Monday, November 18, 2013

A Young Old Soul

In the very crowded field of outstanding young pianists today (and getting more crowded every year), there have been many recent performances that succeed in impressing us with his or her pianistic prowess. Far more rare is a young artist who moves us, not with technical wizardry (which he has plenty of), but with depth, with artistry and musicality.

Such an event took place in Vancouver yesterday, with the Canadian debut of Kuok-Wai Lio, under the auspices of the Vancouver Recital Society. Mr. Lio played an artistically and technically demanding programme of Janáček, Schubert, and Schumann. I do not recall being so moved by a young pianist’s playing since the first time I heard Ingrid Fliter many years back.

Mr. Lio began his recital daringly, with a performance of Leoš Janáček’s four-movement piano cycle, In the Mists. Not being intimately acquainted with the piece, I can only guess that the composer named his work a “piano cycle” instead of “sonata” so that he didn’t feel bound by any constraints of musical structure. Indeed the piece sounded very free-flowing in its ideas, very colourful and beautiful, and highly imaginative. I did detect the influence of other composers, most notably in his use of harmony, which somehow reminded me of the harmonies Chopin used in some of his later Mazurkas.

Kuok-Wai Lio appears to be a quiet and unassuming young man, but from the first notes, Lio mesmerized me with his playing. There is a luminous quality to the sound he makes on the piano. Within minutes, I realized that I was in the presence of a young master. The playing commanded our complete attention without clamoring for it. Lio, I believe, is very much “his own man” in his musical ideas.

Franz Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 935, made up the final work of the first half. Unlike many of today’s young keyboard titans, Lio took the time for the music to develop. At the same time, the music never dragged, but flowed beautifully and logically. The many transitions, in mood and in tempo, within each of the four pieces were masterfully handled. Lio’s interpretation of these very familiar pieces did not remind me of anyone else’s playing. His ideas were completely original, but never idiosyncratic, and they made complete musical sense.  I believe Lio is one of those rare artists who draw our attention to the music, and not to him or his personality.

Lio’s playing of Robert Schumann’s elusive Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6, once again reinforced my impression that we were in the presence of an extremely rare talent. One of Schumann’s lesser played works, the piece has an inner beauty that makes it very difficult to bring across. I believe it was Busoni who said that a musician must, during a performance, lose and find himself at the same time. From beginning to end, Lio was completely absorbed in the shifting moods of Schumann’s sound world, a man completely lost within the music, but at the same time seeing clearly the way before him. His playing of the work’s two final sections (Wie aus der Ferne; Nicht schnell) was meltingly and heartbreakingly beautiful. 

After repeated curtain calls from an enthusiastic audience, Lio rewarded us with the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, giving us a tantalizing taste of what a performance of the complete work would be like.

No amount of designer clothing or brand name runners can give young artists depth and maturity. This young pianist already possesses such qualities in abundance. In one article I read about Lio, conductor Donato Cabera, who worked with him, called him “an old soul”.

Hearing his performance yesterday, that is exactly how I would describe Kuok-Wai Lio.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Benedetto Lupo

Pianist Benedetto Lupo made his Vancouver recital debut yesterday (he had previously appeared with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) in a daring programme of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. I say daring because even though both composers are often audience’s favourites, the works Mr. Lupo programmed could hardly have qualified as crowd pleasers.

Towards the end of his life, Johannes Brahms wrote four sets of short piano pieces. For me, these pieces are really a distillation and culmination of Brahms‘s entire career as a composer.  For me, these are some of the most intimate pieces of music Brahms ever wrote, and even a great Brahms pianist like Arthur Rubinstein, who made beautiful recordings of this music, avoided playing them in recitals. Benedetto Lupo certainly set himself a challenge when he programmed both the three pieces in Op. 117 and the seven pieces in Op. 116 in the first half of his recital programme.

On top of the varying technical challenges in each of the pieces, there is, in the piano music of Brahms, a fine balance between the horizontal and the vertical aspects of the music. In addition to moving the music forward, the artist must bring clarity to the multi-layered texture of the score. As conductor and pianist André Previn said, there is, in Brahms, always a beautiful melody struggling to get out.

Lupo lavished each of these pieces with a beautiful sound at the piano, and exhibited a fine sense of direction in the music. He managed to highlight the many layers within the music, while never making the music sound heavy or lacking in forward motion. The near-capacity audience rewarded the pianist with the greatest gift a musician could ask for – silence.

I was very grateful for Benedetto Lupo, both for programming Tchaikovsky’s Grand Piano Sonata in G Major, Op. 37, and for speaking to the audience before the performance. While I know of the work’s existence, as well as of recordings by pianists such as Richter, I was hearing the work for the first time yesterday. Lupo pointed out that the sonata was written at about the same time as the composer’s fourth symphony, and therefore the element of fate plays a large part in both works, thus, in the pianist’s own words,  the “obsessiveness” in many of the themes. He also shared with the audience the observation that the beautiful second subject in the first movement is actually based on the Dies Irae, from the Catholic Latin Mass for the Dead.

From the march-like first subject in the first movement, to the ferociously difficult final movement, the sonata could not have found a greater champion than Lupo. Under the wrong hands, this work can sound like repetitive and meandering. The young pianist played the entire work with an incredible sense of purpose and unity, and with an utter neglect for the fearsome pianistic challenges lay down by the composer. Under his hands, the logic as well as originality of this unfamiliar (to me) work by a very familiar composer became quite apparent.

In this already crowded field of outstanding pianists, Benedetto Lupo is an artist that has much to offer, and one that I would love to hear again. Lupo’s programme reminded me once again the vastness of the piano literature, and that there are still relatively unknown masterpieces in the pianistic canon waiting for both artists and audience to discover.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Revisiting Schnabel's Beethoven

I finished listening to Artur Schnabel’s recording of Beethoven’s thirty two piano sonatas. No, it was not some macho thing where I did it in one sitting. Over the last few weeks, I have been listening to one or two sonatas a day, and the experience has a revelation.

Today, when there are dozens of complete recordings of these iconic works and with pianists rushing to recording them once they reached their 18th birthday, it is difficult to imagine the significance and impact those first recordings had.

In Harold Schonberg’s entertaining (but not always accurate) book, The Great Pianists, the writer devoted an entire chapter to Artur Schnabel (even Arthur Rubinstein had to share a chapter with his archrival and sometime friend Vladimir Horowitz), and entitled it “The Man Who Invented Beethoven.”

It took Schnabel several years, from 1931 to 1935, to record all the sonatas.  Listening to them again today, the performances are, to me, just as valid, moving and, for lack of a better word, right. I once heard the comment that piano playing today has become either anonymous or idiosyncratic. Schnabel’s playing is neither. And hearing these recordings remind me how standardized, even generic, music making has become today.

Unlike other Beethoven “specialists” of his time, pianists like Wilhelm Backhaus, Rudolf Serkin, and Wilhelm Kempff, to name just a few, pianists who carry the torch of the Germanic tradition of piano playing, Schnabel never hesitated to take chances in his playing. In many of the faster movements, Schnabel played with an absolute feeling of reckless abandon, making the performance extremely thrilling. Don’t get me wrong, Schnabel was very much interested in the details, as well as the structural integrity of the music, but he was not an artist who saw only the trees and not the forest. It is music-making that was, and is, spontaneous and very much alive. Hearing these performances, I couldn’t help but feel that Beethoven himself must have played in a similar way.

Schnabel’s Beethoven recordings were made in the days when editing was not possible, and much has been made of Schnabel’s many wrong notes in his recordings (and in his live performances as well). Schnabel had as remarkable a technique as any of his colleagues, then and now, but he was simply not interested in merely playing all the correct notes.

Note-perfect performances, a norm in our times, can be detrimental to the recreation of great music. Pianist Murray Perahia reminds us that perfection is not only an impossible but dangerous pursuit.

In Arthur Rubinstein’s memoirs, My Many Years, the pianist was quite dismissive of Schnabel’s playing. This is unfortunate, because there are remarkable similarities between the playing of these two great artists – the same generous, unforced tone at the piano, and a remarkably similar approach to the score. It is interesting to note that the recordings of Rubinstein, the Romantic pianist par-excellence, sounds more restrained, even careful, and more “Classical”, in his Beethoven recordings than Schnabel, who is remembered as a great classicist. It reminds us once again that great artists can and should never be categorized. As much as Schnabel was a thinking pianist, he was after all a product of the 19th century. In his playing, he was not a rigid tempo player. He was never hesitant to give the music breathing space, or shifting the tempo within a movement. For me, Schnabel’s music-making is closer to that of a Fürtwangler than a Toscinini.

Today’s musicians – not just pianists - can do worse than to consult and enjoy Schnabel’s Beethoven recordings. It is not so much a matter of imitating the way he played, but it is a glimpse, a looking back, into a different approach to art, and to music.

More than just a historical document, Schnabel’s recording of the Beethoven sonatas – from the opening upward “rocket” motive in the F Minor sonata to the ethereal final pages of the C Minor, Op. 111 - is part of our heritage as musicians, not to mention some of the most exalted and inspired music-making ever put on vinyl.