The Art of Total Pianism
The Art of Total Pianism
MCO audiences have the good fortune of being on musically intimate terms with at least one pianist of historic stature: Marc-André Hamelin. Routinely touted as one of the world’s greatest living pianists, Hamelin has appeared as a guest soloist with the MCO regularly since 1991.
By turns delicate and rhapsodic, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude is one of Liszt’s most personal pieces, and the longest entry in his somewhat unknown piano cycle Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. It amply demonstrates why Liszt (1811-1886) is considered so modern, and anticipates the impressionist experiments with colour and modalism that were soon to become de rigueur among progressive composers of French music.
With Debussy’s Images collection we have impressionist music proper. About these lush and gorgeous pieces, Debussy correctly prophesied that they would “assume a place in the piano literature … to the left of Schumann or to the right of Chopin.”
For this concert, Hamelin, a dedicated explorer of the modern and contemporary, has plucked a handful of other exotic flowers from the landscape of solo piano music. He plays additional works by Feinberg and Godowsky, as well as Liszt.
An evening of unparalleled musicianship and modern music that is a must for discerning music-lovers.
Winner of the 1985 Carnegie Hall Competition, Hamelin was born in Montréal. His celebrity rests on his exceptional virtuosity in both the great works of the established repertoire and the obscure gems of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. He began to play the piano at the age of five, and by the age of nine had already won top prize in the Canadian Music Competition. Today, he is an Officer of the Order of Canada since 2003, a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Québec, and a member of the Royal Society of Canada.
New Yorker music critic Alex Ross once called the pianist’s hands “among the wonders of the musical world.”
Marc-André Hamelin records exclusively for Hyperion Records, Ltd.
Evening concert on February 20th at 7:30 pm; hour-long matinee concert on February 21st at 1:00 pm; both concerts at Westminster United Church, 745 Westminster at Maryland. Tickets, at $35 for adults, $33 for seniors and $15 for students and those under-30 (incl. GST), will be available 28 July 2017, at McNally Robinson, the West End Cultural Centre (586 Ellice at Sherbrook), Organic Planet (877 Westminster Ave) or MCO’s Ticketline (204-783-7377).
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Manitoba Chamber Orchestra
Anne Manson, Music Director
Karl Stobbe, Concertmaster
Westminster United Church
20 February 2018
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 (S 244/13)
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses III (S 173)
Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H (S 529/2)
Piano Sonata No. 4, Op. 6
Images, Book I
Wine, Women and Song, from Three Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Johann Strauss II
Marc-André Hamelin is ranked among the elite of world pianists for his unrivaled blend of musicianship and virtuosity in the great works of the established repertoire, as well as for his intrepid exploration of the rarities of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Mr. Hamelin’s current season features engagements with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Québec Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Wolf Trap Foundation, Yale School of Music, and the Minnesota Beethoven Festival, among others. Carnegie Hall presents Mr. Hamelin in a solo recital at the Isaac Stern Auditorium, featuring works by Liszt, Debussy, Godowsky, and Samuil Feinberg. European appearances include recitals at Aarhus Music Society, Berlin Philharmonie, and London’s Wigmore Hall, as well as performances with the Orchestre de Paris, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Philharmonic Society, and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Mr. Hamelin extends his North American tour with the Pacifica Quartet for a second year.
Special events of 2016/17 included duo recitals with Leif Ove Andsnes at Wigmore Hall in London, in Rotterdam, and in Dublin. Mr. Hamelin concluded the season as juror at the Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Fort Worth for which he was commissioned to write the obligatory solo work for the competition’s contestants.
Having set to disc more than 70 titles, Mr. Hamelin records exclusively for Hyperion Records, and his most recent releases are the Franck Piano Quintet with the Takács Quartet and the Ornstein Piano Quintet with the Pacifica Quartet. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Québec, and a member of the Royal Society of Canada. Born in Montréal and a resident of Boston, Marc-André Hamelin is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the German Record Critics’ Award Association.
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A Minor
Electrifying pianist, innovative and influential composer, generous colleague and ardent Hungarian patriot: Franz Liszt wore all these hats and several more. His prodigious talents made him the quintessential Romantic artist, and one of the most important musical figures of the nineteenth century. Inspired by the fabulous and unprecedented virtuosity of violinist Niccolò Paganini, he developed his skill at the piano to similar heights. His claim to the title of supreme pianist of the day was regularly challenged, but never surrendered. The three works on this recital make up a compelling portrait of this multi-faceted master, from the profound to the playful.
His first compositions making use of Hungarian or gypsy music date from the 1840s. He re-used materials from them when he came to write his most famous works in this style, the Hungarian Rhapsodies. He published the first 15 from 1851 to 1853, and four more in the mid-1880s.
He described his approach in his book, The Gypsies and Their Music in Hungary (1859): “Moved as we have been from childhood by the music of the gypsies, already familiar with its incomparable attractions, initiated gradually into the secret of its life-giving sentiment, penetrating the sense of its form and the necessity of preserving its eccentricities to prevent the loss of its character and its personality, we have naturally been led at an early time to appropriate some fragments of it to the piano, which seemed to us better able than the orchestra to reproduce its various strangeness—to duplicate more completely the unusual passions with which the gypsy has infused it.”
The term ‘rhapsody’ dates back to ancient Greece, where ‘rhapsodists’ (literally “song-stitchers”) wandered the countryside reciting famous poems. In music, a rhapsody first meant a piece of a highly poetic and emotional nature. By Liszt’s day, it had become a work with a free-flowing structure, like a medley, and one that was often intended to pay tribute to a particular culture. Some of his Hungarian Rhapsodies have that kind of looseness. Others follow the pattern of the csárdás, a Hungarian folk dance. The csárdás has two sections: the first, called lassú, is slow and melancholic, and is filled with passages imitating the celebrated, high-flying improvisations of gypsy fiddlers. The second, known as friss, is energetic and dance-like.
Rhapsody No. 13 opens with slow, pensive music decorated with numerous runs and flourishes and shimmering with quicksilver suggestions of dance rhythms. A rambunctious bacchanal seems to lie just over the horizon. When it does arrive, it proves to be a truly dashing affair, elfin in its initial restraint but delivering in due course a full measure of virtuoso thrills.
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, (God’s Benediction in Solitude)
—from ‘Harmonies poétiques et religieuses’ (Poetic and Religious Harmonies)
Once Liszt had become acquainted with the works of French poet Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), he began composing works inspired by them, with tremendous fervour. The sources he drew upon included a collection of verses, Poetic and Religious Harmonies, that Lamartine had published in 1830. Liszt composed a single piano work bearing this title in 1834. Over the next 20 years, he followed it up with two multiple-piece collections, again with the same title. The first appeared during the years 1840 to 1848, and the second from 1848 to 1853. The piece you will hear tonight is the third item in the second collection. It and the seventh piece, Funérailles (Funeral Rites) are the most frequently performed selections from the suite.
Liszt prefaced the score of Bénédiction with these lines from a Lamartine poem:
Whence comes, my God, this peace that floods over me?
Whence comes this faith with which my heart overflows?
Liszt’s beautiful, expansive Bénédiction offers one of the most impressive and touching demonstrations of his poetic and spiritual side. It conjures images and emotions of meditation and prayer, of quiet cloisters, selfless devotion and surging raptures of faith. It forecast his undertaking of minor religious orders during the 1860s.
Liszt’s biographer Humphrey Searle wrote of the Bénédiction that it “is indeed almost unique among Liszt’s works in that it expresses that feeling of mystical contemplation which Beethoven attained in his last period, but which is rarely found elsewhere in music … the touching simplicity of the final passage shows that Liszt, like Beethoven, could express the most sublime thoughts in completely unadorned language when the mood was upon him.”
Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H
Liszt held Johann Sebastian Bach in the highest regard. He paid his respects in creative terms in several ways, such as transcribing Bach’s organ and keyboard works for piano, and composing original pieces that pay homage to Bach.
In 1855, he wrote an organ work that was intended to be premiered at the consecration of a new church organ in Merseburg, a town in southern Germany. He didn’t complete it in time, and it made its debut the following year. He entitled it Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H. In German, these letters correspond to the musical pitches B-flat, A, C, and B natural, and he based this composition’s themes upon them. Bach had followed a similar process himself, in his monumental final work The Art of Fugue.
In 1870, Liszt produced a revised version of the organ work, as well as an adaptation for piano, the latter retitled Fantasy and Fugue. It’s a big, grand piece, ingeniously constructed, richly textured and passionately emotional. “This is a work of major significance in nineteenth-century keyboard music,” writes author Jeremy Siepmann, “and its translation of the organistic into the pianistic shows us Liszt’s recreative genius at the very height of its powers.”
Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Minor, Op. 6
Feinberg exhibited considerable skill as composer, pianist and teacher, but his total lack of interest in self-promotion led to his achievements remaining relatively unknown, both during and after his lifetime. After graduating from the Moscow Conservatory in 1911, his career was sidelined by horrific combat experiences during the Great War. In 1922, he was appointed professor of piano at the same conservatory where he had studied. He gradually widened his circle of performing sites to include other European countries, and occasionally served as an adjudicator at musical competitions. Inadvertently, he became entangled in the complex, even deadly politics of the brutal Stalinist Soviet era, a further curb on his career. Despite suffering from heart disease from the early 1950s, he continued to compose and perform right to the end of his life.
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians says that “Feinberg’s playing was notable for its clarity, quality of legato (smooth) playing, range of tone and rhythmic subtlety.” His performing repertoire included Bach’s complete Well-Tempered Clavier, all 32 Beethoven sonatas, and vast quantities of Chopin and Schumann. He and his fellow Russian composer/pianist Alexander Scriabin enjoyed a mutually respectful and inspiring relationship. Scriabin praised Feinberg’s performance of Scriabin’s ten sonatas, which Feinberg often performed complete, over two recitals. Scriabin’s influence can be detected in Feinberg’s music from time to time.
His catalogue of music came to include three piano concertos, 12 piano sonatas and a considerable quantity of other piano works, plus numerous songs and a handful of chamber works. He also produced piano transcriptions of music by a wide range of composers, including Corelli, Vivaldi, Bach, Beethoven, Borodin and Tchaikovsky.
The composition of Feinberg’s twelve piano sonatas spanned the years 1915 to 1961. No. 4 appeared in 1918, bearing a dedication to composer Nikolai Myaskovsky. It contains few if any echoes of the tumultuous events taking place around him, in just the first year after the Bolshevik Revolution. He cast it in a single movement. Opening in a vivacious yet slightly sinister and diabolical mode, it consists of flashing shifts in mood and volume. Littered with potent, massive climaxes, it demands a lofty level of virtuosity.
Images, Book 1
Debussy used the word ‘images’ for the titles of four three-movement works. Three of these were piano solos. He composed the first in 1894, but it wasn’t published until 1977 and the title, Images [oubliées] (Forgotten Images) wasn’t his own. Two more sets of piano solos followed, in 1905 and 1907, then a long-gestating orchestral work (consisting of Gigues, Ibéria and Rondes de printemps, 1902-1912).
In all but the earliest of these pieces, he firmly left behind the mainstream French romantic style of his early works and moved on to the atmospheric, indirectly descriptive impressionism for which he is best known.
In his catalogue of piano works, the first book of Images followed Estampes, Masques and L’isle joyeuse, and preceded the second book of Images and Children’s Corner.
Reflets dans l’eau, the title of the limpid and poetic first movement of Images 1, suggests a visual dimension more strongly than the more abstract titles of the second and third pieces. “The tremendous variety of shades is intimately pervading, imbuing the listener with its rich pictorial gamut,” author E. Robert Schmitz wrote. “Charmed by an aspect of nature, the sensitive artist recreates its geometry of motion as he yet portrays its poetry, simplicity, and ever-changing imagination.”
The second movement, Hommage à Rameau, pays eloquent tribute to Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), the French composer of the Baroque period whom Debussy most admired. It takes the form of a sarabande, a solemn, stately dance widely known in Rameau’s era. The esteemed French pianist Marguerite Long was a close friend of Debussy and one of his most insightful interpreters. In regard to this piece she wrote, “The composer was distrustful of the false grandiloquence of ‘those who lust for glory but neglect the perfection of taste and the strict elegance which constitute the pure beauty of Rameau’s music.’ … But this slow and grave dance, in my opinion, is not so much French as ‘ancient.’ Its rhythm, purely processional, is comparable to a Grecian frieze. ‘Play it as if it were an offering,’ the master insisted.”
Images 1 concludes with Mouvement, a dazzling exercise in forward-pressing energy. E. Robert Schmitz described it as follows: “… an uninterrupted moto perpetuo (perpetual motion) of triplets in sixteenth notes, punctuated by steady eighth notes, conveys a mechanical inexorability which is the herald of the ‘machine age,’ and for all its delicate texture embodies an early expression of the rhythmic dominance which inspired many composers during the first quarter of the twentieth century (Stravinsky, Prokofiev, et al.). The impression is that of a delicate wheel running at high velocity …”
Debussy was quite pleased with Images 1, writing, “Without false vanity, I believe these three pieces work well together, and will take their place in piano literature … either to the left of Schumann … or the right of Chopin.”
Wine, Women and Song
—from ‘Three Symphonic Metamorphoses on Johann Strauss’s Themes’
Praised in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as “one of the essential figures of twentieth-century pianism,” Godowsky won enormous fame during his lifetime, as both a performer and a composer. As a composer he was most celebrated for his imaginative transcriptions and paraphrases, rather than original works.
He was born in what is now Lithuania. A precocious child who was virtually self-taught in music, he gave his first piano recital at nine and made his American debut in Boston at 14. After spending several years in Paris, he returned to America and took up a teaching position in New York. In 1900, at 30, his sensational Berlin debut instantly elevated him to the highest ranks of pianism. A member of the audience wrote in the Musical Courier, “Godowsky did things on the piano that evening that had never been heard before in this piano-ridden town. I shall never forget the unparalleled enthusiasm that his playing aroused. The next morning, all Berlin was ringing his name, the newspapers came out with columns of eulogies, and the public was wild over him.” Similar praise followed him everywhere, throughout a career that came to be divided between Europe and the USA. In 1930, he suffered a stroke during a recording session, and spent the final eight years of his life partially paralyzed.
Many of his Liszt-like arrangements and fantasies based on other composers’ music are still so challenging as to define the technical limits of piano performance. A celebrated example is his astonishing Studies on the Chopin Études. In them, he added additional layers of difficulty to the already daunting originals, to the point of combining two études into a single piece, or transcribing certain études for left hand alone. Critic Harold C. Schonberg called them “the most impossibly difficult things ever written for the piano.” Marc-André Hamelin’s Gramophone Award-winning recording of them appears on the Hyperion label: CDA67411/2.
Three Symphonic Metamorphoses on Johann Strauss’s Themes appeared in 1912. In addition to Wine, Women and Song, the set included works derived from the waltz Artists’ Life and the operetta Die Fledermaus (The Bat). A separate piece, adapted from the Treasure Waltz from the operetta The Gypsy Baron, and scored for left hand alone, was published posthumously in 1941.
These dazzling works belong to a centuries-old tradition of showpieces—many of them based on the most popular concert and operatic works of the day—that instrumental virtuosi/composers have created as vehicles for displaying their skills and providing scintillating (and applause-generating) entertainment for their audiences. Other artists had used themes by Strauss for this purpose prior to Godowsky (Adolf Schulz-Evler, Carl Tausig, Moriz Rosenthal, et al.), but his far more sophisticated creations handily eclipsed theirs.
The term ‘symphonic metamorphosis’ indicates that the pieces offer much more than simple transcriptions or variations. Author Jeremy Nicholas writes that “Godowsky was at pains to distance himself from the label of keyboard acrobat which such pianistic conjuring inevitably attached to him. He expressed his disappointment at the sort of shallowly brilliant paraphrases so popular with audiences and which he himself had regularly included in his own recitals until the appearance of his own arrangements. ‘Virtuosity as such,’ he said in 1920, ‘is the least part of the Metamorphoses, and everything in them is developed out of Strauss’s own music in an endeavour to build up a living, pulsing, colourful transformation of the simple original legitimately, by means of theme inversion and theme development, rich and glorified instrumental counterpoint, imitation and embellishment.’”