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.

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