Tag Archives: 19th Century

The Competition Conundrum

The Competition Question: This is likely the most serious question we, as stewards or the serious music in the Western European Musical tradition. By serious music, I mean music which is, in and of itself an artistic, personal or philosophical statement or argument. In other words, it is music without words, music which stands as a statement in and of itself. I do not know of any other musical culture or heritage that has developed its music in a way to embrace statements like we make with musical tones alone.

That said, how does a young artist become known? In the distant past of the 19th century, you would play at various private salon’s and soirée. Public concerets arose from these private appearances. The material performed at concerts was entirely differnet than what appeared on public concerts. Clara Weick made her first performances in this manner and later with the assistance of her piano teacher father was able to become a sensation.

These days there are no equivalent to the Salons or Soirées of the 19th century. All we have is the concert stage and the competition. The competition rose in importance during the 20th century “Cold War” between the Western Block countries and the Soviet Block countries. The competition became a propaganda tool. While the compeititors were really competing and their desire to play well was sincere, the results were tainted by judging that was frequently slanted towards one side or the other. It was expected that someone from the Soviet Block countries would win the U.S.S.R. Tchaikovsky Competition. While there were some notable exceptions, the corruption of the results was almost complete.

That is not to say that the winners were not really good. They were, For example Grigory Sokolov is a Tchaikovsky competition winner and it is steadily becoming clearer that this is a pianist of true integrity and worthy of note. Others have simply faded from the public eye.

That said, we will never know about the heart ache and tears shed by competitors who should have won or placed but were set aside by Cold War politics. The Cold War is now over, but the politics of that war have been replaced by new set of politics – the politics of teacher’s cliques and the competitiveness of Academic institutions. It is sad, but true that a new face never wins the big prize– that almost always goes to someone who is already known to the jury. This type of prize by jury has even filtered down to the level of the local amateur piano competitions.

Just exactly how do you explain to a talented young player why he didn’t win, when he turned in what should have been a winning performance? How do you translate the jurors cryptic comments about metronomes and counting when there are only one or two lines of comment about a performance lasting up to 10 minutes and taking months of preparation? I have recently been put in that situation and has made me think anew about how we shepherd young players from youthful amateuers too seasoned adult performers capable of making a living playing their instrument.

At the same time, we sit on the edge of a precipice. An old order is coming to an end and something new will take its place. The traditional ways of publishing music are now outdated and outmoded. What once took dozens of skilled tradesman, huge investments in printing presses and the creation of cumbersome metal plates now can be done by a single person using a lap top computer. The output from programs like GNU Lilypond, Finale and Sibelius is press ready. It can also be distributed over the Internet and printed by any home inkjet or laser printer. The traditional publishing industry is on its last legs. There is no need for this layer of complexity in our distribution systems.

Likewise, during the late 19th and the entire 20th century it was possible to “publish” a recorded performance. There are huge repositories of recorded performances owned by the companies that package these performances for sale. Of course, these performances can easily be copied and distributed by anyone with a lap top computer. That is what is known as P2P or Peer to Peer distribution on the Internet.

Those publishers or distributors are now disparately trying to salvage and keep their old model alive by litigation. They are demanding stiffer penalties and extended life for their copyright repositories. At this point, the Public Domain is now on life support. Probably nothing published in my lifetime will leave copyright during my lifetime. Likely things published near the dawn of the 20th century will still be copyright when I am no longer here.

You see, the picture is bleak. How does a young peformer (or any performer for that matter) proceed in this new world? Perhaps the answer is partially in the past as well as in the new Internet technologies.

The salon and soirée disappeared because people began communicating in a different manner. We use our own homes for entertainment less and less. More and more our communal activities take place in larger venues. At least that is the way things were at the close of the last century. However, something new is now possible. The Internet holds promise for new methods of communicating.

Let me enlarge on this. Up to now, most of my friends are drawn from those people I meet in my day to day life. It has not been possible for me to meet with someone in Australia or the U.K. simply because of distance. The Internet has changed this. I now have someone I consider a very close friend in Melbourne Australia. I had not considered or planned this. It happened in the virtual world of cyberspace in much the same way as it does in real life. Friendships can now grow and flourish inspite of distance.

Technology had now made video conferencing a reality. Imagine if you will, a Salon or soirée which takes place in cyberspace. Imagine a piano lesson or even a master class which takes place in two or three places at once, the meeting space being in a virtual space in cyberspace. This can now be done without the intervention of a third party publisher or even coordinator. A peer-to-peer network will suffice given sufficient bandwidth and well designed software.

Some things like this are now happening, but they are under the sponsorship of major telecoms acting as the third party publishers. In reality, this added layer is not needed. Currently the need is artificially placed there because of the bandwidth limitations placed on what the telecoms call “residential” customers.

This article should have a conclusion, but it is not written because I do not know how to conclude it. I just don’t have enough information, nor do I know the road forward.

An Intrinsic Understanding of Schumann’s Style

I have often despaired at the few recordings of this magical work there were in the catalogue, even fewer found its true voice. That said, you know you’re in for a treat when, from the first note, you are convinced that, at least for the present, there is no other way it could be performed. This is my immediate reaction to Lief Ove Andsness‘ performance of Robert Schumann‘s “Piano Sonata no 1 in f sharp minor”. There are far to few recorded performances like this and far to many where you wish the performer were more comfortable with the style.

I truly love this work. Despite the fact that it is so often critisised as being disjointed and awkward (and I disagree vehemently!) Andsnes manages to make it sound like a sonata should; that is a long essay or novella on his musical subject. The sonata begins with what Schumann called a fandango, but unlike the introductions of Haydn other classical period composers, it is no short introduction but a short piece by itself – though I would not extract it and play it as such. It has its own discrete beginning and end, and that is one of the main differences between Schumann’s essay in sonata form and what we expect from the classical form.

The work was written in the time period between 1837-1838 along with Carnival, the Davidsbundlertänze, Kreisleriana, the G minor sonata and the Fantasy which Andsnes plays on this recording as well. The works all, by Schumann’s own words, have one subject; Clara Wieck, his intended bride. It is likely not an overstatement to say that there has never been such an outpouring of love, passion and friendship directed at one person in music! Everything is there, all his thoughts, innermost feelings—the things most of us keep hidden deep inside. There is a kind of clear, incisive and overwhelming honesty in Robert Schumann‘s writing. It rushes over you like the ocean’s waves as the tide does as it rushes towarads high tide. You hear the ebb and flow, the ever-rising tide and you know you will soon be enveloped in it. You do not run in fear, you wait for it to happen—enjoy, love it, and defend it. Defend it because it has its enemies—Philistines as Schumann called them. This sonata has not had such a sympathetic exponent in a long while.

Maurizio Pollini’s performance on Deutsche Gramophon is usualy thought of as the best performance available (and it is still in the catalogue, should you like his cool, cerebral performances), however, his is a cerebral reading of this work and it fails ultimately because it misses the direct appeal to the poet’s inner feelings which characterize the romantic poets and writers of this period. You will not find Ritter Gluck sitting quietly beside you, nor will you find the flights of fantasy contained in E.T.A. Hoffmann‘s Fantasiestücke. This is where Lief Ove Andsnes succeeds brilliantly, and Pollini fails.
The second movement of the f sharp minor sonata is an almost literal translation of a song Schumann wrote some years eariler “An Anna”. Andsnes plays it exquisitely, evevn bettter than the Arrau recording of it I owned on vinyl.

The Scherzo is where Mr. Andsnes shines. The long passages where Schumann’s writing is obviously a dialogue between the two hands, are particularly convincing. There is a real dialogue happening in Andsnes’ playing. He doesn’t merely play the notes, he imbues them with meaning just as Schumann thought the performer should do. Just listen to the recitative-type Intermezzo which interrupts the Scherzo to hear an absolutely convicing reading of this music.

The transition into the last movement can be problematic, but Andsnes is completely convincing here to. The recitative which again interrupts the last movement is convincing in Mr. Andsnes hands, he makes this movement sound as if it really belongs to the work as a whole. One wishes that more pianists would play Schumann’s piano music with such sympathy and understanding.

Schumann’s writing is often shocking in the way it moves from idea to idea, sometimes hardly finishing before beginning another—leaving the listener cut off in mid-sentence from the idea. This was not accidental. It surely is another sign of Schumann’s fascination with Hoffmann’s writing and ideas about the Romantic movement’s rejection of the stale, but at that time, unenlightened enlightenment ideals. Andsnes does not shy away from these phrases even when they seem to fly off past the end, as if cut off in mid-sentence. This is most obvious in the second movement of the Fantasy. This is a treacherous movement for any pianist, not just the legendary ending, but each phrase needs careful calculation so as not to miscalculate the virtuoso ending Schumann devised. This is one case where a note perfect ending is quite serendipitous! It is almost impossible to play perfecftly in a live performance. All those not perfect perfromances you hear on CD have had multiple takes or have been edited!

Andsnes plays this movement as well as any I’ve heard and if this were a live performance I’d be tempted to leap to my feet applauding. The two works on this CD make an intersting pair. One, the Fantasy, Schumann called a “deep lament for Clara..” expecting that he would never marry her. The other, Kreisleriana, written after Clara’s acceptance but before the acutal wedding, Schumann writes to Clara “.. you will hear yourself in every bar …”. And that you will for Schumann used the theme from Nocturne from Clara Weick’s own composition “Soirées Musicales” as the theme for the first movement. With it, he creates magic. The movement is a fascinating study in almost but not quite being in C major. He withholds any resolution to the tonic key until the very last chord. By then you ache to hear it.

You won’t go wrong choosing Andsnes version of these two masterpeices. I will most certainly be looking for more of Andsnes Schumannn recordings. He has an intrisic understanding of this composer.