Alberto Reyes

Recording Schumann

Modern piano recording technology gives the listener an opportunity to hear details of tone and texture that are not heard in a live performance at a concert hall, no matter how exquisite its acoustics or privileged the seat location. The use of multiple microphones and their precise placing before the different piano registers, allow us to pick up inner voices, pedaling subtleties and polyphonic riches in such a clear way that listening to a CD becomes a unique aesthetic event, sometimes to the detriment of our enjoyment of live playing. In the hands of a master engineer (and with playback equipment capable of delivering high, undistorted volume) the listener enjoys the illusion of being seated right on the pianist’s bench, hearing every nuance of phrasing, the ghostly “bump” of the dampers pedal, the rich overtones of a long-held bass note, the sheer “physicality” of piano playing. Schnabel’s words about the abstract notion of the musical “work” (as opposed to any performance of it), “an irrational reality beyond and above any natural occurrence” come true in the act of recording.

This modern approach is not without risks, though. It served Glenn Gould’s purpose very well when recording Bach, but in other extreme cases, the closeness of the microphone placing produces a surfeit of clarity that comes close to Baudrillard’s “hallucination of detail…excess of the real…voyeurism of exactitude”, or what Arved Ashby has called “an ‘obscene’ image, exhibitionistic, direct, excessive, naked, overinformative”.

In the case of Schumann’s music, the recording artist will do very well to pause and ponder how the peculiarities of digital recording impact on the listening experience. The transparency and polyphonic clarity that will illuminate any rendering of Chopin will not necessarily enhance our understanding and enjoyment of Schumann’s works. In the first place, Schumann’s concept of sound and his use of the sustaining pedal are highly personal and daring. Often he will blur harmonies in “a single mist” as Charles Rosen puts it, not only for the sake of a beautiful effect but also to convey the very character of the music. An otherwise perceptive commentator once unjustly chastised Geza Anda for his “texture-muddling over-pedaling in the first movement of Kreisleriana (which) may strike some listeners as narcissistically self-indulgent, however beautiful”. (Only a Josef Hofmann – in his unsurpassed but truncated Kreisleriana at his Casimir Hall recital of 1938 - could convincingly get away with the willful absence of pedaling over long sections of that movement.) Similarly, the coda of Kreisleriana’s second movement acquires its otherwordly character in performance through the blurred harmonies of a long-held pedal. Perhaps the only moment in the entire piece where exact articulation may be enhanced by microphone placing is the central fugato of the seventh movement.

Another aspect of Kreisleriana’s essence that runs the risk of getting lost in a closely-miked, overly clear, under-pedaled recording, is the fear-inducing, grotesque quality of many of its pages. The literary origins of this supremely imaginative piano piece go back to the universe of E.T.A. Hoffmann “in which we encounter a multitude of masks whose Beneath is uncertain, oscillating between mechanical dolls and the horrifying substance of undead Life (ghosts)” as Slavoj Zizek describes it in “The plague of fantasies”. Clara Wieck remarked in a letter to Schumann, after receiving a score of the work, that his music sometimes frightened her, with its violent and abrupt contrasts. It is worth remembering that Hoffmann’s tale speaks about the biography of Kapellmeister Kreisler, into the pages of which the memoirs of his philosopher-cat Murr have been haphazardly interspersed. The grotesque reigns, for instance, over the wild coda of the third movement, one of the most frightening portrayals of uncontrolled rage in the whole piano repertoire. Clarity of articulation, distinct triplets and audible sixths at the end of each group? Not in the middle of this tantrum!

In fact, fear seems to hover above many of Kreisleriana’s sections. The very opening, apparently starting in the middle of a struggle, full of offbeat accents, fast and loud, seems to suggest the desperate efforts of a man trying to put his head above the waters of a raging torrent into which he has been mercilessly plunged. The suggestion of fear, as well, hangs over much of the haunting last movement, a deceptively care-free saunter through a darkening forest, where the offbeat left hand, always coming in when one least expects it, hints at a menacing figure hiding behind a different tree each time. It is interesting to note that for Schumann, music could be indeed a vehicle for inducing fear. The very title of Kinderszenen’s eleventh piece, “Fürtenmachen”, declares it , while its “scurrying critters of the night” music of bars 9-12 perfectly illustrates that intention.

On the sublime side (and a lot of Schumann’s music is never far from the sublime) whole pages of the C-major Fantasy’s third movement call for a gauzy sonority in which the sustaining pedal plays an indispensable part. The very opening of the movement, with its improvisatory arpeggios, needs a disembodied sonority until the right hand voices the baritonal melody in the fifth measure. Nothing calls for a singing, clear texture of melody over accompaniment until the appearance, at ‘Etwas bewegter’, of the melody that “…for hours I have been playing over and over again … are you not the secret tone that runs through the work?” (as Schumann wrote to Clara Wieck). And the imperious demand of the first movement opening phrase , so seemingly secure in its passion, which meltingly morphs into supplication with a drop in dynamics and a simple bass change from G to A very much worth lingering on, would be unthinkable without a “wash of sound” achieved by generous pedaling, and minimal articulation of the left hand. Although modern miking techniques would make it possible, who would want to hear with total clarity all those semiquavers? In Kinderszenen, the E-major interlude of the twelfth piece, “Kind im Einschlummern”, similarly requires a lot of pedal to convey its mood of happy dreaming; dreams, or at least our memory of dreams, are always hazy and somewhat distant.

For the musical work in general (not only Schumann’s, of course) recording poses a basic problem, characterized by Adorno as “the protective fixation … that leads to its destruction, for its unity is realized precisely in that spontaneity which is sacrified to the fixation”. Furthermore, we face the specific challenge of achieving, through the microphone(s), the ideal textures and sonorities that convey our musical intentions. But when we have an opportunity to record Schumann, we are inevitably tempted to “toss into the sea of future history” our own “message in a bottle” as Richard Leppert has so elegantly put it. Our motivation may be found in Edward Said’s eloquent words about the recital as essay, which with the reader’s indulgence I’d like to apply to recordings: “the recital (the recording), like the essay, is occasional, re-creative and personal. And essayists, like recitalists (recording artists), concern themselves with the givens: those works of art always worth another critical and reflective reading”. May the listener feel free to engage in debate with this particular reading of such timeless masterpieces

Alberto Reyes
New York, June 2010

In praise of older programs

25 years ago or thereabouts, a highly contagious pandemic spread unchecked through the music world: thematic programming. Its symptoms varied widely: a concert devoted to the works of a single composer; a recital exploring the influence of the English Romantic poets on German composers or vice versa; an evening of works having the word “Fantasy” in their title (even the undersigned, battling a mild strain of the virus, once played Chopin’s Polonaise Fantaisie and Fantasy in F minor, plus Schumann’s C major Fantasy in one program, before recovering and finishing the evening with Kinderszenen and the F minor Ballade); or, in extremely hopeless cases, concerts announced by apocryphal titles such as “Beethoven and the Distant Beloved” in order to justify playing the Pathetique, the Appassionata and the Moonlight in the same evening. The effects were always the same: moderate to severe listener boredom, a disproportionate amount of movements in a minor mode, unrelenting sameness of form, structure or mood, universal praise for the performer’s intellect, and the use of the word “revelatory” in every single New York Times review.

Most observers located the pandemic’s “ground zero” in the recording industry. With the invention of the long-playing record and - even more so - the longer CD, record labels found it easy to market complete cycles such as Chopin’s Four Ballades or Four Scherzi, or Debussy’s 24 Preludes, or Ligeti’s Complete Etudes, disregarding the fact that those works were never meant by their composers to be digested as one single meal. But at least the record listener had complete control over his equipment and was not forcibly sentenced to hear everything in one sitting. Concert goers, on the other hand, have had to endure instances such as the Carnegie Hall recital by one of today’s unquestionably greatest artists, playing the complete Schumann’s Noveletten with only one intermission to stretch their legs!

The main carriers of the virus, though, turned out to be program annotators and music critics. Thematic programming was a godsend to writers not willing to submit readers to another Schenkerian analysis of the Fourth Ballade, and to critics not wishing to risk an opinion on the interpretive skills of artists whose reputation did not precede them. It gave them something safe to write about. In some cases they even claimed that those programs made “musical sense” when in reality they made literary or historical sense. (Musical sense is rarely apprehended through the analytical, verbal right-side of the brain). And performers, always willing to shed the circus-like trappings of stage life, were quite happy to put on the hat of “deep thinkers” instead of “vapid virtuosos”.

So, how were the programs in the not so distant, healthy past? Widely different, of course, but one common thread run through them: they seemed to follow a dramatic arch that put the most intensely charged work right before intermission and, at the end, either rewarded listeners with exciting virtuoso displays ( a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody) or sent them home with dangerously high blood pressure after a pounding, chord-pummeling finale ( Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata). A chronological order was common: a Bach transcription seemed de rigueur at the beginning, drama hit the apex with a long Romantic piece, and the 20th Century put in an appearance only after intermission, usually under the banner of Impressionism or Nationalism (such was the delightful role of a lot of Debussy and Albeniz). Chronology had the undisputed advantage of making each composer seem a “radical”, emphasizing, as the evening progressed, the adventurousness of more daring harmonies and less academic forms. But the result was always an immensely satisfying evening, not dissimilar to a great dinner at “Le Cirque”: variety of textures, dramatic contrast, a chiaroscuro of moods, a generous palette of colors and flavors. Perhaps the last master programmer, one who never needed to don pseudo-intellectual garb, was the late Shura Cherkassky.

Tonight’s program is an homage to the great programmers of the past. It touches the requisite bases of an anachronistic Bach transcription, a great Romantic work in the middle, a sunny start of the second half, a late appearance by the 20th Century and a pulse raising, “brutalist” finale. But to those critics who might wish to say something clever about this performer in the future, I solemnly promise a thematic program of my own: an evening of works by Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Godowsky and Luigi Nono. Guess the theme yet? They are all Aquarians, and so am I!

Alberto Reyes
September 3rd, 2009

Why another Chopin recording

A pianist who dares to offer the public yet another Chopin recording will do so with considerable trepidation. Chopin’s works have been favored by pianists and audiences alike since the dawn of the recording era, and every great pianist in history — with the exception of the odd Beethoven or Schubert specialist — has recorded them.

So, lest the analysis of my motivation to release the present CD bump against the bedrock of narcissism (to paraphrase Freud), I’d better come up with some compelling reason to enter the crowded field of Chopin’s discography.

Sometimes a happy confluence of conditions and circumstances will offer an irresistible temptation to make a recording public. In this case, the unsurpassed acoustic of New York’s American Academy of Arts and Letters, the ravishing sound of CD 124 from Steinway’s 57th Street selection room, and the state-of-the-art ears of my producer and engineer Richard Price, have combined to produce a recording of such seductive tonal appeal that it would almost be selfish not to share it with others. But then we must remember that Chopin himself used to inveigh against the empty charms of sonority in his arguments with Delacroix. The latter used to proclaim the primacy of color over line, which translated into musical terms is equivalent to asserting the primacy of sound over structure, something that was anathema to Chopin. So the great Polish genius himself would not have deemed a great recorded sound reason enough to justify a release.

No, the valid argument in support of another commercial Chopin recording is the fact that making it affords a pianist the unique opportunity to engage in a double dialogue with the works themselves and with every other artist and commentator who have played or written about them; who can resist that?

The dialogue with the works cannot be approached lightly. One can only hope to be a worthy interlocutor if one has spent years, nay, decades studying them. It’s not right away that one comes to the conclusion, for instance, that the Funeral March of the B Flat Minor Sonata and the march that forms the introduction of the F Minor Fantasy (published in consecutive years but written four years apart) share the same aura of tragedy and despair, even though both modulate briefly into the major mode (one exultantly, the other amiably) and both alternate with music that offers heavenly consolation: the D Flat central section of the Funeral March and the B Major chorale of the Fantasy. Neither is it immediately obvious that the variation techniques that characterize the F Minor Ballade, with the recurrence of a heartbreakingly simple theme, enable Chopin to make his most profound statement of loss and regret.

How to capture these autumnal qualities of the Ballade in a performance that demands the utmost virtuosity from a pianist? How to convey the impish playfulness of the Scherzo of the B Minor Sonata? How to avoid the temptation of making the otherwordly fourth movement of the Funeral March Sonata an “effective finale” for the entire work, by turning it into a colorful virtuoso etude?

It is precisely a recording, with its opportunities to keep doing something until one gets it right (its wonderful “take two-ness” in Glenn Gould’s memorable bon mot), that affords the artist the chance to come close to his/her conception of the work, without being hostage to the hazards of a live performance. The chance to repeat a movement over and over again is not a case of submitting to the “barbarism of perfection” as Adorno’s friend and occasional piano teacher Eduard Steurmann called some musicians’ obsession with note-perfect renditions. That only results in a Frankenstein monster made up of dead body parts. By repeating whole movements and long sections with a musical vision firmly in mind, we indulge in the luxury of engaging at length in dialogue with a masterpiece, in the hope of reaching an enlightening and enriching conclusion in a performance that is at once, coherent and (with the least possible amount of editing) clean.

Similarly, by adding one’s performance to the recorded heritage, one enters into a respectful and friendly discussion with one’s predecessors and musical ancestors. True, the Apollonian elegance, command and imagination of Josef Hofmann’s first movement of the B Minor Sonata, captured in all their glory in his recording of 1935 (sadly he only left us that single movement) will be forever out of reach to us, mere mortals, as will be Moiseiwitsch’s definitive Barcarolle of 1941 and Cortot’s unbearably tragic Funeral March of 1928. But in our own modest way, perhaps, a few measures of our own performances of those pieces will sound like a hearty “hear! hear!” to their miraculous proposals. Or, having taken to heart Charles Rosen’s perceptive proclamation of the F Minor Ballade as Chopin’s masterpiece of elegiac style, we will endeavor to convey through tempo, phrasing and nuance, the essence of that elegy.

On the same respectful vein, we can take issue with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s phenomenal display of velocity, color and bold shapes in his live recording of the aforementioned fourth movement of the Funeral March Sonata, as inimical to the bleakness of its character, even if we would gladly kill our own grandmother to have Michelangeli’s fingers.

And finally, through a well considered recorded performance, we can face up to the “pedants of textuality’, those who uphold the sacred nature of the written text above all else, ignoring the fact that the most important vector of musical meaning and expression in Chopin is prosody, those inflections of dynamics and timing that his musical notation is totally incapable of capturing. Those sticklers to the score will hear in the present CD organic modifications of pulse and even of rhythm that do not appear on the page, dynamic nuances that an expressive reading of the music demands, doubling of octaves in the bass to underscore the climax of a harmonic progression, de-synchronization of hands, and even of voices within the same hand, for the sake of contrapuntal clarity (counterpoint being a sacred value to Chopin)

This record, therefore, aspires to be a personal contribution to a public debate on Chopin’s masterpieces, one more voice in a collective conversation that will go on as long as performers approach these greatest gems of the piano repertory with open mind and an honest heart.

Alberto Reyes
August, 2009