Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Vancouver Debut - Tomasz Ritter, Fortepianist

Tomasz Ritter, the distinguished young Polish pianist, winner of the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments, made his Vancouver and Canadian recital debut yesterday, under the auspices of The Vancouver Chopin Society, celebrating its 25th Anniversary season. Ritter performed on an 1819 Conrad Graf fortepiano, built by Paul McNulty, and I am as fascinated by the sonorities evoked by Ritter on the instrument as I am by his interpretation of the music.


In the two Chopin Nocturnes (Op. 15, No. 1 and Op. 9, No. 1), one is struck by the beauty and absolute softness of the piano’s sonority. Unlike a modern concert grand, the sound does not “hit” you like an arrow out of a bow. Rather, the sound of the instrument draws one in and compels one to really listen intently. With an artist who knows how to exploit – in the best sense of the word – the instrument, Chopin’s ppp markings, in, for instance measures 24 and 61 of the B-flat minor Nocturne (Op. 9, No. 1), were truly realized. In the beginning of the same Nocturne, as well as when the main theme returns at measure 70, the sound drifts in as if from nowhere, creating a magical effect. That said, this is not to say that the instrument is incapable of power, but the power of the sound comes not from volume, but from the contrast in the sound, as was fully evident in the stormy middle section of the F Major Nocturne (Op. 15, No. 1).


Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Op. 109 was another wonderful demonstration of the capabilities of the Graf fortepiano, and the gently rippling opening theme of the 1st movement never sounded more tender and loving than it did yesterday under Ritter’s hands. I appreciated the sense of totality with which Ritter handled the theme and variations of the 3rdmovement. In the same movement, I was astounded by the clarity of texture in the many layers of sound in especially the 4th, 5th and 6th variations. As well, Ritter fully evoked the other-worldly beauty of the theme of the 3rd movement, both in its initial appearance as well as in its heartbreakingly poignant return at the end. 


For me, the highlight of the afternoon was Ritter’s tour-de-force performance of Brahms’ transcription of Bach’s monumental Chaconne. This was a masterful reading of this challenging work, but our young artist rose far above Bach and Brahms’ musical and technical challenges. It was a perfect balance between clarity of the vertical texture and a sense of horizontal forward motion. The performance was so compelling that one almost doesn’t miss Busoni’s more well-known technicolour transcription. In fact, under Ritter’s hands, Brahms’ more austere transcription comes much closer to the spirit of Bach’s original.


After the interval, Ritter delivered a compelling performance Mozart’s great Fantasie in C minor, K. 475, taking us on a journey through the work’s kaleidoscopic range of colours and emotions. In the forte-piano contrast at the very beginning of the piece again took on a sense of light and shadow. Ritter conveyed the angst-ridden Allegro section (m. 42) by exploiting the different colours of the Graf. As well, he highlighted a contrasting sense of repose in the Andantino section (m. 91). On the instrument, the descending octave scale at m. 90 had a lightness one does not always hear on a modern piano. 


Likewise, Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D. 784, highlighted both Ritter’s musical gifts as well as the beauty of the instrument. The hushed quality with which Ritter played opening pianissimo unison theme captured my attention right from the first notes. Even with the relatively softer sounds of the Graf, the fortissimo passages, like the octave restatement of the opening theme, were no less powerful. The chords of the E Major second theme took on a magical floating quality, with a sound that seemed to have come from nowhere. In the slow movement, Schubert’s indications of both ppp as well as sordini (m. 4, 15, 18, 34, 38 and finally 59) really became possible. In the final movement, Ritter really highlighted the feeling of a chase between the two hands in the opening measures. This feeling of restlessness effectively contrasted with the relative sense of repose in the second theme (m. 51). All in all, it was a very convincing, and absolutely committed, interpretation of this great work. 


Ritter chose, appropriately, to end the afternoon’s performance with Chopin as his encore – the now very popular Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth. Surely, a highly successful debut by one of today’s most distinguished exponents of the period piano. With the second edition of the International Chopin Competition for Period Instruments coming up this October, we can perhaps expect more performance on historic instruments in Vancouver? 

As much as I love the Steinway piano, Sunday’s performance certainly gave us a different and unique perspective on music that we all love and know so well. For that we can be grateful to Mr. Ritter’s visit to our city.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Glenn Gould - Selected Letters

Glenn Gould was an inveterate letter writer. Throughout his short life, he wrote letters to his parents, friends, colleagues, lawyers and mangers, specialists in various fields who contributed to his various projects, and fans.


In 1992, Oxford University Press published Glenn Gould – Selected Letters, a book that I treasure, and have read and reread, prompting me to write down these brief thoughts. 

In the National Library of Canada, the Gould collection includes 2030 letters written by the pianist, and 184 were chosen by the editors to be included in this volume. These letters shed light not only into Gould’s life – a life that is endlessly fascinating to his fans, even these many years after his death – but also his personality. 


The earliest letter (c1940) included in this volume is a Valentine poem Gould wrote for his mother, one that already demonstrates Gould’s early penchant for word play. 


Dear Mistress

Sometimes I’m as bad can be,

I run away quite often;

But when I give you my sad look

I know your heart will soften.


And so it begins…


The last letter in the book, and the last letter in the National Library’s collection, is one that he wrote to Teresa Ximenes of the Toronto Humane Society, granting permission for them to use one of his recordings in what I assume to be a promotional film. Gould was a great animal-lover, and the Toronto Humane Society was one of the major beneficiaries in his will. In his own words, “(A)nimal welfare is one of the great passions of my life, and if you’d asked to use my entire recorded output, in support of such a cause, I couldn’t possibly have refused.”


Many of the letters reveal Gould’s irrepressible sense of humour, another aspect of his personality that he carried to elaborate lengths, sometimes to the consternation of his friends and colleagues. In a letter to his lawyer, Stephen Posen, Gould humorously went on (and on) to question a discrepancy in one of Posen’s invoices, to the amount of $2.35, citing a fictional precedent of the case of “Lin vs. Lum” from the County Court, Bangkok (Judge Lae Chin-Ho presiding). In another, to his close friend John Roberts, Gould introduced himself as an unknown young harpsichordist, with a facetious proposal of a project for the C.B.C.’s “Celebrity Recitals” series, saying that a “recording is a pale and artificial memento of the concert experience”, which of course is the exact opposite of Gould’s view.


A couple of letters struck me as unintentionally funny. One is his reply to Virginia Katims, wife of Milton Katims, music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, about her request for him to contribute to a recipe book she was compiling. Another is his response to the CBC for his favourite eating spots in Toronto. Gould was almost totally indifferent to food, and his diet consisted of scrambled eggs, arrowroot cookies, or some such unremarkable culinary delicacies. In Gould’s own words in his reply, that. “(A)s such time as the entire experience of nourishment-taking can be synthesized by a convenient table, I’ll be the very first to avoid all restaurants like the plague.”


His letters to producers and managers discussing repertoire choice, or details about his radio documentaries or other projects, reveal a highly organized mind, a far cry from the absentminded artist that he has been often portrayed as. 


Some of the recipients of Gould’s letters are very much in the “A list” of musicians – Leonard Bernstein, Leon Fleisher, Leonard Rose, Yehudi Menuhin, Leopold Stokowski, Lukas Foss and Rudolf Serkin; others include notable figures like Yousuf Karsh, Marshall McLuhan, Willi Reich, Madame Pablo Casals, John Cage, and Barbara Tuchman, among others. Then there are letters to managers, film, television and record producers, figures like Walter Homburger, Ronald Wilfred, Schuyler Chapin, Humphrey Burton, Goddard Lieberson, Paul Myers, and Andrew Kazdin. Whether Gould was writing to a world-famous celebrity or a young fan, he was always unfailingly courteous and kind. 


The most impressive, and sometimes moving letters, are the letters he took time to write to fans. From those writing to ask his opinion, or engage in a most serious discussion on his views of certain musical subject, to a little girl asking if Bach were his favourite composer, Gould would take the time to serious consider what was being asked of him, and answered accordingly. In fact, the recurrent tone of Gould’s letter is one of kindness and gentleness. The statement of conductor Erich Leinsdorf, who called Gould “perhaps one of the all-time greatest (and in my view perhaps also the kindest and gentlest) artists”, is certain borne out in these letters. 


In an interview on the CBC, Gould was asked to describe in one word what it was that attracted him to the music of Bach. His answer, “Compassion”. Indeed, compassion seems to have been the motto of Gould’s personal and artistic life, as he saw art as a moral force, an instrument of salvation. His favourite prayer was, “Lord, grant us the peace the world cannot give.” This can perhaps explain Gould’s seeming detachment from the world, to live life completely on his own terms, interacting with the outside world by means of technology. It is a tantalizing thought to consider what Gould would have done with the Internet, emails, and today’s cybertechnology.


In an age when great art and music are often used to further one’s “career” or to enhance one’s self-importance, Gould, even after all these years, still stands alone as an artist who went his own way, and struck out a path that remain an ideal for any musician or artist. It seems fitting to end with these thoughts from Yehudi Menuhin, “Perhaps one day when sufficient time has worked on sufficient love we may arrive at a truer appreciation of Glenn’s genius.”