"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Tag: Schubert

clara and arthur . . .

Xmas 2005-Spring 2006 583_2_2As some of you know, I’m a pianist and also slightly OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) when I come across a pianist that I haven’t listened to before but love their way of playing. One of the ones I wrote about before was Paul Lewis, an English pianist whose Schubert and Beethoven recordings are beautifully musical and sensitively played. His recording of the Beethoven Rondo from Opus 4 in E-flat major is one of my favorites and I’ve started to study it myself recently.

Another pianist I came across the other day while searching for renditions of Scarlatti on I-tunes is Clara Haskil. Many contemporary pianists play Scarlatti as though they were finger exercises, rushing up and down the keyboard as though the metronome and speed were what they were aiming for rather than making music. They either play too fast or take too much liberty with rubato that drives me crazy when I listen to them.

So, when I happened upon Clara Haskil’s Scarlatti recordings, I stopped and savored listening to them because they are so musical, the tempi reasonable and most of all, the melodies were so beautiful. So I looked her up on Wiki (where else?) and found she lived in the last mid-century, born in Romania and of Swiss origins. She won a Premier first in piano at the age of fifteen and she also won a Premier first in violin at the same time! Beset by physical problems and living in poverty (Wiki says) she nevertheless performed with many of the premier musicians of the time: Pablo Casals, the conductor Ernest Ansermet and most of all, as a pianist playing with the French violinist, Arthur Grumiaux.

At first, I was tempted to purchase a 10 Scarlatti sonata recording by Clara Haskil for $9.99 on I-tunes. But on further exploration, I discovered a compendium of recordings by her for only $11.99 that included the Scarlatti sonatas. Imagine my astonishment when I scrolled down to see that there were 105 (one-hundred-five) tracks on this single recording! A click and a download quickly filled my I-tunes library with concerti recordings, Bach Busoni numbers, Beethoven and the lode of Scarlatti. I listened to it while I made some maple oatmeal scones this morning.

maple oatmeal scones

maple oatmeal scones

So, why is this post also about Arthur Grumiaux? Apparently, even though Clara was about twenty years older than Arthur, they had a very close musical partnership. One of the most touching and humorous observations about their relationship was that Grumiaux, the violinist, was also a fine pianist. So the two of them would sometimes swap instruments and play each other’s parts when they rehearsed together! I thought this was so charming and such a rarity of musicianship at their level that I wanted to write about it in this post.

Sadly, Clara died at the age of sixty-five as a result of a fall that she suffered at the Brussels train station on her way to a concert that she and Arthur Grumiaux were scheduled to play together the next day. Apparently, her death was a huge and personal loss for him when she died. Although he had diabetes, he continued to concertize and died almost twenty years later from a stroke when he was sixty-five.

So, there you have a story about Clara and Arthur. Her recordings are playing in the background while I read and cook. And their story serves as such a tender example of human relationship and music making, at least for me. (Sigh.)

Postscript: If you would like to read a personal essay about Clara Haskill published in the journal, “Clavier,” please click here.


playing the piano . . . (a review)

Xmas 2005-Spring 2006 583_2_2resizedA pianist’s journey through a composer’s shadows (Boston Globe, 14 January 2013) by David Weininger

“I will be surprised if 2013 brings a musical event more audacious, more edifying, and more fulfilling than British pianist Paul Lewis’s recital on Saturday.

Lewis, who is in the prime of his career, was making his long-overdue Boston debut. Happily, he eschewed the strategy of offering an assortment of pieces chosen to show off his range. He chose instead to make a bold statement about his artistry by playing Schubert’s last three piano sonatas. Like Beethoven’s late sonatas, Schubert’s both sit at the heart of the piano repertoire and exist in their own rarefied world, one not easily infiltrated. Tackling all three on the same program is highly unusual, but Lewis acquitted himself brilliantly.

Schubert was close to his premature death in 1828 when he wrote the three sonatas; they were published after his death and largely neglected in the 19th century. In them a relentless struggle between light and darkness plays out. Rather than shy away from the conflict, Lewis magnified it wherever it appeared. The opening movement of the C-minor Sonata, D. 958, was full of driving forward momentum. Gentler, sunnier stretches of music were played quickly, almost coldly, reinforcing the idea that whatever comfort the music had to offer would, sooner or later, retreat back into gloom. Lewis’s feat was to convey the expressive drama of the music without letting it overtake the virtues of poise and phrasing.

Indeed, Lewis’s approach was equal parts intelligence and daring, a fusion that emerged clearly in the slow movement of the A-major Sonata, D. 959. This is some of the most wrenching music Schubert ever wrote. Lewis consistently pushed back against its rhythm so that it seemed to limp forward irregularly. You got the impression that Schubert had to be pushed, with the utmost reluctance, to commit such sad sounds to paper. The effect is difficult for a performer to achieve without seeming self-conscious, but Lewis nailed it. The crisis that erupts in the middle of this movement was almost too painful to bear.

The final sonata, in B-flat (D. 960), is usually held to be the greatest of the three. Ironically, it is in large part the most placid and least openly conflicted of the three. Yet on Friday there was always a discomfiting sense that shadows lay just around the corner, hidden from sight. Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of what had come before; perhaps its lengthy, unfolding melodies were meant to convey resignation rather than serenity.

In any event, Lewis’s playing was fluent, insightful, and sensuously beautiful by turns. It is impossible to call any performance of a piece perfect, but it is hard to imagine this difficult music rendered more convincingly.

A well-filled Jordan Hall gave Lewis a well-deserved ovation. They did him a greater honor by remaining silent throughout almost the whole concert. With any luck, he will return soon.”

playing the piano . . .

~ photo by C., part of a Christmas diorama she made of me at my Steinway "B" grand piano named "Victor" rebuilt by G. 20 years ago ~

~ photo by C., part of a Christmas diorama she made of me at my Steinway “B” grand piano named “Victor” rebuilt by G. 20 years ago ~

As I’m writing this post, I’m listening to Paul Lewis, the British pianist, playing early Beethoven sonatas. Last night, as my Christmas gift to G., we went to hear Lewis play at Jordan Hall in Boston. I had managed to purchase the last two left-center balcony tickets for the recital.

There was a young (around 5) Chinese boy sitting behind me, his older sister (around 11) and his mother. The boy had the sniffles and kept blowing out of one nostril all the way through the concert. I ignored him because at least he didn’t talk while Lewis was playing. Another young boy around 8 years old sat beside G. These young children at this concert (at around $75 a ticket) reminded me of when my middle daughter, M., played the piano and we took her to hear Horowitz because we wanted her to have a chance to hear him play before he died some years later.

Paul Lewis played three Schubert sonatas for the program: the C minor, A major and B-flat major late sonatas that Schubert managed to write immediately before he died at the age of thirty-one. I’m familiar with these pieces and Lewis did everything and more than one might have hoped: wonderful, round tone, clarity, color with gorgeous pianissimo, a confident yet ego-less grasp of the music and just beautiful piano playing. People stood and called out “Bravo!” even before the intermission.

I thought I had heard a ringing of G# in the lower register during the A major sonata. The piano tuner came out, played the notes and adjusted a note in the upper register. Then distracted by someone on the auditorium floor, he left the instrument and didn’t touch it again. I thought that was a little odd. G. tunes and rebuilds pianos so he had some opinions of the piano too.

In any event, when Lewis came out to play the big B-flat sonata, I thought something was off from the way he had carried himself in the first half. Perhaps it’s because the piece itself has a shallower melody bed than the the other two sonatas, but I definitely had the uneasy feeling that Lewis was, well, uneasy too in the 2nd half of the program.

Even though there was much applause, he demurred from playing any encores. I had hoped we would hear some of the shorter Schubert pieces, “Moments Musicaux” but he didn’t play anything else.

I have to confess that hearing him play on the Steinway Concert Grand in Jordan Hall made me feel, once again, how proud I am to be married to G. who has dedicated his life to pianos. I think he felt something too in his own way. DSC_0006_2

During the intermission, I chatted with two couples who sat nearby. I said I had read online that Lewis’s father had been a dock worker, his mother a housewife and there had been no vestiges of music in his heritage. One said they had never heard of Paul Lewis before and had come as part of their Celebrity Series tickets. The other said he and his wife listened to Lewis’s recordings of these Schubert sonatas before they went to bed for the last two years!

He asked me what I thought of the way Lewis played Schubert compared to Alfred Brendel (with whom Lewis had studied for a short time,) and I said I thought Lewis’s was better than Brendel’s. I also volunteered that I thought Lewis’s recording of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy was better than that of Sviatislav Richter, whose recording my daughter C. (the photographer) would listen to every night when she went to bed at the age of about eight. (What’s this thing about people listening to Schubert before going to bed?)

Anyhow, it turned out to be a most wonderful experience. It makes me think I’m getting ready to practice again: maybe the Schubert short pieces and definitely some of the early Beethoven sonatas. If you would like to listen to Paul Lewis, here is a link to the recording that got me hooked in the first place, especially the 6 Moments Musicaux: