“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Friday, June 26, 2020

Beethoven and the Metronome: An Uneasy Alliance

My student forwarded me a link to an originalist pianist who is caught up in a study of Beethoven's intended tempos for the piano sonatas. He argue's that in the final movement of the Moonlight Sonata Czerny's metronome marking (yes, Czerny's) of a half-note equals 92 really means a quarter-note equals 92. He gives as evidence a passage toward the end where thirty-second notes seem to him to require slowing the tempo to one-half. He compares his version with the extravagant pianist, Valentina Lisitsa. It's a stark contrast. His performance at this tempo sounds to me like an andante amiable, not a presto agitato.

Beethoven Op.27, No. 2, 3rd Movmt.

Beethoven Op. 27, No. 2, 3rd Movmt, MM 62-63

I'm glad he cares enough to take up this study, though it seems to me he misses the
point. There has been a great deal of research regarding B's tempos, so I won't burden my comments here with much of that. Definitive conclusions are difficult to come by, anyway. (One good resource is Beethoven on Beethoven: Playing the Piano Music His Way by William S. Newman, pp. 83-120.). We have only Czerny and Moscheles (who differ) for metronome references in the piano sonatas (except Op. 106), the provenance and meaning of which have remained unclear. This has led to considerable confusion. On what are their numbers based, anyway? On Beethoven's performances, which according to contemporary accounts varied considerably?
Though B. set out to add metronome marks to his works retroactively, he didn't get to the piano sonatas. He gave up entirely at the end, leaving the last six string quartets and the last three piano sonatas unmarked, giving rise to the speculation that he lost faith in the usefulness of the metronome. (There is quite a bit of back and forth on this in letters to publishers and colleagues.) 
This is not really this pianist's point, though. In my performances, I take more seriously the composers written instructions regarding a work's desired affect. In this case Presto agitato is the main clue. This pianist's choice of tempo achieves neither. And it should be mentioned that the Op. 27, No. 2, was written for the composer to perform at a time when his reputation was that of a virtuoso.
Also, the comment regarding Lisitsa's
Valentina Lisitsa
performance is not accurate. Like it or not, she (and others) make an artistic choice, not a technical one. The passage he cites is playable in her first tempo, without slowing— rather easily, in fact. In my view, Lisitsa plays many things faster than necessary or even desirable just because she can—I suppose. I would describe her tempo as Prestissimo, also not in keeping with the composer's wishes, though it is agitato.

You'll have to forgive me if I keep returning
Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach 
to a favorite reference. C.P.E Bach in his treatise on keyboard playing gives us all the rules governing performance practices of his time. I love the passage that begins, "My late father told me..." After giving many
specifics, he concludes, "But if it doesn't sound good, don't do it." So, in matters artistic, the choices we make are to some extent matters of taste. And as we all know, there's no accounting for that.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Great Pianists of the Past: Food for Thought

I write to call attention to the "Listen" tab above. Do give it a try, as it is a secret door into the past where keyboard giants once roamed the concert halls of the world. These artists were steeped in Romantic traditions now nearly lost to us. They touched the hems of some of the many composers we idolize today.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Immense. Harrowing. Exhilarating.

I've discovered a new pianist, new to me, that is. He is the epitome of the thoughtful artist responding to the world by which he is surrounded. Beethoven is his meat and the piano his heart. Have a look/listen: Igor Levin on Beethoven.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

On difficulty Memorizing Music


                 A mother, concerned about her 14-year-old son’s difficulty memorizing music, writes: “Do professional performers have serious problems memorizing pieces, so that it takes [them] much, much longer than average to memorize even using all the standard techniques (repetition, memory stations, practicing away from the keyboard, counting/humming the piece, identifying patterns, etc.)? If so, did it have a negative impact on your studies at conservatory or college? Did you fail to get the instruction on other aspects of the pieces? Did you ever get a pass on memorizing?”
     Well, there is no "average" study time when it comes to learning music. The audience doesn't care how long it took to learn the piece, just that it sounds good. Many artists will have a piece in their hands for a year or more before performing it in public. But this mother is really talking about being locked into a student’s situation, bounded by semesters and exams.
     My personal experience is that I can memorize rather quickly, largely, I think, because I learned early on to read well. I am reading oriented, so I had to learn techniques for memorizing, which came more easily because I understand quickly what I am looking at. This understanding is the result, too, of years of experience studying and performing many types of music. (Some students are more aurally oriented and find it difficult to read. These students, I find, often present an approximation of the score when memorizing, i.e., incorrect inversions of chords or missing notes. A few are adept at both reading and playing by ear. We try to love these people anyway.) Most of the time in lessons I used the score. This did not have an impact on my studies, as I always had something prepared to play even if not memorized, or better still, I had questions about problem spots.
     For me, the primary expenditure of time is in proving to myself that I really know the piece. In this regard, the best technique I know is to play the piece eliminating as much digital memory as possible. I use two devices: 1) I play excruciatingly slowly, placing fingers deliberately, thoughtfully, not automatically as we do in performance; 2) This one is harder. I play the piece in my mind, visualizing my hands on the keys (not looking at the score in my mind). These devices force us to use all the other types of memory, eliminating most of the digital memory. They are both excellent ways of uncovering shaky spots, spots that may only have been in the fingers.
     A side note about the power of device 2: I once was waiting my turn to play Davidsbündlertänze in a master class, a piece I had performed often. I was so confident that I hadn't brought the score with me. As I waited outside, I went through certain passages in my mind, visualizing my fingers on the keys. Alas, I came to a spot where I couldn't continue. I could leap over the spot, but couldn't for the life of me find the correct notes in my mind. So, I imagined what it must have been and played it that way in class. Afterward, I checked the score and found that what I played in class was something I made up in my mind. It took precedence over all of the previous muscle training, mostly likely because it was fresh.
  Here’s another thought: As this student gets a bit more experience, a few more pieces memorized and more comfortable with the methods that work for him, I suspect the process will begin to move more quickly. Again, I wouldn't limit his performance opportunities just because of memory issues (except where statutory, which is not in real life). Unless there's some disability, what the mother describes sounds to me as if there's something missing in her son’s understanding of the music. And of course, contrapuntal music is more difficult to memorize.
     The late Peter Serkin began his performing career reading from the score and that was 50 years ago. I heard Lang Lang play a concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic with the score. Cellist Lynn Harrell played a concerto with the score. Pressler played a Mozart concerto with the score. Admittedly, getting started through the usual channels using the score will be a challenge but if there are other compelling reasons why he should perform, then I say he should try for it. As for preparing for college level lessons, he can memorize pieces before he takes them in to class. One writer suggested that the only option for this student is to become a collaborative pianist. There's nothing wrong with becoming a collaborative pianist, but he should only do it if that’s his calling, not by default.
     To this day I'm not convinced that all of the time and nervous energy expended on performing from memory is worth the trouble. It continues to be the standard for schools and competitions, but is gradually losing some importance in the professional world. Some personalities seem more at home playing without the score, but it seems to me that music making is not primarily about performing without a net. In the 19th century it was considered presumptuous to play another person’s music without the score. Maybe its time for performers to become a bit more humble and make the concert more about the music and less about themselves.