piano solo: live recordings and notes
van cliburn amateur competition
fort worth, texas
I've always felt that part of the fun in being a true amateur comes from the mistakes, and the excitement in not knowing how well you might do. Professionalism (suggesting perfectionism) kills that spontaneity. Anyway, you might as well learn to love those pesky mistakes. Even Franz Liszt hit a few clams from time to time, but he didn't call them mistakes: he called them “uninvited guests,” and always tried to make them feel right at home. Or Rubinstein, who used to say: “Well, sometimes I do play wrong notes... But I play them so much better than anyone else!” Liszt and Rubinstein were pretty groovy guys, and that's a much nicer attitude than antiseptic professionalism. Anyway, this is all my way of confessing: the Scriabin and the Fauré I half-learned on the spot in Fort Worth. I fluffed a phrase in the middle of the Liebesleid, and was so rattled that I made up a passage and threw in a glissando later to ham it up. And I narrowly avoided having the train run completely off the tracks in the Liszt — just kept bashing away, looking for that lost chord. It all adds to the excitement. I was thrilled just to play. And I am very grateful to the Cliburn Foundation and to audio engineer Jim Jackson for the opportunity, as well as for this lovely recording.
What you see before walking out to thunderous applause.
Hausmann's portrait of Bach (1746), holding the
For openers, I wanted something technically easy but musically exquisite.
Remember, it's a nerve-wracking competition, and you haven't played in public for god knows how
many years. So, calm, soothing, heartwarming music is a nice
way to get the feel of the piano while you settle down on stage (especially if,
for some reason, you screw up and forget to use your try out time and have to
play the instrument cold...). And it's a nice way to connect with an
audience. This special piece was perfect. The chorale I
call to thee, Lord Jesus Christ is the subject of one of Bach's cantatas
(bwv177), but the cantata was written later, in 1725: this organ prelude was
written in 1713. (Hm....) It's one of the saddest and most soulful pieces I know, and it
still brings tears to the eyes after 300 years (and so it shouldn't be a
surprise that it was played at Princess Diana's funeral).
When Bach was just a little boy, aged 9, his mom died. And the next year, just 10, his dad died. So Bach grew up with his oldest brother. He became a star organist in his teens (but he seems to have excelled at playing all the instruments for which he composed), and he married Maria Barbara, a cousin, at age 22. They soon began making babies. In February of 1713 they were blessed with twins (their third and fourth children), but alas, both babies died within a few weeks. Johann and Maria were just 28. I have not been able to pin a precise date on this chorale, but it was written that year, and I would not be surprised if it was interlaced with the tragic loss of their twins. The young couple must have been devastated. And in 1725, the year he wrote the full cantata (and also the year he wrote the extraordinarily emotional chromatic fantasy and fugue), his beloved wife, Maria Barbara, died. So there may be a deeply personal connection to ich ruf zu dir.
At the end of the autograph manuscript, as with many of his works, Bach wrote the initials “S.D.G.”: soli Deo gloria, to God alone the glory, a reminder of the spiritual warmth that is at the heart of his music. The Italian mega-pianist, Feruccio Busoni, made this faithful arrangement around 1899. I recall feeling comfortable at the piano, really enjoying the quiet in the hall, and really being able to concentrate: the spotlights were bright, I couldn't see the audience, and there was really just the black and white of the keyboard to look at. So I looked up, and closed my eyes, and let my fingers rest on the keys for a moment, thinking about how this piece must have sounded in a big, stone Lutheran cathedral. I mostly played with my eyes closed, listening to the piano's organ-like bass, the way some of its melody notes sang so beautifully. That Steinway was gorgeous for this piece. You could hear a pin drop.
Here are the words to the hymn:
References and recordings:
Alexander Scriabin, age 24.
After the Bach, I was looking for something icy and shimmering, sort of a piquant musical sorbet after the very quiet and intense opening. My friend and teacher David Deveau suggested this thorny little étude by Scriabin. It was a wonderful idea. Scriabin, a musician/mystic/philosopher/madman, was actually a relative of Rachmaninoff's and the two were cohorts at the Moscow conservatory. But whereas Rachmaninoff sailed through, winning gold medals, and graduating a year early, Scriabin dropped out. He was an eccentric and self-absorbed fellow; he loved Chopin's music (and parts of this étude are somewhat Chopinesque); and he was a formidable pianist. That's evident in this stormy piece, which seems to have been a personal favorite of Scriabin's. Horowitz played it quite a bit, too. It's boiling and angry, but also has really tender, lyrical moments. This recording doesn't sound half bad to me now, although the tempo is timid and the fingerwork could use more bite. At the time I remember having a bad case of spaghetti fingers, and hanging on for dear life. This was the first time I'd played the piece for anyone...!
References and recordings:
Rachmaninoff performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Kreisler with his fiddle.
Both the Bach and the Scriabin are pretty intense, so I wanted something a little lighter to end the first round. Rachmaninoff's arrangement of Fritz Kreisler's elegant old chestnut, the Liebesleid, fit the bill. Rachmaninoff and Kreisler were a famous dynamic duo, and Kreisler told a story from one of their gigs together in Carnegie Hall. The two were onstage, merrily playing along, when suddenly Fritz had a horrendous memory lapse. Turning ash-white, he edged over to the piano and whispered hoarsely to Rachmaninoff: “Where are we?!” Without dropping a note, Rachmaninoff replied: “In Carnegie Hall!”
Liebesleid means love's sadness (not to be confused with liebeslieder, which are love songs) and this is one of those poignant, nostalgic old Viennese waltz tunes, touched up by Rachmaninoff in a very classy, art-nouveau sort of arrangement. If you hear a chord in the middle that sounds like it fell out of the opening line of the second piano concerto, well, it probably did, and it's a lucky thing I didn't play the next chord after it, or it might have taken me half an hour to find my way back into the Liebesleid. Elegant schmaltz to leave people dancing.
References and recordings:
Fauré, painted by John Singer Sargent. And photographed later in life.
Now this is an extraordinary piece. Seldom played, it's Fauré's last piano composition, written at the age of 76, and it is unlike any of his others. This was certainly the winter of Fauré's life: he had grown profoundly deaf (and complained that musical sounds seemed to break apart in his ears); he had retired from his beloved post at the Paris conservatory (toward the end it must have been hell, trying to teach students music but being unable to hear them play); and his dearest lifelong friends, like Camille Saint-Saens, were dying. (Saint-Saens died around the time this nocturne was written). Fauré's musical life spanned the careers of Chopin, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky. He taught Ravel, Nadia Boulanger, Georges Enesco and many others. And he developed an unusual and distinctive harmonic style all his own.
Elegant, sublime, intimate, introspective... words like these apply to his music. And they apply to this nocturne, too, but in this piece, his always unique tonal language smolders with real bleakness and desolation. It begins with chorale-like writing, recalling some of the spiritual glow of his Requiem, but in a darker and more somber setting. Then it moves into a much more dramatic singing line, with quite a lot of action in the accompaniment, though the notes are always limpid and clear, never thick. This music is big, intense, expansive and, I hoped, a captivating way to begin the round. The previous year, Paul Doerrfeld had played Fauré's ballade (one of my favorites), and we talked about this nocturne quite a bit. I sent Paul a copy (it's somewhat hard to find), and promised I'd play it next year. That was a promise I was delighted to be able keep, and it was wonderful to know that Paul was in the audience to hear it. He was effusive afterwards, but so were several other people I didn't know: lots folks buttonholed me in the hallway just to thank me for playing that piece. This was a very fulfilling performance for me.
References and recordings:
American composer William Bolcom.
In 1999, the jury bounced me out of the prelims for playing the Graceful Ghost (grrr!), but it really is a gem and I was absolutely determined to take another whack. These are great pieces: savvy, wonderfully written, and a gas to play. Deceptively disguised as vintage piano rags, and with terrific tunes, they are are subtle and sophisticated. The Poltergeist sounds like a cross between Joplin and Prokofiev (quite a waker-upper after the Fauré). It's not an altogether easy piece. And the Graceful Ghost, with its lilting melodies and delicious blues notes, is truly touching and nostalgic, always a favorite. Bolcom dedicated it to the memory of his father, which says something about its specialness. William Bolcom, a pulitzer-prize winning American composer, is on the faculty at the university of Michigan. No stranger to Fort Worth, he wrote the commissioned piece for the 10th annual Van Cliburn competition. He and his wife, soprano Joan Morris, are renowned for their performances of vintage Broadway and cabaret songs.
References and recordings:
The incomparable Art Tatum at the piano.
When I was 21, living in Paris, I bought a massive boxed set of recordings of Art Tatum playing the piano. From the moment I put the needle on the first track I was blown away. I knew, then and there, that being a professional pianist was a hopeless waste of time. It made me feel a little better to learn that guys like Gershwin, Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, and Godowsky occasionally hung out at the jazz club in Harlem where Tatum played. Often they left awed and in tears. Tatum's pianism was just too marvellous for words. Steve Allen interviewed Tatum in the 50's and quipped that listening to him play was like looking at a Da Vinci painting while riding by on a fast bicycle. It was too much to appreciate.
Another telling data point: when you ask the giants of jazz who the greatest pianist of all time was, you typically get responses like: Oscar Peterson, Fats Waller, Erroll Garner, maybe Bill Evans, others. But when you say, “What about Art Tatum?” the reply is something like: “Well, of course there's Tatum, but man, he's in a league of his own — nobody could play like Art Tatum!” When Oscar Peterson first heard Art Tatum play, he thought it was two people in a duet. And Peterson gave up the piano for a month. (Later he became Tatum's protegé, and was at his bedside when he died.)
There's a true story about a night when Fats Waller was playing in a club to a big crowd, and Art Tatum walked in. Waller stopped playing and famously announced to the audience: “Ladies and gentlemen: I play the piano a little, but tonight, God is in the house.” Sort of like the good old days in 1700's Germany when a town needed to dedicate a new pipe organ: the best organists from around the country would show up to play their slickest stuff; then Bach would walk in, and all the other organists would sheepishly leave. That's how good Art Tatum was: a truly phenomenal, once-in-a-century piano genius. His playing certainly transcended the world of jazz, and I felt it more than had a place in the restrained, “classical” world of the Van Cliburn. Because his music was recorded, not written down, most classical pianists don't find it, but there are now a handful of published transcriptions (and, oy, what a lot of work it must have been to make them).
It's worth noting that Tatum was legally blind almost from birth (it was said he could play pinochle if he held the cards close to his one marginally good eye; and he said he could see enough to get around, barely). He grew up in Toledo, Ohio, studied classical violin for years, but switched to the piano when he was a teenager. And he said that he was a much better pianist after three days than he was a violinist after thirteen years. Being nearly blind, he developed a keener sense of touch, and that probably led him to avoid big leaps and instead, fill in with those remarkable, purling three-finger runs (like an old clavichordist, he tended not to use his right thumb in fast scales). When he died of uremia (kidney failure) in 1956 at the age of 47, the world lost one of its most precious musical treasures. The epitaph on his grave, carved with a grand piano in the clouds, simply reads: "Art Tatum - devoted husband - though the strings are broken, the melody lingers on." It breaks your heart to learn he had just bought a spiffy new tuxedo and was planning a big concert tour including formal recitals at halls in Europe and the US. What a loss.
Sweet Lorraine was written by Mitchell Parrish (words) and Clifford Burwell (music) in 1928, and was a much-loved, often-recorded jazz standard for many years (Nat King Cole, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Louis Armstrong, and many others all recorded versions). When you hear the pearly strings of notes that Tatum uses for decoration, but sparingly and not overdone, it's easy to forget that the song has really wonderful words about happy feelings!
I was probably pushing my luck by programming this gorgeous jazz nugget, but what the heck. This music is too cool for school!
References and recordings:
Liszt, around the time he wrote Later in life, ever charismatic.
A page from the manuscript.
My fondest recollection was walking out on stage to a very large and warm audience, and thinking: what a prize! To have the opportunity to journey through this terrific piece with so many people who were just as interested as I was, and who were really going to listen.
This is it: the Kanchenchunga of the solo piano repertoire, Franz Liszt's one and only blockbuster of a sonata. It's an epic piece and a sprawling tour-de-force, naturally, but the hard thing about it is turning it from a series of virtuoso episodes into a deeper emotional journey. It uses the whole sonorous gamut of the piano, and every pianistic trick in the book. Not everyone held the sonata in such esteem: noted critic and musical putzmeister Eduard Hanslick said: “Anyone who has heard this and finds it beautiful is beyond help.”
This piece was pretty “green” in my hands: I'd studied it ten years ago, relearned it in about a month (yikes!), given a pretty wobbly test-drive performance at MIT, and was not what you'd call ready to recite it in Texas. But the jury thankfully decided otherwise. You know, it's amazing how stepping into the final round can focus one's thinking. When I wasn't panicking, I indulged myself, trying lots of new things (many of which I won't need to try again). I especially tried to play not just huge fortissimos, but whisper-quiet pianissimos; I tried to play the hall, and the silences, too. And I was looking for a more sensuous, soulful, and sometimes religious quality in this piece, not the usual splintering octaves and hystrionic episodes. (It was gratifying to read afterwards, that Liszt biographer Alan Walker shares my views). Still, a wild ride!
The first ominous notes of the sonata...
References and recordings:
day before the competition, at the Fairmont Hotel
Recorded in 24-bit digital audio by Jim Jackson.
Sincere thanks to the Van Cliburn Foundation, and to all the amateurs. It was a blessing to hear each and every one, and a joy to be among them.
Amateurs make the world a better place.