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An Enchanted, Lyrical Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto

On Friday November 2nd, at a packed to capacity  Chan Centre concert, I heard one of the finest performances of  Pyotr Il’ch Tchaikovsky Piano concerto number 1 in b flat minor I’ve ever heard. That said, I’ll choose not to comment on the orchestra (made up of students from the U.B.C. School of Music)

From the first step onto the stage, Devon Joiner showed the confidence of a seasoned performer. Since I had no preferred seating, I was seated in the choir loft above and behind the orchestra. I thought i might not be able to see the pianist adequately. However this was not the case. I had a bird’s eye view of at least one half of the keyboard and the last quarter of the right hand side. (this is a case where the supposedly worst seating possible ended up to be the best!)

A performers demeanor as he steps on stage can sometimes make or break the the relationship with the audience. From his first step onto the platform his cool, calm confident manner set the audience at ease.  . He is a confident, extremely well poised, intelligent and musical player. He has technique to spare, but he did not waste it as many pianists do in this piece, and turn the piece into the side show show barn burner it is usually presented as. Each time textures changed or rounded a new corner in this difficult score, I knew how carefully he had prepared the score. I heard  more Tchaikovsky in the work than I ever have before.  Tchaikovsky gives  virtuoso ample opportunity to show off, after all, It was after all, written for one of Nikolai Rubenstein, Russia’s most famous pianists of the period, however, showmanship never overshadowed the lyrical Tchaikovsky we know so well from works like his Violin Concerto.

Glittering passage work and thundering octaves are not the only test of virtuosity. By far the most difficult virtuoso passages are the ones with fewer notes; they ones with hushed pianissimos and exposed, simple melody. The ability to keep the audience’s attention when the drama is less melodramatic is, perhaps, the ultimate test of a virtuoso. Devon Joiner passes that test with flying colours. One of the tests of a great pianist is his ability to show his audience a new and compelling view of what he plays. Devon succeeded.

Making the connection from the big theme at the beginning with the rest of the movement is not an easy task. The tune overshadows the rest of the work for most of the audience. I am certain, that is the only thing most people ever hear in that piece. Devon Joiner managed to make it sound more like the integrated whole it really is. I hope that in the future, he keeps his own voice and does not give in to the demands of conformity the competition circuit has successfully imposed on so many young musicians.

Music commentators for many years have claimed that since Tchaikovsky tacked on the tune after the work had been completed that it has nothing thematically to do with the first subject and the development section. This simply isn’t true. There is a connection, Tchaikovsky didn’t simply pull this tune out of the blue, even though it was an afterthought.

Too my ears, he sounds very much like a student of  Jane Coop (currently head of the keyboard department at the U.B.C. School of Music). However, since I must confess that I am not exactly unbiased. I have taken lessons with Ms. Coop. As a teacher she is as conciencious a teacher as you could ever wish for but she never imposes own view on her students interpretation. So, although Ms. Coop’s guidance is very clear, I could still hear Devon’s very exciting and personal view of this concerto. I hope I hear it again many times. If you have a chance to hear Devon perform, by all means take it. You have a chance to hear one of the up and coming leading lights of the classical keyboard!


A Passionate Evocation of Iberia


Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909) Iberia
Hyperion  CDA 67476/7
Marc-Andre Hamelin
, piano

Isaac Albeniz set of four books of piano pieces called “Iberia” are some of the most difficult works in the piano repertoire. They aren’t difficult from the perspective of the actual notes, it is the way in which Albeniz laid thses notes under the pianist fingers.

First, its difficult, second — and perhaps most importantly — they way Albeniz has written the score makes the pianist do some very strange and awkward (for most pianists) interlocking hand positions. Most who attempt the music, spend a great deal of time re-distributing the notes in a more logical manner. This seems to have been a barrier to more pianists attempting this wonderful piano music.

Although Albeniz was an accomplished and well known concert pianist he did not write these works for himself and almost destroyed the scores fearing that no pianist would be able to play them. These works were written with Catalan pianist Joaquin Malats in mind. They take advantage of his rather odd and unique abilities to play complex music using interlocking hand positions. That means playing with at least one or two of the fingers of each hand worked in between the fingers of the other. There is no real need to distribute the notes this way and Albeniz admittedly did it specifically for the Catalan pianists unique ability.

From the few historical recordings we have of his playing his reputation as an exquisite keyboard colourist are well deserved. However, knowing all this doesn’t make Albeniz writing any easier. All we know is that someone, long dead could do it with relative ease! These days, most pianists, including the highly regarded Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha, re-distributes the writing so the notes lay more conventionally under the pianists fingers.

All that said, this music is one of the landmarks in Spanish keyboard music and likely in Spanish music in general. The reason I’m going on about this is that there are new-ish recordings of these works by Quebecois pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin. Hamelin, as many of you know, is well known for playing the most torturously difficult works in the piano reportoire from Alkan to all of the ChopinGodowsky Etudes and doing not only brilliantly, but musically to!

It is always tempting to assume that because one is born in a particular country or local that the interpretation from that person is going to be more authoritative and closer to the spirit of that location than someone from another place. We have considered Alicia de Larrocha’s interpretation (Decca 2 CDs 448 1912) of these works as the panicle for many decades. Of course she had almost no competition in this area. Any other recordings of these works have long been absent from any catalogue. My memory of them fades, but I do remember that I was not impressed any of them. At that time Ms. de Larrocha’s interpretations were the bench mark. However, that said, I always had the nagging feeling that there was something missing from her brilliantly done recordings.

My suspicions have been validated by Quebecois pianist Marc-André Hamelin‘s recording of these works for Hyperion His work completely displaces Alicia de Larrocha’s reading. From the first notes of the Evocation you are aware that you are hearing something quite magical. In Hamelin’s hands, this piece breathes, it exudes Iberia from every pour, it becomes the hushed, passionate evocation of Iberia I think Albeniz intended.

Unlike the faux-Spanish music of Debussy, Ravel and Rimsky-Kosakov, Iberia is Spanish music written by a Spaniard. This music rings true to the spirit of Spain. Hamelin captures its unique beauty in a way which makes the music speak. I am always aware of thoughtful intelligence and passion when I listen to this recording.

I have listened to it in detail multiple times, and will do so again. I have always had my favourites, Triana, the Evocation, Lavapies and El Albecin; but as I listen, each one seems to me my favourite at that moment in time.

It is one thing for a pianist to play the notes as the composer wrote them; Hamelin, on the other hand, not only plays the notes but also communicates the intent, sets the scene and the drama of each piece. One can hear how each phrase answers or flows logically from one to another. Do not think for one second that this is only an intellectual exercise for Hamelin leads you though each piece in this large Suite with an emotional logic that is, in itself, undeniable.

If you thought about purchasing these recordings and didn’t, you should not hesitate the next time you see them. These are the new high water mark recordings of Albeniz Iberia and other late piano works.

Writing yet again about Grigory Sokolov was not in my plans at all, but having listened again to his recording on Opus 111 (OPS 30-83) of the Chopin Piano Sonata Number 2, opus 35 (from a live concert recording on 13 June, 1985) and the Etudes open 24 numbers 1 through 12 (also from a concert recording on 10 November 1992) I cannot help but comment on his playing. The Sonata is thoughtfully played. It is not the most passionately conceived on but it is certainly the most logically thought out performance. While Martha Argerich‘s performance of this work is arguably more passionate, there is no reason to prefer one over the other. The novice collector could not go wrong in choosing either one and the more experienced collector should have both!

However, the tour de force on this recording are the 12 Etudes from opus 25. Although these were written at the same time, they were not conceived as a as a single work. They are technical studies, albeit wonderfully musical ones. Yet Sokolov manages to bring a singularity of conception to them which runs in a continuous thread from the first to the last. I is quite remarkable playing and well worth spending the money to own this recording.

How wonderful to have actual notes in the jacket that make sense. Although it is obvious that they are rather clumsily translated from another language, they do make some salient points about the music and explain the context in which they were written.


Pristine intpertations

Pristine, lucid and clear are the words that come to mind while listening to Grigory Sokolov‘s  performaces on  his release on  OPUS 111 40-9104 CD. The Scriabin third Sonata is a personal favorite and Sokolov brings it off with his usual flair and conviction.

However, it is Sergei Prokoviev 8th Sonata that impresses me most. I have always found the last two Prokofiev Sonatas difficult to understand.  There are quitea number of recordings of this work but none have ever given me the impression that the pianist understands the work.

Sokolov, on the other hand, convinces me that the work as something to say. The music is all familiar to me but Sokolov makes it speak with a new clarity. This is  alive performance a well, though you would never know it.The audience is completel silent.I didn’t hear one cough or any other audience noise untiil the applause at the end. This tells me that this audience was completely captivated by Sokolov’s playing.

While writing this I’ve listened to it twice over and the playing has left me smilng. Sokolov captures the wit and dry humour in Prokoviev’s writing perfectly.

I think I’ve discovered the other half of this recording! This one is well worth buying!

MaXqUE, the record Jacket Historian.

Sviatoslav Richter, a glimpse of a past keyboard genius

Reminicing about the past is one of humankind’s favourite pass-times. We know that our recollection of past traumatic events is notoriously inacurate. But what of our recal abilities where non-trauma causing events are concerned. As it happens it has meant enough to researchers to study this and give us an answer. The news is good — in general, our recall of past events is accurate within the bounds of our own point of  view. That is to say we remember events accurately as we saw them. Of course others may have seen the events from a different vantage point and therein lies any discrepencies.

However, it still does some good to verify that our memories are that accurate and for those who do not have memories of those events, the historicial record provided by video, audio and film recordings are invaluable. This who digression is by way of introducing for the first time (for some — most maybe) a pianist who died not that long ago. The legendary Sviatoslav Richter. His technique was supposed to be unassalable. I now have my own evidence that these reports were indeed acurrate and if anything understated.

Take for instance Ukranian born pianist Sviatoslav Richter who’s technique was legendary, but who’s concert appearance became less and less frequent. We should not forget the old Iron Curtain’s roll in denying him his audience in the West. Long after he was well known in the Soviet Union, he was completely unheard of here in Northt America. This is what we might have seen had we had the opportunity:

There isn’t a note out of place in this Chopin Etude. Any young pianist might sell his soul for technique like this. But as I have pointed out in a previous post reviewing a live recording of the Schubert Piano Sonata D.960 in B flat major:

Richter lives dangerously even at slow tempos, but even without the bravura of the Chopin Revolutionary Etude, his musicality still shines.


You Tube — culturally excellent

Who would have thought that the popular medium of choice in the mind of the general populace would allow the best of our culture to shine so billiantly so fast! I never expected this in a million years.

I knew this was possible, but the uexecpected part of it is that the way in which the general public has demanded the right to produce and publish what they want when they want.  They didn’t ask, they took.

Last post I wrote about past Tchaikovsky competition winners and who should appear on the You Tube? Yes, Grigory Sokolov himslef.

Watch for yourself! Beethoven Piano Sonata opus 28

What ever happened to … you know… that guy that won the Tchaikovsky Competition?

Yes, what ever happens to those young power house pianists who win major competitions? The Tchaikovsky Competition, the old one, now long gone, for instance. Some winners are remembered long after beause they have illustrious careers and contracts with major reording companies. Vladimir Ashkenazy is  a good example. Lately, for at least the past 2 decades, however he has been conducting more and more.  He used to be one of my favourite pianists. I saw him live playing a very convincing performace of the Emperor Concerto just a year or so after he won that competition. However, the last recital I heard him play was far from memorable except for its pedestrian qualities and my resolve never to pay to hear him again.

Now, lets talk about another Tchaikovsky competition winner, one Grigory Sokolov. I had all but forgotten about him until I was solicited by a sales person for an independent recording distributor when I was buying for a major local music store chain. The “new” label (new to me, and new to Canada at that time) was Opus 111. Amongst the list of recordings were several by Sokolov and I took the opportunity to purchase several of them. These recordings prompted me to buy tickets for a recital by him here in Vancouver.

This 1966 Tchaikovsky competition winner did not disapoint!  His playing was of the highest standard. interpertively honest in every respect. He also managed to deal with unexpected problems without so much as a blink of an eye.

During the first half of the concert it became evident that there was a problem with one of the high A flats on the instrument he  was playing. There was a persistant and annoying buzz in it. Unfortunately, the Schubert work he was performing had persistant iterations of this note. Lesser pianists would have stumbled or at least shown some loss of composure. Not Mr. Sokolov, he continued as if nothing had happened.  this  is the way things should be when something goes wrong. Its why we pay the price for the tickets. At the interval, the technician fixed the problem and the rest of the program was played without problems.

I stumbled on his recording of the Scriabin Piano Sonata number three in f sharp minor. This is one of his earlier works before he went into his truly strange period. It is one of my favorite works and Grigory Sokolov plays it with aplomb. It is definitely wroth listening to. His performance of the Prokofiev Piano Sonata Number Eight is equally convincing. He ends his recording with the Rachmaninov Prelude in D major opus 23 number 4. This is not one of the better known preludes,  but it should be. It is as lyrically exquisite as anyihing Rachmaninoff ever wrote. You can find this recording on Opus 111 40-9104

a.k.a. the record jacket historian