Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A matinée musicale

There's nothing like the intimacy of live music-making in the company of a small group of friends, an environment that's so different to the formal atmosphere of public concerts (and more focused than the often distracted environment that comes with listening to recorded music). A few days ago, on a cold but bright February afternoon, I gave a private soirée at home in honour of a special birthday of one of our party. Coincidentally a day later, while reading some correspondence connected with Chopin, I came across a reference to a private soirée Chopin held at his apartment for a similarly small number of friends, likewise on a cold February afternoon (in 1844) at the very same time of day (4PM), to honour a member of his party. We know that Chopin preferred these intimate music-making occasions to more impersonal public concerts. Before the invention of recording devices live music-making was a common occurrence in the home, whether you were lucky enough to have Chopin himself playing for you, or perhaps just a gifted family member, as was the case in the Brontë family for example. Lacking the connections that would have attracted an artist of Chopin's calibre to their isolated Yorkshire parsonage, the Brontës instead made their own music at home. Emily Brontë in particular was said to be a gifted pianist who "played with precision and brilliancy when she did play — which was not often if others than the family circle were within hearing" (family friend Ellen Nussey recalled). Emily's music collections included pieces by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Schubert, Rossini, Mendelssohn and others, as well as the songs of Robert Burns. She was particularly fond of playing Beethoven, judging by the markings in her 8-volume collection The Musical Library (published by Charles Knight), which she purchased in 1844, the same year that Chopin held his February afternoon soirée. It's an intriguing thought to think of Emily Brontë, after walking for hours on the moors she loved so much with her beloved dog Keeper, in the evenings sitting at the piano playing through the well-thumbed pages of Beethoven's sonatas or the transcriptions from his Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. She may not have been a Chopin, but ask yourself this: given the choice, would you rather play music from your electronic device, or hear Emily Brontë play something for you herself?

[Inside Chopin’s apartment at 9 Square d’Orléans, Paris. The picture on the wall, beyond the Pleyel grand piano, depicted the pyramids of Egypt, while the firescreen was a gift from one of his pupils. Also visible is a chaise longue on the right, where Chopin sometimes lay while giving his lessons, when not feeling well]

Below is a selection (with brief introductory notes) of recordings of some of the works I played at my February 7th matinée musicale, the full programme of which was as follows:

J.S. Bach: Aria from Goldberg Variations
J.S. Bach: Gigue from French Suite no.5 in G major
J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in C# minor (Well-Tempered Clavier I)
Gibbons: Prelude in A flat, Op.37
Gibbons: Folk song, Op.99
Chopin: Etude in F minor (no.1 of Trois Nouvelle Etudes)
Chopin: Fantaisie-Impromptu
Chopin: Etude in E major, Op.10 no.3
Chopin: Polonaise in A flat, Op.53
Gibbons: Waltz for a musical box, Op.77
Gibbons: Melody in F sharp, Op.80
Gershwin (transcribed Gibbons): I Got Rhythm
Gershwin (transcribed Gibbons): Sweet and low down
Gershwin (transcribed Gibbons): Rhapsody in Blue

1. J.S. Bach: Aria from Goldberg Variations

In 1722 Johann Sebastian Bach presented his new wife Anna Magdalena with a notebook of his own keyboard pieces, which Anna Magdalena titled on the front page "Clavier-Büchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bachin". The volume likely served as both an aid to Anna Magdalena's keyboard studies and an album of favourite pieces. The couple were married in December 1721; a few years later Bach described his growing family in a letter to his childhood friend George Erdmann, one of the few letters of a more personal nature written by Bach that has survived: "Now I must add a little about my domestic situation. I am married for the second time, my late wife having died in Cöthen. From the first marriage I have three sons and one daughter living, whom Your Honor will graciously remember having seen in Weimar. From the second marriage I have one son and two daughters living... The children of my second marriage are still small, the eldest, a boy, being six years old. But they are all born musicians, and I can assure you that I can already form both a vocal and instrumental ensemble within my family, particularly since my present wife sings a good clear soprano, and my eldest daughter, too, joins in not badly" [letter from Johann Sebastian Bach to George Erdmann, 28 October 1730]. Elsewhere Anna Magdalena was described as "an outstanding soprano"; before her marriage she was employed as a singer at the court of Cöthen, and it's clear from the way she and her husband worked together that Johann Sebastian valued her musicianship highly. A second Anna Magdalena Notebook of musical pieces was started in 1725, most of the entries being added by Anna Magdalena herself, including items composed both by her husband and other composers, as well as pieces written by the Bach children. The album also includes a number of songs transposed to the soprano range, presumably which Anna Magdalena would have sung herself. In 1741, on two blank pages in the notebook, Anna Magdalena copied out the aria from her husband's Goldberg Variations. Clearly the theme must have been well loved, and no doubt would have been often played by Anna Magdalena herself, or perhaps their children. In the following video can be seen images of the Bachs' home in Leipzig (an apartment in the St. Thomas School, where Bach was employed) including Bach's Componir-Stube (composing room). Sadly the building was demolished in 1902, the photographs of the interior being taken shortly before the demolition. Other images seen in the video include Anna Magdalena's own handwritten copy of the Goldberg Variations aria, and a few short excerpts from the 1968 biographical movie "The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach", including a scene of Anna Magdalena with her beloved songbirds: in 1740, around the time Bach was working on his Goldberg Variations, the composer gave his wife a special gift of linnets, whose song must have become a regular accompaniment to all activities in the Bach home.

2. Gibbons: Prelude in A flat, Op.37

I began my own compositional efforts as a young child, one of my earliest pieces being a short Sonata written around the age of 9. By the time I was 14 I had a small collection of pieces to my credit including a concerto for piano and orchestra. However I then convinced myself (with all the self-consciousness of a teenager) that my creative efforts were in vain, destroyed many of these early pieces, and instead began concentrating fully on my ambition to become a concert pianist. Twenty-five years later, during an enforced break from performing while recovering from a very serious car accident, I finally had the opportunity to return to composing in a serious way and during the first year of this musical renaissance began writing many songs (settings of poems by Rossetti, Shelley, Brontë and others) before returning to the medium of solo piano. My short piano Prelude Op.37, composed in 2002, was a favourite of Edward Jablonski, the author and Gershwin biographer; the performance in this video was filmed at a special birthday concert held in his honour in New York in 2003.

3. Gibbons: Folk song, Op.99

My piano composition Folk song Op.99 was completed on 4 April 2014, and first performed five days later at a concert in Oxford, England. This video contains a recording of that performance, accompanied by a slide show of images of rural northern England, including the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, famous for its dry stone walls and undulating hills.

4. Chopin: Etude in F minor, no.1 of Trois nouvelles études

Chopin's "Trois nouvelles études" were written in 1839 as a contribution to the pedagogical volume Méthode des méthodes de piano, compiled by François-Joseph Fétis and Ignaz Moscheles. The publication, which appeared in Paris in 1840, with an English edition appearing in 1841 under the title The Complete System of Instruction, included instructional essays on the history and art of piano playing, as well as specially composed pieces by Heller, Mendelssohn, Henselt, Liszt, Moscheles, Thalberg, Chopin and others. The title page also boasted that the volume contained "works specially composed for the Piano Classes at the Brussels Conservatory and for the Schools of Music of Belgium by F. J. Fétis, Master of the Chapel of the King of Belgium and Director of the Brussels Conservatory of Music". One of the piano pupils at the Brussels Conservatory while Fétis was the director was none other than Emily Brontë, who during her brief 9 months in Brussels, in 1842, could well have heard Fétis conducting Beethoven symphonies at the conservatoire (she might even have heard Liszt and Berlioz, both of whom performed in Brussels while Emily and Charlotte Brontë were staying in the city!). In the first of the three studies he contributed to the Fétis Méthode des méthodes de piano Chopin chose to explore the rhythmical task of playing groups of fours (in the left hand) against groups of threes (in the right hand). Needless to say the end result is work of great beauty that far surpasses any dry technical exercise!

5. Chopin: Etude in E major, no.10 no.3

1832 was the year in which Victor Hugo set his famous novel Les Misérables. It was a pretty momentous year, not least from a musical point of view. Much of the action of Les Misérables is based on real events that Hugo witnessed himself in Paris, including the June revolution of June 5 and 6 1832. Though Hugo ennobled the actions of the students who tried, unsuccessfully, to start an uprising against the French king Louis-Phillipe, other contemporaries took a less favourable view of the rioters. Louis-Phillipe was more a constitutional monarch than a dictator: appointed by the elected government his powers were limited and his liberal leanings (influenced by his 3 year stay in the United States) had initially made him a popular figure, hence his nickname Citizen King. Nor did the rebelling students help their cause when they briefly kidnapped the American and French revolutionary hero Lafayette! Chopin's father took a dim view of the student riots when he wrote to his son on 28 June 1832: "I am glad to see from your letter of 6 June that you were lucky enough not to be involved in the riot which occurred and which was instigated by rascals. Some papers say that Poles took part and thus abused the hospitality they enjoy: have they not had their fill of such nonsense? They have caused enough trouble here. I am sure their numbers were small, for who would be so mad as to share their destructive ideas?". Chopin had only been living in the city for a few months. Having arrived late in 1831 he gave his Paris debut on 25 February 1832 at the Salle Pleyel. A few months later he wrote one his most famous melodies, the manuscript of his Etude in E major, Op.10 no.3 being dated 25 August 1832. If reports are true of Chopin's emotional reaction after hearing his pupil Adolphe Gutmann play the work during a lesson, it was a piece filled with nostalgia for his distant homeland of Poland.

6. Chopin: Polonaise in A flat, Op.53

The polonaise is a stately processional dance from Poland, made famous by Chopin's extraordinary compositions. One of Chopin's finest examples of the form is this, his passionate Polonaise in A flat, Op.53. The work was composed in 1842, and is often referred to as the Heroic, though not by Chopin, who strongly disliked descriptive or emotive titles. Though there is no speed indication or metronome mark on the work, only the description maestoso (majestically), we know that Chopin hated the piece to be played too fast. His pupil Charles Hallé (later founder of the Hallé Orchestra) wrote in his autobiography: "Any deliberate misreading of his compositions he resented sharply. I remember how, on one occasion, in his gentle way he laid his hand upon my shoulder, saying how unhappy he felt, because he had heard his 'Grande Polonaise', in A flat, jouée vite [played fast], thereby destroying all the grandeur, the majesty, of this noble inspiration". To avoid playing polonaises too fast Chopin suggested to his pupils that they should be able to count out 6 beats in every bar, even though the tempo marking is 3 beats to the bar. It's likely that it was the Polonaise in A flat that Chopin performed at the February 1844 soirée mentioned at the beginning of this blog. The Polish poet Zaleski, in whose honour Chopin gave the soirée, wrote in his diary for 2 February 1844: "It was snowing - just like one of our winter days [in Poland]. At 4PM I went to Chopin's [at 9 Square d'Orleans], where I found Witwicki … Chopin entered unexpectedly, pale, tired, but in good spirits and in an inspired mood. He greeted me affectionately and sat down at the piano. It's impossible to describe the form and subject of his playing. For the first time in my life the beauty of the music moved me so vividly that I could not hold back my tears. All the nuances, all the musician's emotions, I could grasp, and I remember in the most exact way the motives and the feelings I had while listening to each piece. First he played a magnificent Prelude, then the Berceuse, then a Mazurka, again the Berceuse — of which Mme Hoffman [one of the other guests] said that the angels in Bethlehem must have sung like that. There followed a splendid Polonaise, and finally, in my honour, an improvisation in which he evoked all the sweet and sorrowful voices of the past. Chopin sang the tears of the dumkas and finished with the national anthem, 'Poland is not dead', in a whole gamut of different forms and voices, from that of the warrior to those of children and angels."

7. Gibbons: Waltz for a musical box, Op.77

On 11 December 2007 I wrote my Waltz for a Musical Box Op.77. Two weeks later I played it for the first time to a group of friends at an intimate New Year's Eve gathering. Here is a video of that first private performance.

8. Gibbons: Melody in F sharp, Op.80

My Melody in F sharp Op.80 was composed on 12 January 2008. The video below is of the performance I gave two months later, in March 2008, at a special memorial concert for my childhood piano teacher, Elizabeth Brazell, who tragically had died the previous summer, at the age of 63. When I was around 12 years old Elizabeth Brazell mentioned at the end of one lesson that I seemed to enjoy performing and "rising to the occasion" and perhaps I should consider becoming a concert pianist. Needless to say I was immensely thrilled by the confidence she placed in me; in fact I was so excited that I remember skipping all the way home after the lesson singing to myself over and over again "I'm going to be a concert pianist...". Many years later, as I was about to walk out onto the stage to make my Lincoln Center debut in New York, I suddenly thought of that scene, of 12-year-old me skipping home from my lesson in such excitement. Dedicating my Melody in F sharp to the memory of my early, and much missed, teacher is the very least I can do to honour her.

9. Gershwin transcribed Gibbons: Sweet and low down

The piano was at the centre of George Gershwin’s musical life, and he never tired of performing, whether to an audience of one or thousands. According to the film director Rouben Mamoulian, who also directed the premiere production of Porgy & Bess, “George loved playing the piano for people and would do so at the slightest provocation... I am sure that most of his friends, in thinking of George at his best, think of him at the piano. I’ve heard many pianists and composers play for informal gatherings, but I know of no one who did it with such genuine delight and verve. George at the piano was George happy.” Gershwin loved creating elaborate improvisations on his songs, and during the 1920s he recorded a number of these song variations on 78 discs. Beginning in the late 1980s I began reconstructing Gershwin's recorded improvisations, note-for-note, from his 78 discs, recorded radio broadcasts, and piano-rolls. What began as a fun project soon changed the direction of my career as I embarked on an annual series of Gershwin concerts at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, along with a series of recordings entitled The authentic George Gershwin. At the same time I was invited to the United States for the first time, to meet Gershwin's sister Frankie and eventually to make my US debut as a pianist. Now based in the United States, 25 years after my first visit to the country, it would not be an overstatement to say that Gershwin's music has "changed my life". Sweet and low down was the first song improvisation of Gershwin's that I transcribed, and the performance on this video comes from my studio recording made in 1992 (the video also features rare footage of Gershwin himself, courtesy of Edward Jablonski).

10. Gershwin transcribed Gibbons: Rhapsody in Blue

The final item in this matinée musicale selection, and the music with which I concluded my intimate soirée a few days ago, is Gershwin's concert work Rhapsody in Blue (in my transcription based on the composer's own 1925 piano-roll recording). Gershwin once said “I'd like my music to keep people - all kinds of people - awake when they should be sleeping. I'd like my compositions to be so vital that I'd be required by law to dispense sedatives with each score sold”. The vitality of Gershwin’s music is one of it’s greatest hallmarks. S.N. Behrman put it perfectly when he wrote, in his ‘People in a Diary’: “I felt on the instant, when he sat down to play, the newness, the humor - above all, the rush of the great heady surf of vitality. The room became freshly oxygenated; everybody felt it, everybody breathed it.” When the guest of honour at our birthday soirée was asked if he had a special wish for his 80th birthday, he answered without hesitation: "to live for ever". Here's to Gershwin's oxygenated vitality making that wish come true for all of us!