wealthy family, but a glimpse of the political and artistic climate of Vienna in the early part of the 20th century. I agree with the opinion of the Literary Review that “It is hard to imagine another account showing such fluency, wit and attention to detail.”

Of the nine children of Karl Wittgenstein and Leopoldine Kalmus, two committed suicide, and one simply “went missing.” The surviving children all share a passion for art and for music, but there was no love loss between any of the siblings.

Even if you know nothing about the Wittgenstein family, you would have at least heard of two of the family members. Ludwig Wittgenstein is considered by many to be one of the 20th century’s great philosophers. And many musicians and music lovers would have heard of Paul Wittgenstein, who was a student of the legendary Theodore Leschetizky, and a pianist of promise, but lost his right arm during World War I.

While a prisoner in the Russian war camp, Paul became determined to continue his career as a pianist. When he was later returned to his family in Vienna, he devoted himself to becoming a left-handed pianist. Family members reported him, with grim determination, practicing eight or nine hours every day. Initially, he rearranged many of the pieces from the standard repertoire, as well as the few pieces that had already been written for the left hand alone. This included an arrangement by Leopold Godowsky for left hand of Chopin’s famous Revolutionary Etude! Later on, he commissioned composers to write works for the left handed pianist.

Probably the most well-known of the left-handed piano repertoire would have to be the Concerto pour la main gauche by Maurice Ravel. This is an absolute masterpiece, much darker in colour and turbulent than the composer’s jazzy and breezy Concerto in G. Listening to the piece with one’s eyes closed, one would be hard pressed to tell that this is played by someone with only one arm. Unfortunately, relationship between pianist and composer did not remain cordial. Wittgenstein insisted that Ravel’s orchestration was too thick, and the composer accused Paul of distorting his music, and that “he was an old hand at orchestration and it does sound right.” In the end, Paul Wittgenstein capitulated, and played the concerto the way Ravel wanted it. The premiere in Paris on January 17th, 1933, with the composer conducting, was a great success, but the incident left both soloist and composer with bad tastes in their mouths.

Other than the Ravel, there is also Sergei Prokofiev’s 4th Piano Concerto, written in 1931 for Paul Wittgenstein but never performed by him. According to some sources, the pianist claimed that he did not understand a single note of the music. The world premiere of the concerto, incredibly enough, did not take place until September of 1956! The pianist who played the premiere, Siegfried Rapp, had lost his right arm during a battle in World War II.

Another composer Paul Wittgenstein commissioned was the then young Benjamin Britten, who wrote his Diversions for Left Hand and Orchestra. Paul Hindemith wrote Piano Music with Orchestra, and Richard Strauss Parergon zur Sinfonia Domestica, with themes from Strauss’ great symphonic work of the same name. Viennese composer Franz Schmidt wrote a set of Beethoven Variations, based on a theme from the composer’s Spring Sonata. Lesser known composers like Josef Labor (a close family friend of the Wittgenstein family), Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Sergei Bortkiewicz, all wrote numerous works for the left-handed pianist, thanks to commissions by Paul Wittgenstein. Paul continued to concertize and teach until his death on March 6th, 1961.

Reading this book, it hit home that composers like Ravel, Britten, Prokofiev, and Strauss, names we read in music history books, were actually contemporaries of Paul Wittgenstein.

Granted that Paul Wittgenstein’s family wealth allowed him to promote his own concert career and to commission works by famous composers, one has to admire his perseverance and courage for not just continuing to play but performing, in the face of this very significant handicap.

In our own time, pianists like Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher, who both lost the use of their right hands, benefitted from this relatively large body of piano works for the left hand alone. Posterity has Paul Wittgenstein to thank for giving the world a large body of piano literature that would otherwise not have existed.

And what a family the Wittgenstein’s was! Perhaps not people you’d like to be friends or share a meal with, but it sure was fun reading about them.