Monday, November 24, 2008

Ave Maria

On performing Schubert and Schumann songs at the Phillips Collection (Washington DC), Second Presbytarian Church (Baltimore), and the Cultural Center (Chicago).

There are moments in our lives that are totally unexpected and yet so important and meaningful. They energize us beyond any predictions, and although few and far in between, these special moments are an essential part of our lives.

Magical moments - their essence is also in their brevity. Truth be said, I rarely know when they will appear, envelope me, clean my thoughts, clear my hopes, and re-direct me towards the goals which I laid in front of me.

A few weeks ago, I was preparing for three concerts which mixed songs of Schubert and Schumann with solo and chamber music repertoire. I believe that every great pianist must posses a strong urge to accompany singers - to support, to provide a cushion for the most natural of musical instruments - the human voice - to emerge, soar and bloom... then land. In addition to that, I must add, the repertoire is second to none.

As it happened, the day prior to our last concert, we - soprano Hyunah Yu, and I - were rehearsing leisurely at the Cultural center in Chicago, one of this city's many unique landmarks. Our rehearsal began with five Schubert songs, and ended with five Schumann songs.

Playing through these miniature masterpieces one by one, indulging in the sound of the language, admiring the poetry and above all listening, observing, re-living the way Schubert and Schumann painted these words, these sentences, these feelings / emotions in music..... it was easy to forget oneself in the space between what is conscious and what is unconscious. Time and space were of no importance. We were floating in a special place.

Schubert's Lachen und Weinen ("Laughing & Crying") - so seductively simple. A beautiful melodic line that changes its color, its reflection each time the accompaniment moves between major and minor, softer or louder. Im Früling ("In Spring") starts up as another strophic song, then transforms completely when the poet ceases to describe nature, and immerses himself in describing her - her image. At that moment Schubert gives me the most achingly beautiful melodic coloratura, floating above and below, inside and outside the melodic line sang by Hyunah. The thorny Heidenröslein ("The Briar-Rose") comes next. My role in this song is mainly "um pa, um pa..." However, finding that perfect balance between the simple and the sublime, the meaningful and the meaningless creates the miracle. Heimliches Lieben ("Loving in Secret") with its broad melodies is a challenge considering the high passion that the words suggest: "thy lips touch me";"trembling lift my breast";"my eye's aflame"... Are you sure this is loving in secret...?
And then Suleika ("Suleika") which has a much darker tone than the previous songs. With Schubert, major is at times sadder than minor. The b minor key of this song's breathless, worrisome first part changes to B major and even the slightest of hopes is crushed. It hearts.
Each song is an entity - its subject matter, its sub-context, its philosophical overtones. These profound musical jewels capture the widest array in our eternal emotional resources.

Onto our Schumann group. How different is this composer from the other in his choice as well as interpretation of great German poetry. Schumann's hyper sensitive changes of moods are reflected in his songs, some are as short as one page. His demons / imaginary friends are an integral part of the music. Ambiguity is central to the understanding of this enigmatic composer. I think Schubert allows us to concentrate on the poem through his music, whereas Schumann forces us to listen to the music through the poem!

In Du bist wie eine Blume ("You are like a Flower") the singer tells us one story, while the piano's background and foreground reveals the hidden subtext. Der Nußbaum (The Walnut Tree) gives us with its ongoing repeated refrain the sense and sensibility we always crave for. Liebeslied ("Love song") gets to our place of raw emotions and Röselein, Röselein! ("Little rose, Little rose!") again takes us on a wild ride within Schumann's multiple personalities. Alas, Widmung ("Dedication") closes our second group of songs, and with it our program. They say that "good composers imitate, but great composers steal..." At the end of this most passionate song / gift, which Schumann wrote to Clara, he quotes the famous Ave Maria of Schubert. A truly stroke of genius. Our rehearsal came to an end. Or has it?

All this was just setting the stage for what was to come next. I took back the Schubert album and found the original Ave Maria, the source. After all, couldn't a performer, in this case - your truly - ask for an enocre? Hyunah came closer so we could look at the music together. She apologized in advance if it will turn out that she would not sing the entire song, to save her strength... but she did! She could not stop and neither could I.

It was dark outside, most people went home already, and yet the few that were in the building gathered around us. We started our evening with Schubert, continued with Schumann quoting Schubert, then decided to end with bringing the former back to life. I actually think that it was he that brought us back to life. I played the song at a slightly slower tempo then usual. Well, I did not want this to end. I felt so privileged to have had this magical moment of intimacy... of ecstasy! The gentle melodic curves of Ave Maria repeat three times. Within me, it still goes on.

When the last notes of the heavenly sound of B major evaporated, I got up and hugged my partner for this most uplifting experience. Thank you, Hyunah!

Evening descended, silence was all around, our souls and the music that surrounded us became just for a moment something that we could not only feel, we could touch.
And then, it disappeared.

Alon Goldstein

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dance in the Desert

Every August - far from the big city, but close to the human spirit, detached from our endless daily race, and connected to our need for time and peace of mind, deep in the south of Israel - in the desert – a remarkable, one of a kind enterprise comes to life. It is the "Tel-Hai International Piano Master Classes", which take place in Sde Boker – about two and a half hours south of Tel-Aviv.

Classical music in the desert? Can Mozart and the "Wilderness of Zin" find a common language? Will Beethoven find his way through the spring of "Ein Avdat"? In this surreal location the real becomes unreal, and the unreal becomes a dream, where our eternal music caresses the landscape in a way I have never experienced before, or maybe it is the other way around.

For nearly three weeks, some seventy pianists from about two dozen countries come together in search of answers, of discovery, in a most unusual place. For all of us – staff, students and spectators – this becomes an experience of everlasting increase of awareness, one that is drawn from several unexpected inspirational resources.

From the first day, private lessons, public master classes and concerts are being held. On top of that a competition of a newly commissioned Israeli work takes place as well as a concerto competition, in which three young pianists are chosen to play as soloists with the Israeli Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion. One of the primary goals of this unique project is that the center of gravity will be the students and their experience, which they are able to shape according to their own needs, with us – the professors – giving advice.

As the master classes begin to take shape, people get acquainted with themselves and with the land. Then, miracles start happening: I saw Mozart the other day, playing tricks with some girls at the bottom of "Zin" wadi. He can be so "uncivilized" at times... also in his music! A few other students went after midnight to watch the stars. Instead, they saw Chopin dancing privately with George Sand. She wanted to dance to a Polonaise, while he preferred a Mazurka. Usually he looks so frail. Here, in Sde Boker, I swear he was feeling much stronger.

After the first few days a sense of familiarity takes place, and adventures are attempted. We all travel together about thirty minutes south to "Machtesh Ramon", the largest natural crater in the world. On the way we make a brief stop to admire the unfolding view. In the far distance we can almost see Haydn working on his new "Creation". Here, in Sde Boker he is regaining some of his lost fame, with countless of fine performances of his sonatas.

In "Machtesh Ramon" we go for a hike. A quick glance into the impressive horizon lying in front of us sends our imagination soaring. These are sights coming straight out of the book of Genesis. Looking at the walls of this enormous natural structure reveals millions of years of history. Can our music, which is mostly from the last three hundred years, somehow relate to that?

Oops… suddenly Ginastera jumps out of the cliff, with his Argentinean dances. They almost sound as chaotic as Haim Permont's Moment Musical – the commissioned work for this year's classes. Beethoven decides to join us along for our walk. I think he hears better here, although he still complains. His late sonata – no. 30 in E major Op. 109 – is performed three times during the course of this festival. Is this a coincidence, or does late Beethoven fit our atonal landscape better than anywhere else? We head back just in time to have some cheese and wine, and hear Liszt trying to impress Clara Schumann with his flamboyant playing of a new "Israeli Rhapsody". I believe he is thinking of a new Annees de Perelinage ("years of wondering") – after Swiss and Italy, now… Israel!!

One morning a family of ibexes (mountain goats) climbed up from the valley to listen. One after another, I counted sixteen. People say that classical music has a shrinking audience. Maybe we should turn then to the animals... Perhaps we should "invite" nature. We might find some answers. Schubert certainly thinks so. He just rented a little trolley calling everybody "all aboard", before disappearing in the distant creek.

If classical music is dead, then I guess the desert has no life: I see no water, yet there are so many different kinds of plants all around, up and down the rugged hills. I see no food, yet so many insects in all shapes and form find enough to live together in perfect harmony – scorpions, butterflies, spiders, beetles and many other kinds of small creatures whose names I probably will never know. The desert is full of life, and our classical music finds it to be a natural spring, full of pure energy.

Are we ready to take some risks – Brahms says "yes", as do Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, and of course Liszt. They dominate the "Concerto competition". Bach and Mozart preferred to stay out of this. Bach was last seen running after one of his fifteen children. They are absolutely thrilled playing with the ibexes. Mozart on the other hand was working on a new opera – "The Magic Canyon".

The competition begins. Risks are taken. Mistakes are made. These are all essential in the learning process. Out of fifteen contestants, six are selected to play in next day's finals. Three are chosen to play in a couple of months with the orchestra.

By now, two weeks have gone by. Only five days are left and it seems to me that most students are going through a period of transformation – they spend most of their time outside, rather than inside, some even decide to sleep out in the desert. Is it the music, the way we teach here, or is it the place? I truly believe that the answers to the questions we encounter, when we learn a new piece, do not lie all inside the practice room. They are also found outside – in a place, in a conversation, a hike, a visit, and sometimes also in just marveling the surroundings of a place like Sde Boker.

There are only a couple of more days. Schumann hasn't yet sent out all the invitations for his new "Desert Carnaval". I heard he has some new characters in it that we have never heard of. He must hurry up if he wants Mendelssohn to join the party. The latter thinks he found a new symphony hidden in one of the caves here. Will he resurrect another composer yet again?! Tchaikovsky in the meanwhile has to quit worrying about hearing his Nutcracker piano arrangement played here. Who said one cannot Dance in the Desert?

A total of 72 students and 14 teachers performed about 150 pieces in the concerts, worked on 27 other pieces in the public master classes, and explored countless of other works in the private lessons. We head to a Bedouin tent for our farewell dinner before waking up from the dream and going back to reality.

Two and a half weeks of intense back and forth between young musicians and senior ones, all nourished by this magical environment changed us, made us more aware, enriched, rounded, rugged, inspired and perhaps even... better pianists.

See you next year!!

Alon Goldstein

Sunday, July 27, 2008

In Memory

July 16, 2008 - A dedication prior to performing the pre-concert recital at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival.

"Ladies and Gentleman, good evening.
Over the past few days, since I arrived in Seattle, people have been asking me why I changed my program for this pre-concert recital from Beethoven's Waldstein sonata to Bach' s Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring and Sheep May Safely Graze, along with the Janacek sonata Oct. 1, 1905 - From the Street.
While there were a few reasons (mainly logistical) that led me to change the program over a month ago, it was the news that broke-out this morning from my home country of Israel, that seemed to have dictated the real reason.
Earlier today a controversial prisoner exchange occurred, in which the people of Israel were holding their breath, expecting to receive two of its kidnapped soldiers, hoping that they were still alive. Instead, two caskets were thrown onto the ground by their despicable captors. The country is torn as well as united in the grief of the families.
This evening, playing the Beethoven sonata could not have taken place. It is Bach's eternal prayer for some kind of peace and forgiveness, unification and love, that needs to be. But, it is also Janacek's sad reminder of the tragic spiral of current events that dominate our world these days, and which we seem not to find a way to reconcile. Tonight I could not have played anything but the Bach and the Janacek.
Ladies and Gentleman, with your permission, I would like to dedicate this concert to the memory of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser."

Alon Goldstein

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Mozart Mystery

Preparing for performances of Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 12 in A major K. 414.
July 11, 2008 in Shippensburg, PA. with the Chamber Orchestra of the Summer Music Festival and David Amado conducting.
July 14, 2008 in Seattle, WA. at the Seattle chamber music festival.

In the past several weeks I have been thinking whether to write about my experience of playing Beethoven's "Waldstein" sonata for the first time, or maybe about the new discoveries I had when playing the Schumann piano concerto with three different orchestras last month. But as it turns out, something else, entirely different came up which I wanted to share. It is somewhat a mystery - a Mozart mystery.

I am in the midst of preparations for concerts of what is for me a new piano concerto - Mozart's concerto no. 12 in A, K. 414. Playing Mozart in the course of the season is, in my opinion, one of the most important things a musician can do in order to continuously develop, learn and raise his level of awareness to subtleties of rhythm, shades of sound as well as agogic, stresses and nuances of a phrase. Afterwards comes... exhaustion!

As I am learning the second movement of this delightful concerto I reach the point where the piano first departs from what was already introduced before by the orchestra. We are in the land of divinity, and this point of departure takes us a step even higher: Suddenly, without prior warning or any preparation the piano soars into a new melody - one with such heavenly beauty... it makes me stop. Not that it is "too much", it is just so overwhelming, I want to know where it came from.

This magical moment, just as it unnoticeably appeared, it disappeared without ever returning. But Why?! Won't there be a recap of the material, as is the case with music written in the classical era? If it is so beautiful, this magical moment, why not bring it again? Alas, why wasn't it announced before, or wasn't I told so I could properly prepare?

I look back at other Mozart concerti which I played over the years - No. 11 in F (K. 413), No. 13 in C (K. 415), No. 20 in D minor (K. 466), no. 23 also in A (K. 488), and no. 24 in C minor (K. 491) among others. Do these concerti all have a special moment such as the one I have just experienced? The answer is a resounding "yes!" - All of them have that moment which shows up unannounced, lingers for just a little, then goes away and shall not return.

Can we find similarities between these special secrets - "yes" and "no". "No" because there is really no pattern for their appearance- they could come during the course of the 1st, 2nd or 3rd movements. They can occur basically anytime! Or can they? Are they a result of pure spontaneity by a genius, or are they pre-planned? Does their function change depending on the place which they appear? Do they influence the structure, the unfolding of the movement?

One immediatey notices when these moments unveil themselves, but it is for different reasons that their beauty becomes so apparent: It can be a lonely melodic line singing high above in utmost simplicity in between outer sections of chordal writing full of dense texture as is the case in the present concerto K. 414. Or it can be the sudden launching into high passionate Sturm und Drung section at the end of a courtly dance movement - a Menuet, as is the case in the final movement of K. 413.

When I look for similarities between these cherishable moments, several realizations come to mind: their strength is a function of their brevity. Their sudden appearance and the fact that they will not come back is a virtue. They illuminate what we have just heard and what is yet to come.

Another thought has to do with the sensuous beauty and deep feeling from which these moments spring - maybe this is a glimpse into the composer's innermost, his inner-life, far from concealing the inward glow of passion!

These special places are always in complete contrast to what has happened before, yet their appearance sounds so inevitable. It is quite fascinating the different ways in which Mozart creates these very personal moments. In K. 414 it is a new melody of entirely new character on top of the simplest accompaniment - repeated chords; in K. 413 it is a "circle of fifths", which in the context of what has happened before, is quite shocking and at the same time so soothing...; In K. 491 when the tragedy, which was set forth at the opening slowly transforms through glimpses of hope when the second subject is introduced by the piano, a sudden, totally unexpected return of the opening theme (now re-orchestrated with solo Flute over piano accompanying) erases all traces of a positive outlook.

In K. 488 during the course of the exuberant Finale an "uninvited" guest arrives - Antonio the drunk gardener - in the form of a new theme in a new key. It converses with the orchestra, flirts with it, shouts at it... and goes away - a pure miracle! Why the gardener? Why here? It is not a "necessary" part of the "form". But maybe Mozart is not writing "forms", he is writing stories, and as the story unfolds, so does the twists and turns of his music.

My good friend Jonathan Biss wrote in his blog about the "sense of the mercurial in Mozart - the sensation that the character of a phrase is being determined as it is played as a reaction to the provocation that was the previous phrase - is of utmost importance. And that cannot be faked - you can only give the impression of being in the moment by actually being in the moment."

I think this all adds up to our efforts to understand this "mystery." We will never be able to solve it, but maybe, just maybe we will be able to get closer to it, feel it, and possibly even touch it momentarily.

Mozart wrote in a letter to his father in 1782 about the concerti K. 413, 414 and 415: "...There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why..."

I think this applies to these miraculous moments. And so next time when you listen to a Mozart concerto, look for these special places where a shiver runs through the body, a smile lights up the face, and you could hear Mozart laughing high above. You have just witnessed yet another layer of this composer's intimate personality. He whispered a secret in your ear!

Alon Goldstein

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Road Not Existed...

There are big cities, there are small cities, there are tiny little cities, and then there is Tiffin Ohio. This American city brought about yet another big smiling question mark on the face of Laurence, my relative from New York. Other than telling me with his witty touch of cynicism "it is my favorite city", or "been there many times...", he seemed to be at a loss in terms of its geographical whereabouts. He would not even admit that it is within the continental United States.

So there was no surprise when after asking the journalist that interviewed me from the local newspaper about Tiffin's tourist destinations or places to eat... all I heard was laughter. To be more accurate: regarding places to eat, I was advised to drive out of town, and in terms of places to see... well, it seemed that the biggest attraction within a 50 miles radius was the interstate that takes you North or South of here! But I like traveling, especially when no expectations are involved. This trip to Ohio included three solo recitals - Tiffin, Dayton and Cincinnati.

After landing in Cincinnati airport and getting my rental car, I looked at the map and saw that to get to Tiffin, one only needed to go North on the interstate and turn East at one point. That's all. My hard working manager - Jennifer - equipped me with directions from Yahoo map, to be on the "safe" side. These directions, however, showed a much more "contrapuntal" way to reach Tiffin - one that when placed next to the most complex of Bach's fugues, would probably prove superior in its intricacy, and its use of deceptive cadences. In other words there were quite a few dead-ends! I saved it for posterity.

For the love of traveling I went for excitement and took the road less traveled. What followed, though, reminded me of Frost's famous poem "The road not taken". But I will have to rename it to "The road not existed!" Battling with countless of country roads, byways, bicycle trails, foot paths, sidewalks as well as all sorts of non-grooved ways, I finally reached my destination... three hours or so late. I used "the Schwartz".

After settling in my hotel, I went to look for the hall. At this point I have lost my sense of adventure... and asked in the lobby for the directions!

Initially, when learning about this engagement. I was expecting to play in a small shabby looking barn or something like that. I understood that this presenter wanted to introduce classical music to his community and so forth. I was happy to come.

How surprised I was to find out that this was not a small barn, but rather a stunning-looking theatre from the 1920s that hosts a series of serious productions each year. Between the Broadway productions, and other big events, there was me and my solo piano recital going on tomorrow night...

Every now and then when I travel in the US, I come across a theatre from the earlier part of the twentieth century, which ends up being truly a jewel - a real beauty that has been preserved, renovated and cherished by special people in the community, that would not let it turn into a parking lot, or just deteriorate. A few of such theatres which I had the opportunity to perform at include the Coronado theatre in Rockford Illinois; the Ohio theatre in Columbus Ohio; the Old opera house in Franklin New Hampshire; Powers auditorium in Youngstown Ohio and the "Ritz Theatre" here in Tiffin Ohio.

Most of these halls, as is the case with this one, started as movie theatres. For me, just to be in such places, looking at the intricate plaster work, absorbing the inspirations for the interior design - Italian Renaissance or Greek - observing the atmospheric lighting, embracing the warmth, all this is very memorable. It is tangible!

My recital included works by Bach, Janacek, Debussy, Schubert, and my friend Avner Dorman. Each piece in this recital program seemed to have drawn its inspiration from a different source - whether religious as in the arrangements from the Bach Cantatas; current events, which inspired the Janacek sonata; a picture from the French Rococo period influencing Debussy; nature scenes and German poetry coming to life in Schubert's Impromptus and an individual (the legendary Jazz pianist Art Tatum) which inspired Avner Dorman's 2nd sonata.

I started with the Bach, in order to get the audience (and myself) "into the zone", into the state of concentration from which all else can then unfold.

The Janacek is a favourite piece of mine. One of the reasons is that I don't think it is "music for the piano". I will explain: unlike composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt or Chopin, who understood the piano intimately, Janacek's expressive (at times explosive) piano sonata seems to have written without the instrument in mind. This tragic score rather than written FOR the piano, it is music first and foremost! played AT the piano.

One of the advantages of playing a piece like the 2nd sonata by Israeli composer Avner Dorman is that after it ends, you feel that the audience is in a "shock". They did not expect something like that - that a contemporary work by a composer they haven't yet heard of, will bring them to such enthusiastic response. The sonata's colorful, poetic / somewhat melancholic opening movement is coupled with an outburst of immense energy and rhythmic power in the closing second movement. This is a tremendous showcase of creativity and imagination.

Following intermission I played Debussy's "Island of joy". Dated September 1904, Debussy wrote gaily about it “Heavens! How difficult it is to play… This piece seems to embrace every possible manner of treating the piano, combining as it does strength and grace…if I may presume to say so.” Indeed this is a world that unites joy and pathos, humor and love. In Debussy’s score, rhythmic control and suppleness exist side by side, and intoxicating dance rhythms mix with surging melody.

Schubert's sublime first set of Impromptus culminated the program. These pieces have a depth of feeling and Romantic intensity from true happiness to the most profound longing. Childlike innocence mixes with spiritual darkness. Optimism and hope confronts a reality of solitude and poverty. The composer of more than 600 songs is writing here four extremely poetic masterpieces. The range of emotions expressed in these exquisitely beautiful pieces is overwhelming. Schubert, who died at age 31, was able to reconcile the so called Classical style with the Romantic spirit of freedom and emotional extremity. The song-like quality of these jewels comes across also in the more agitated second and forth impromptus which are fast but lyrical without any intention of sheer virtuosic display. The picturesque characteristics found in Schubert’s songs are an essential part of this music – nature, the rippling brook, the un-attained love, the loneliness of the wanderer, the feeling of being a stranger in any land, breathlessness of hope as well as resignation and despair, and many more.

At the end of the recital I felt grateful at the opportunity to play in this hall, and for this audience who most likely experienced this music just now for the first time.

The next morning, as I was heading to Dayton I decided (if you don't mind) to take "The road existed"...

Alon Goldstein

Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Rollercoaster with Beethoven

January 29, 2008 – Playing with cellist Amit Peled the five cello and piano sonatas written by Ludwig van Beethoven. Part of the 150 anniversary celebration of the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

When I studied at the Peabody Conservatory, over ten years ago, I once asked my teacher Leon Fleisher to recommend me some good reading material about Beethoven – material that would get me closer to understanding this explosive, ever-changing, ever-experimenting, ever-challenging person. Without hesitating for a moment his reply was “the answers to all your questions are in his works. Get to know the music and you get to know the person.”

Indeed learning a body of work of a composer is in many ways like reading a fascinating biography about that person, especially if the music is of L. v. Beethoven. One can hear struggle, hope, triumph, humor, development, questions, frustration, jubilation, and many more characteristics that end up shaping the life of such a creative artist. My experience taught me that the music of great composers is also like the “keys” to the most hidden rooms – the ones that lead straight to their heart.

Amit and I played the Beethoven sonata cycle several times – in Seattle Washington DC, Rockville as well as Jerusalem. As we launched onto each 'journey' we felt that we are handing those special “keys” to the audience. We are the drivers, taking the audience along, on what ends up being a “Rollercoaster with Beethoven”.

Beethoven wrote several cycle of works in various genres – five piano concerti, nine symphonies, thirty two piano sonatas, sixteen string quartets, ten sonatas for violin and piano, five sonatas for cello and piano, and seven piano trios. Among these, the cycle for cello and piano stands out in being relatively short (only five works), and yet it covers a wider ground than say the piano concerti, or the trios, or in certain aspects even the ten violin and piano sonatas.

Interestingly Beethoven sat down to write his five cello sonatas in three different times that correspond with the “three periods” that musicologists are so fond of when dividing Beethoven’s creative life: The two sonatas Op. 5 were written in 1796, when he was already living in Vienna, and when influences of his predecessors Mozart and Haydn can be found side-by-side with the emergence of his own style. The third sonata Op. 69 was written in 1807-8, during the so called heroic period. Some of his most successful works were composed during the time - the fifth symphony, the “Emperor” concerto and many more. And his sonatas Op. 102 no. 1 and 2 were written in 1815 - the most transcendent and spiritual period. In many ways the music during these years is more enigmatic and at times introverted.

Our concert began with the two early "grande" sonatas Op. 5 no. 1 and no. 2. Interestingly they are the first duos for cello and keyboard instrument of any real importance. Neither Haydn nor Mozart touched this genre, and Bach’s monumental suites are for cello solo. In his Op. 5 sonatas Beethoven is taking an instrument which has always been associated with doubling the bass line, being a continuo, and bringing it to the foreground.

When Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792, he first tried to establish himself as a piano virtuoso. Consequently, the Op. 5 reflects Beethoven the pianist’s perspective to such a medium. These works are for “piano and cello” as written on the cover page, and not the reverse.

These early sonatas are quite unorthodox in their layout. That ultimately raises some issues regarding their structure and overall balance and proportion. Each sonata has two movements, the first movement being twice longer than the second. They begin with a large scale introduction that follows with an Allegro movement characterized by an over-flow of musical ideas. The second movement is deceptively lighter. Although it is shorter, and does not have the same gravity as the first one, it is even more edgy than the first movement and introduces humor, sarcasm (possibly on the poor performer), and plain fun. My favorite moment is when the “Turks are coming” in the middle of the second movement of the first sonata. A gypsy sounding section, that must have raised some laughter when it was first heard by the King of Prussia for whom these pieces were dedicated to.

Playing through the two sonatas - I know that Liszt was not yet born... but the level of sheer technical difficulty is astounding – all sorts of fast figuration, supported by odd accompaniment patterns, sudden dynamic changes, contrasting outbursts and all kinds of “special effects” that make the music extremely appealing, captivating, yet unexpected and quite 'dangerous'.
Survival is crucial to the continuation of the journey..

An intermission... or as Radu Lupu calls it - “Interpission”...

We continue with the third sonata Op. 69, written during Beethoven’s most productive compositional period. The same years (1807-8) also saw the production of the forth and fifth piano concerti, the violin concerto, the two piano trios Op. 70, the fifth and sixth symphonies, and the Fantasia for piano, orchestra and chorus. In the course of our concert / journey we place this sonata between two intermissions, giving it a certain focal point, a sense of arrival. In the cello literature, this sonata holds as central a place as the Kreutzer sonata holds in the violin literature.

There is a sublime merger of naturalness ad spontaneity in this sonata which in many ways is where Beethoven takes this genre to its ultimate development. This is also why I think of this work as “the place of arrival”, as in many of Beethoven’s middle period works where he achieves maturity and profound understanding in the genres he is writing to a much greater degree than in his earlier years.

In 1808 Beethoven’s hearing was already quite impaired. He could no longer hear high pitches. At times he would succumb to blackness of mood and depression. On the manuscript of the third cello sonata Beethoven inscribed “Between Tears and Sorrow”. Some suggest that this piece was his “hidden” expression of love for the mysterious Immortal Beloved. Indeed this sonata is much closer in character to the heavenly beauty of the forth piano concerto or the violin concerto rather than to the dramatic pain-to-triumph of the fifth symphony.

During the playing there is an incredible sense of inner-balance - A sense of divine beauty, of vision that comes only from someone that on the one hand is hugely talented, and on the other hand keeps experimenting, constructing and reconstructing and dedicating himself constantly and wholeheartedly to his craft. Beethoven’s understanding of the cello is now so complete that he allows the instrument to begin the piece unaccompanied. We are listening to a conversation of equals – cello and piano – they argue, the sing, they quarrel, they merge, they support each other, they confront one another and ultimately they believe, and bring themselves to explore greater heights in the realm of music and the so-called cello and piano genre.

If the essence of the “Classical Style” lies in the symmetry and proportions of the form, then this sonata can be the model for which one could learn about this era. And not to forget the opposite forces which are also an integral part of the “Style” – these opposite forces unfold during the harmonic build up of each movement and its key relations. It is hard to let go of this masterpiece.

Another intermission. A short one.

Rather than say, "we arrive now at the last part of our journey…" with Beethoven’s late period, I would rather say "we have now departed into the culminating part of our journey..." Because with Beethoven’s late period rather than feel a sense of arrival, I feel a sense of departure - departure into new realms of sound, of silence, of space, of time, of form, of harmonic development, of instrument relationship and much more.

The two sonatas Op. 102 are also the last of his chamber works with piano. The only other great works written on an intimate scale afterwards are his late string quartets and a number of late solo piano works.

The last two cello sonatas were written in 1815 on the threshold of what is referred to as Beethoven’s "late style". By that time Beethoven already had eight symphonies to his credit. He was completely deaf and his compositional output slowed down considerably. In this "late style" we find the composer searching for expression and meaning that some Beethoven specialists have noted as conveying a spiritual aspect – rather than a communion with a human audience, we sense that there is a communion with G-d. Several of the works written during the last decade of his life have religious undertones, including the Missa Solemnis as well as the last three piano sonatas.

In the forth sonata again the cello is the one to present the first notes unaccompanied. But is this a cello? Several aspects make this opening "statement" sounds quite different - the alto register; the non-assertive use of the key (C major), as well as the open-ended character of the theme. Consequently the cello sounds different. And when the piano enters, the sense is not of a dialogue but rather it is of a continuation of the line. Cello and Piano become interwoven, and the polyphonic lines make the two instruments almost indistinguishable. Cello and Piano become ONE! This is not music which is written FOR cello and piano. It is music! Which is played BY cello and piano.

Beethoven called this sonata a "Free Sonata", which probably refers to its structure. Rather than the "Classical", three-movement work (or four-movements with a Scherzo), we have here essentially two symmetrical movements. Each one begins with a slow section / introduction, followed by a faster sonata movement. One of the most interesting aspects of this piece, which is also an important element of Beethoven’s late style, is the sense of evolution that one gets when listening to the piece. The opening material of the piece reappears in the second movement creating a perfect unity. This reoccurrence leads to the final movement which is also the longest.

This is the shortest of the sonatas being just under fifteen minutes. But just as with the piano sonatas (Op. 78, Op. 101 among others), Beethoven’s understanding of the 'potential' of his motifs is at a level that he is able to say much more, with much less. In other words his motifs are on the one hand very simple and on the other hand they open up an infinite amount of possibilities, many of which develop in the subconscious of the listener. Beethoven is much more economic. The transitions are much shorter. And yet this music provokes a special dialogue with the listener – a dialogue which he might find hard to comprehend at first, and will keep on trying with some degree of success.

Entering the fifth sonata - Emotionally we are drained. We cannot go on 'automatic pilot', yet we don’t feel that can be in control any more. Can I go as far as say it is a kind of "out of body experience"?
That is what I feel. That is what we feel!
The development we have been going through. The growth, the amount of information we are being presented with – all has reached the last work, and yet we keep opening new doors – these ones however are completely new to our EARS! When I first learned the fugue of this sonata (the last movement), I remember calling Amit to say "I am either playing lots of wrong notes, or this is 'atonal' music!!"

This sonata has the only real slow movement of the entire set! The deeply moving Adagio has a distinctly out-worldly transcendence that characterizes other slow movements in Beethoven’s late period. The Final movement's Fugue is among the greatest fugues he had written. Though Beethoven loved fugal writing, he did not write many complete fugue movements. With its contrapuntal complexity, this particular movement is a masterpiece that stands alongside the fugues of the Hammerklavier op. 106, and the Op. 110 piano sonatas as well as the Grosse Fugue op.133 for string quartet.

If in "early Beethoven" the sources of inspiration came from Haydn and Mozart, in these late works, Beethoven looks further back to the Baroque era – to Bach. His
polyphonic writing reaches its climax in the 5th sonata's slow movement - a choral, and even more so in the last movement's extensive fugue.

Coming back to the point I have mentioned earlier - with most composers, as they approach the end of their creative life there is a feeling of arrival, also heard in their music – their art is extremely refined, the sound, texture as well as structure seems to have reached a certain culmination. With Beethoven, however, rather than arriving at the end, one feels that we are "departing" at the end... His music points to new directions, searching for new sources of sound, melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, structure and also sources of silence. One can even dare say that this music is more modern and onwards looking than our own contemporary 21st century music.

The End… or better say The Beginning.

Alon Goldstein

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Variations Without Words

Schumann - Andante and Variations Op. 46 for two pianos, two celli and horn.
Katherine Jacobson Fleisher and Alon Goldstein - pianos; Sharon Robinson and Julia Bruskin - celli; David Jolley - horn. December 2007 at the 92 street Y in New York.

The Schumanns in 1847

There is a very unique and somewhat interesting aspect to the music of Robert Schumann. This great German composer is, in my opinion, the quintessential advocate of the Romantic era. He represents so vividly what this era stood for. Maybe this fact has something to do with what I would like to bring up.

It seems to me that a large number of the pieces that Schumann wrote have an immediate appeal to them - we love them from the first moment we set our "ears" on them. I think of the piano concerto, the Carnaval Op. 9, the piano quintet and the piano quartet, as well as many of his songs. However, other works remain for one reason or another, not as immediately appealing. They require further efforts by the listener as well as the performer to put before themseves a quest to unveil their beauty... their mystery. Engaging in such a quest takes time and faith, but the remuneration promises to be miraculous, especially with the music of Robert Schumann.

I recently played with a great company of musicians one of Schumann's lesser known works - the Andante and Variations in B flat major, Op. 46, scored for the unusual combination of two pianos, two celli and horn. Written in 1843, this piece most likely has not been performed during Schumann's life time in its original instrumentation. Schumann later revised it into a two piano work which Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann premiered. The piece in its original form appeared in print only 37 years after the composer's death.

The eminent violinist Jaime Laredo told me that this is his favorite Schumann piece! Why is it, then, that this work still remains largely obscure? Is it merely the scoring, or are there more reasons for this?

Schumann enjoyed writing pieces for unusual combination of instruments. Most of these works, though, came several years later - the Adagio and Allegro Op. 70 for horn and piano; the Concert piece Op. 86 for four horns and orchestra; the Romances Op. 94 for oboe and piano are all but a few. The Andante and Variations Op. 46 of 1843, came just after his two chamber masterpieces - the Piano Quintet Op. 44 and the Piano Quartet Op. 47. At the time Schumann preoccupied himself with writing his grandest piece to date - the oratorio Das Paradis und die Peri Op. 50.

A fundamental notion of the romantic era proclaims that creative work is the result of the artist's unbounded imagination. There is also a belief that the artist is merely a vehicle taking dictation of music that arrives from another world.

When we examine closely the Andante and Variations Op. 46, one of the first things which we ought to ask ourselves is about the unusual scoring. The "Two-Pianos" medium was already used before in wonderful works by Bach and Mozart among others. In this work, the dense and complex texture of the two pianos is being enriched with the low and dark colors of the two celli and the horn.

Playing through the piece for the first time, it is quite surprising how sparsely these other instruments are being employed. For the most part they don't get to play the melodic lines, nor do they provide the bass line, as their register might suggest. They add, though, a unique deep dark color in the background, and also in the foreground as the piece progresses.

The opening line sets the color palette. Then the curtain rises upon the theme along with a series of variations, which are more like lyrical miniatures - the first with tender lyricism, while the second with whimsical wit. Thereafter comes the third variation with the soaring melodies followed by the one overdosed with fiery energy. Sudden changes of mood are so much part of Schumann's music, and this piece is no exception. The composer's alter-egos, the demonic Florestan and the dreamy Eusebius, make their subtle appearances. Sweetness mixes with doubt, triumph with despair.

Half way through the piece a miraculous moment - Schumann is quoting himself: the opening of his beloved song cycle Frauenliebe und leben. Interestingly this is the only variation in the entire piece that starts without either of the pianos. For the most part, this variation is devoted solely to the two celli and horn. It is as if Schumann is in such profound state of internal serenity that he abandons completely the richness of the pianos, allowing us to simply engage our ear with the color of the moment, with the help of the other instruments.
Is this the moment of Love? ...probably.

A sudden enlightenment - with the quotation from his song, maybe Schumann is writing here something similar to his good friend Mendelssohn's "songs without words". Should we then call this piece "Variations without words"? Oh, I like that!!

After this magical moment the theme re-enters in its pure naked form, and then takes a slight turn into its most painful transformation. The "love" of the previous variation is inflicted with the "pain" of this one. Love and pain go hand in hand. Whether helpful or not, necessary or superfluous, Schumann's deep love to Clara must have had something to do with these varying emotions.

Speaking of Mendelssohn... he now makes an appearance in the next variation, dressed up as one of his forest creatures. Though this variation is somewhat of a technical "tour de force", it is the pizzicato in the strings that draw my attention. It is in those subtleties that the piece becomes such a jewel. Then the horn gets center stage with vigorous calls that hardly ever been used in chamber music before. And in the next variation one of the clowns from the commedia dell'arte, possibly Harlequin, enters gently.

By now we have traveled quite a bit and we reach the grandest of all the variations, the one that uses all the forces which are at our disposal. We become a full orchestra. This is the only variation that begins in the minor key (g minor) and both melodically and rhythmically gets more intricate as it progresses. It culminates in the "coronation" of B flat major, the home key of the piece. There is high drama and passion in this variation, a real confrontation.

Eusebius returns. He gets the last word, as if to send us back to "Fantasy-land", a place we should have never left.

I want to play the piece again. I want to listen to it again, now from a distance.
Were these Schumann's internal thoughts or were these mine? ours? Unusual yet seductive. Appealing yet ambiguous.

I feel I just added a new pearl onto my collection - one that is rougher possibly from being out of site, and at the same time serenely beautiful and uniquely shaped from being discovered and loved by not so many. I know that Schumann has more of these pearls.... Can I recommend one more?...go and listen to the Six Etudes in the form of Canons Op. 56.

Alon Goldstein

Monday, January 7, 2008

Swimming in B flat major

Performing Beethoven's Piano Trio no. 7 in B flat major op. 97 at the Dame Myra Hess memorial concert series in Chicago with violinist Ilya Kaler and cellist Amit Peled, November 2007.

Coming out of a performance of Beethoven's Piano Trio in B flat op. 97 nicknamed 'Archduke', one of the audience members approached me and said: "Oh, how beautiful the opening theme is". Although this was presumably a very innocent remark, it propelled me into contemplating - is beautiful the word that best describes this theme? Can I find somewhat more accurate words to characterize the opening of this gigantic work? What is it that makes this opening theme sound ethereal yet luminous, soft-spoken yet all-embracing?

There was this "need" to dig deep into the understanding of keys and their repercussions.

Thinking about B flat major, I decided to bring up into this fictional conversation other pieces written in the same key. The result suggested that all seemed to share a common trait - they are certainly among the most divine master-pieces written by these composers. I was looking at Mozart's Piano concerto K. 595; Schubert's Piano sonata D. 960; and Brahms' Piano concerto no. 2. Interestingly Mozart, Schubert, Brahms and also Beethoven, all visited the key of B flat major earlier in their life in other compositions, yet these four works mentioned are all central in these composers' output, and for one reason or another, all of them end a series or cycle - the 'Archduke' Trio is Beethoven's last in this genre; Mozart's K 595 is his last Piano concerto; Schubert's D. 960 is his last Piano sonata; and Brahms wrote two piano concerti, the B flat one being the second of the two, written quite late in his life.

I begin to sing the opening of these pieces and more questions arise - is B flat major the key that connects between the real and the unreal? Is it the key/color that unites heaven and earth, intimacy and luminosity, youthful joy and sober maturity?

Bringing another piece into the mix - Bach's delightful Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother in B flat major. The implication of the word "beloved" was best illustrated in the key of B flat. Let us add then "LOVE" to the list of words associated with our current discussion.

Playing through the first two movements of the Trio we have reached the slow, third movement written in that unrelated key of D major. In Bach's time "D major" represented the key of "Glory". If there are words to describe the hymn-like melody of the third movement then I would say "Religious beauty". This divine slow movement - a theme and four variations, full of seamless rhythmic complexity - culminates in a long sustained Coda, where time is "suspended". This dimension in which music exists comes to an almost stand-still as the piano provides solely an inner-pulse on top of which the strings hover / float, reaching the melodic pinnacle of the movement (perhaps of the entire piece?), which is also the melodic cell of the movement, its DNA from which the whole movement is constructed. The movement quiets down to its end. The prayer ends.

We finish the performance of the Trio. It is our first collaboration and thus our first performance of this great masterpiece together. On the flight back, I experience the need to share some after-thoughts feeling I have been swimming in an ocean created by the key of B flat major, with a brief visit to the island of D major.

Another audience member asked me: "why did I mention in my liner notes that in the course of the first movement Beethoven moves from B flat major to the remote key of G major? Why remote? What is remote?" This will have to wait for another blog - one about keys and their siblings... But for now - when great music stirs such a dialogue, a certain ideal is being fulfilled. Let's keep asking those questions, and maybe we will be able to find some answers.

Alon Goldstein