Archive

In early May I played a recital in Vienna on perhaps the most beautiful pre-modern piano I’ve ever played. The piano, dating from 1819, was built in Vienna by André (Andreas) Stein. It has a range of six octaves, from FF in the bass to f”” in the treble. The programme I played consisted of a sonata by Weber (Op. 39) and the ‘Eroica’ Variations by Beethoven, which I’ve played a few times recently. It was a huge privilege to play on this instrument and I appreciated each moment in its sound world. It is, of course, impossible to describe the extraordinary beauty of its sound – it’s enough to say that playing it was an experience which will be difficult to match under any circumstances. My thanks to all the staff at the Sammlung alter Musikinstrumente for making it happen.

In mid-August, I was interviewed by Tilman Skowroneck for the Summer 2012 edition of the Westfield Center Newsletter. The full text appears below.

In August 2011, Anthony Romaniuk was awarded first prize at the inaugural Westfield International Fortepiano competition in Ithaca, N.Y. In the 2012-13 season he will undertake a solo tour of the U.S.A., as part of the prize from the Westfield competition. In anticipation of these concerts, I have asked Anthony among others about his musical plans, his views on historical instrument and performance practice, and—Pixar movies!

Tilman Skowroneck

What news is there about your upcoming solo tour? Where will you be playing, and what kind of music will you be playing?

The ‘tour’ actually happens over a period of eight months and will take place over three trips. The concerts which are directly due to the Westfield prize begin with Ann Arbor, MI (October 21), followed by Los Angeles (January 13), Raleigh, NC (January 20) and Boston. Additionally, on each trip there will be other, non-prize-related, concerts and workshops taking place in San Francisco, Phoenix, Chicago and New York, but not everything has been finalized at this point. In time all the information will be on my website!

In terms of repertoire, I’m playing primarily Mozart and Beethoven, with each of the major forms of the Classical style—Sonata, Rondo, Fantasy and Variations—making an appearance. The program in Raleigh is rather different, consisting of chamber music, arrangements and transcriptions. I’m looking forward to playing some quatre-mains with Andrew Willis on that concert!

How do you select your pieces, and how is this repertoire special to you?

Selecting these pieces was done by the usual process: I had a few ideas which I discussed with my teacher, and this collection of music was the result. Some pieces are rather well known and oft-played (e.g. Mozart K. 475) and other pieces are infrequently played on historical instruments (Beethoven’s Eroica Variations). I think it’s nice for audiences to hear at least some familiar repertoire, through which it becomes easier to know the style of the performer.

I never, ever, played Chopin when I only played modern piano, but the combination of early recordings and experimentation on appropriate pianos allowed me to hear it in a new context—so it’s now among my absolute favorite music to perform.

Do you already know which kinds of instruments you will be playing?

More or less, yes. Of course, the proportion of instruments with a range of five octaves (or slightly more) to instruments with a range of six or more octaves must be something like 10 to 1, so one is pushed into particular areas of repertoire most of the time. But I think that all fortepianists are used to this—we have to program based around a generic type of instrument. It’s not like there is a shortage of repertoire…

Speaking of instruments, it is always interesting to hear the story of how a modern pianist got involved with the early piano or the harpsichord, or both. What’s your tale? How did you get interested in early keyboard instruments?

In late 2005 I was in Australia taking time off to prepare for serious compositional study when I heard the tail end of Charpentier’s Te Deum (played by Les Arts Florissants) on the radio. I was driving, but it was so captivating, I had to pull over and listen. More or less at that juncture I decided that I needed to change direction and study harpsichord, in order to get to know this awe-inspiring music! I often refer to this as my ‘road to Damascus’ moment. After taking a few lessons back in New York with Arthur
Hass I enrolled in the conservatorium at The Hague, which seemed like an accessible entry point to the European community.
There was no such dramatic moment for fortepiano. One day I just walked into the wrong
room and saw an old piano—I could not have said how old. 1890s? 1850s? I had no idea. It turned out to be a six-octave instrument by Gerling, c.1835. I didn’t find this piano particularly interesting, but it seemed wise to take lessons when the opportunity existed. Slowly, slowly, the expressive potential of these instruments was revealed to me.
Of course, one passes through a stage of being completely obsessed with the multiplicity
of options of early pianos, particularly coming from the modern piano, where one has no choice of instrument. But here, you can play a Silbermann or Stein (with or without leather on the hammers), Spath und Schmahl, Walter (early, middle, -und Sohn), Brodmann, Broadwood, Graf, Fritz, Streicher, André Stein: you can go on and on ad infinitum.

Nowadays I’m a bit more relaxed about such things. Ultimately, for me, the choice of
instrument is means to an end, rather than an end in itself meaning, it’s a constant in any given performance, and therefore the variables of each performance will adjust or be adjusted to as a result of this constant.

Could you elaborate on this point? To many lovers and players of the modern piano, the standard concert grand remains something of a measuring stick, and discussions about alternatives very soon turn to how the sound, the attack, and the dynamics of the earlier piano are “different.” How do you define your “variables” and how do you help your audiences to rid themselves of this fixation on surface characteristics? What needs to come in its place?

Firstly, regarding constants and variables: the piano itself is there to help bring into being the combined thoughts of the composer and performer—but the instrument itself cannot be changed; it is an outside factor. Therefore one cannot play beyond what the instrument is capable of. One can only stretch one’s own capabilities. Of course, different players draw different sounds out of the same piano, but that’s exactly the point: it’s the same piano! The player has the responsibility to explore the furthermost possibilities of the instrument.
Regarding the audience/player perception of early pianos: this is certainly a tricky area. In terms of an explanation, I use the same metaphor for audiences and modern pianists—that is, an early piano is filled to overflowing by a Beethoven or a Mozart. Exploding with sound. Utilizing every sounding part. “Brechen muß das Klavier!” (LvB!)

If we think of it in reverse, Scarlatti’s music sounds rather good on the modern piano, but the river-bursting-its-banks-type explosive energy is missing. The instrument is simply too massive to make the two-part textures sound like a universe unto themselves. But on a fine Italian harpsichord, bass and treble realized with a 2 x 8’ registration almost rips the soundboard out of the case. This holds true throughout the development of the piano. Chopin knew his piano’s strengths and wrote handsomely for them, as did Brahms, Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Ligeti. An aside: this concept—the ever-increasing massiveness of piano writing with the end goal of filling up the instrument—explains why we program
recitals in the way that we do (chronologically). After playing a few Ligeti Études, our Brahms is somehow less impressive; indeed, it sounds small (not to mention our Mozart)…

So that’s how I like to explain it. The Eroica variations sound great on a modern piano, but they are completely overwhelming (overflowing!) on a five-octave Viennese beauty.

What about historical performance practice? Where is your focus?

If I was constructing an ‘early music’ curriculum, day one, lesson one would begin with primary sources —that is, the earliest recordings we have (e.g. Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Reinecke, Leschetitsky etc.)—and then proceed from there. We all know how, even for gifted writers, words cannot adequately express so much that we experience. And how difficult (actually, impossible) it is to express musical nuance in words! But the trend is still to rely on 17th- and 18th-century written sources as the exclusive arbiter
of performance manner. Additionally, it seems dangerously misleading to assume equivalency of various terms/phrases (or taste) when reading early sources. For example, a comparative reading of a late 19th-century text, which corresponds to an early recording (e.g. Saint-Saëns’ description of his own way of playing Chopin and his piano roll from 1907) reveals a massive disconnect in the way that we understand things like “strictly in tempo,” “slightly after the bass note” and “evenly”—and this disconnect likely only gets wider as the distance between us and the source grows. So, while reading
these sources is vitally important, taking them at face value can easily mislead us. It is, of course, encouraging that Quantz, Leopold Mozart, C. P. E. Bach, François Couperin, etc., all implore us, as a final word, to rely on our ears and our own good taste!
19th-century written source material is, of course, far more detailed and richer than previous centuries backed up as it is by early recordings. We know so much about the pedagogy of that time: how various people taught, what was taught, how performance and interpretation were viewed, ways of practicing…

I understand that, to you, 19th-century pedagogy and the evolving concept of performance and interpretation are closely related. Do you have examples?

Of course, there wasn’t a monolithic 19th-century pedagogical school as such, but several important pedagogue-pianists seem to have had remarkably similar ideas. For instance, Liszt claimed that technique comes from the “Geist,” not from the fingers—as did Thalberg, Chopin (less pithily) and Busoni. The concept of a single, correct interpretation seems to have been anathema to every notable pedagogue, and examples of how each performance was different from the last abound (Liszt, Chopin, etc.). The attitude to ‘wrong’ notes was, of course, less catholic than today: witness Beethoven’s
statements on this (also, Hans von Bülow told pupils to occasionally miss some large leaps, so that the public knew how difficult the passage was!). Improvisation, of course, was taught at least somewhat—both free-form and preluding—and one can imagine what effects this had on performance. The fact that Leschetitsky had pupils as different as Schnabel, Friedman and Paderewski gives some idea of the flexibility of his approach (or, at least, that he was happy to have pupils who scarcely resembled each other). We often read how pupils were encouraged to become well-rounded artistic people—to be well-
read, learned and appreciate art in general—and perhaps as a corollary, practicing for six or eight hours a day seems to have been inadvisable.
Interestingly, Chopin forbade pupils from working for more than three hours (to
prevent “abrutissement”), and advised that rest periods should be spent reading good books or looking at masterpieces of art or going for walks (all the Chopin references are from Eigeldinger’s indispensable collection “Chopin, pianist and teacher, as seen by his pupils”).

And old recordings? How much do they actually tell us about keyboard playing in the 19th century? Do we find links between written romantic sources and the emerging sound documents of the early 20th century? If so, what are these links?

As I hinted at earlier, the relationship between written romantic sources and early recordings is a case of truth being stranger than fiction. Here’s what I mean: a colleague of mine memorably described early recordings in general as sounding like they came “from Mars”—yet, obviously, the musicians themselves didn’t think of themselves as extraterrestrial, they just played the way they wanted the music to sound. For instance, Carl Reinecke was a friend of Schumann and Mendelssohn (who was himself considered rather conservative), ended up teaching for decades at the Leipzig Conservatory (known for being a bastion of conservatism) and was a reputable Mozart specialist. If we listen to his piano rolls, it is (at least initially) scarcely believable that such playing could match up with such a résumé!

But (even taking into account the deficiencies of piano rolls, which have mostly to do with color, etc., while rhythmic parameters are rendered exactly) this matchup is a ‘truth’ of a kind. Clearly we have to make room in our imaginations for such possibilities. Again, this is why I find early recordings so invaluable—they (almost) cannot be misrepresented.

You mentioned the relationship of various arts to each other, and how it is helpful for your approach. Do tell me more.

Knowing the visual idea of beauty for a particular time and place (through painting, sculpture and architecture) can certainly help shape one’s concept of how the scores of that particular time and place should be realized. Again, it’s not an end in itself—it’s more like an aid to refine one’s general sensibilities. So, does knowing the paintings of Friedrich help my Beethoven? Yes, in some way. But do I think about Friedrich whilst performing? Absolutely not!

It’s rather a similar situation with literature (prose, poetry, correspondence)—it can place one in a historical context very directly. Perhaps my favorite example of this would be Mendelssohn’s letters: to modern ears his prose is almost unbearably sentimental, but the fact is that this is more or less how well-educated people communicated with each other in this medium. These kinds of documents bring us directly into another world, which makes them precious.

You play the harpsichord, the early piano and the modern piano. Which place does the harpsichord hold in your musical universe? Is there any harpsichord repertoire you particularly prefer?

I love playing harpsichord but I’ve never given a full-length harpsichord recital or played a concerto. It’s really a matter of time and focus. I’ve chosen to play mainly 19th-century solo repertoire and out of pure practicality this has meant excluding repertoire that I love, including Couperin, Bach, Byrd, Froberger…But I play lots of continuo and enjoy playing in ensembles, including the various Bach obbligato works. It’s easy for me to imagine coming back to the harpsichord in a few years—things come in waves, I think…

The harpsichord and the various kinds of piano seem to require quite distinct approaches. How does one stay in shape on such a variety of instruments? Do you work in periods (switching around between, say, a harpsichord phase, a fortepiano phase, a piano phase), or do you take a different approach to this challenge? What do you recommend to colleagues who work with the same type of problem?

I have certainly had phases of playing more modern, or more harpsichord, or more clavichord. It depends on what requirements (or repertoire binges) I have had at any given time. In my experience, the trick behind switching back and forth seems to be more connected to one’s ears than anything else. If I attempt to speed up the adjustment by concentrating on my fingers it takes much, much longer than if I simply listen and let the fingers follow.
But switching between instruments like this is just a macro form of what fortepianists (not speaking of organists!) have to deal with at each concert—that is, simply making the best out of whatever you have to work with. It harkens back a little to what I said earlier about instruments being the means to an end—meaning, whatever music one makes is originating in one’s mind (i.e. you should hear what it is you’re playing immediately before you actually play it) and the instrument is simply a constant in the equation of the performance.

We cannot really avoid being retroactively influenced by our more modern experiences. We cannot avoid the fact that somehow, our Bach playing knows about Brahms, our Chopin has met Scriabin and our Frescobaldi is aware of Mahler. How do you create an appropriate mindset, how do you ‘switch off’ unwanted musical influences, when working on any particular historical repertoire?

You’re right, it’s unavoidable. I don’t really think that ‘switching off’ the unwanted influences is the goal here, but rather, it’s to render the music as fresh as the day it was composed (I think Pollini said something about this). For me, this entails thinking like a composer, or an improvisor. For example, if one wants to perform Frescobaldi, ideally one should have more than a passing familiarity with his specific and personal musical language—so that when he writes something inevitable, we feel it as inevitable and when he writes something surprising, we feel it as such. It’s about playing with
expectations of how the music should go. Mozart is, of course, an unparalleled example of how we can be moved by music through our expectations of its progression. His musical language is an almost unbearable pull between the expected and the unexpected. (We all know when the cadence is finally coming, and what a relief when it does! We hear a theme and expect eight bars but he adds or subtracts something—and we know that the second theme is coming in the recapitulation but how is he going to get there?! etc., etc.). Robert Levin sums this up beautifully with his ‘three card monty’ analogy, to be found on YouTube! (The link is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPuxV0xXEc8, accessed August 12, 2012. T.S.)

On your website, we come across the tantalizing information that you are “a huge fan of the entire body of work produced by the Pixar animation studios,” as an introduction to a blog post that analyzes the archetypal “superficially benevolent villain.” Sharing your passion for high-end animation, I’ve often wondered what the connection is: does watching Pixar make us better musicians, or does being a musician make us better Pixar viewers? How do you view Pixar’s take on theatre, passion, emotional depth and variety, and polyphony of content? Is animation helpful at all for our work as HIP
keyboard players?

There must be some very, very smart and funny people working at that studio! I’ve always been amazed at how each one of their films (perhaps excluding Cars, the weakest of the bunch for me) manages to work on so many levels—that is, older siblings, parents and grandparents can enjoy it as much as toddlers. I guess this is what you’re referring to with ‘polyphony of content’—the multi-layered artwork, appealing to many audiences simultaneously.
If there’s a lesson that musicians can learn from this body of work, I’d say it would be in
the strength of storytelling. The kinds of stories they can tell, the worlds they can conjure, without a single word of dialogue, is truly remarkable (think of the first 45 minutes of Wall-E or the Carl and Ellie story at the beginning of Up, and even the short Lifted). This kind of approach directly impacts how we should approach our Mozart sonata. Using only sound, we should aim to clearly and directly communicate a story complete with character, structure, tension and resolution. I’m not sure whether being a musician makes me a better Pixar viewer—in that I don’t think that their work is somehow better understood by musicians or other artists—maybe that’s why I like it
so much. There’s no snobbery at all. It is, like much of Shakespeare, written so that the groundlings and the Queen can take equal delight in a great story, told impeccably. (Did I just equate Shakespeare and Brad Bird?)

What are your most cherished musical plans for the future?

I’m looking forward to playing a few concerti in the upcoming seasons (plans for Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart). Mozart’s concerti are particularly interesting in how one is simultaneously the soloist and an integral part of the ensemble (in the tutti sections). I’m thrilled to have been asked to play at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna this season on one of my absolute favorite instruments (a piano by André Stein, 1819, FF-f’’’)—this is certainly an upcoming highlight for me!
There is, of course, so much wonderful music that one can play. It’s hard to know where to begin. In the past I’ve looked at Dussek, Weber, Hummel, Clementi, Mendelssohn—surely there’s more to explore only with those five. I also love Saint-Saëns’ music…Liszt, Alkan, one can go on and on.

Anthony, thank you very much for this interview!

Pixar and the deceptive villain

I feel no shame at all in admitting that I am a huge fan of the entire body of work produced by the Pixar animation studios. With the single exception of ‘Cars 2’, I have seen each of their dozen full-length features; most of them multiple times. Watching ‘Up’ and ‘Toy Story 3’ in quick succession last week led me to ruminate on an archetype both shared: the superficially benevolent villain.

Both Charles Muntz and Lotso initially appear friendly and welcoming but their hidden role as antagonist is revealed as it becomes known that their interests run contrary with those of our protagonists. More simply: the good guy is actually bad.

But it isn’t just these two. AUTO (from Wall-E), Stinky Pete (Toy Story 2) and Mr Waternoose (Monsters, Inc.) all imbibe the good-turning-bad archetype. Buddy (The Incredibles), meanwhile, is simply annoying and somewhat meddling before maturing into super-villaindom.

Of course, all these villains are compelling in their own right – the scripts being too multi-layered and creative as to allow predictability to creep in – but I find it very interesting that this fundamental commonality exists.

It’s even more interesting when one realises that, of the five remaining features (Ratatouille, Cars, Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life and Toy Story) only one of them has anything like a villain – and it is almost certainly the weakest of the entire oeuvre. Hopper (A Bug’s Life) is threatening and cruel throughout the story, which lacks the complexity and wit of both the original Toy Story and everything running subsequent. It reminds me a little of some early Simpsons or Seinfeld episodes, before the kinks had been worked out.

So, out of the seven villains found in Pixar films, only one exhibits something akin to the cartoonish villainy which we might associate with Cruella Deville or Scar.

What this seems to mean is that, consciously or not, Pixar are teaching their young viewers to look beyond the surface, which surely is always a welcome approach. One hopes that this is not lost on their parents.

28.12.11

A.

Repetition

Having finished the superb and gargantuan ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace a few months ago, I began rereading it last week. Immediately I am struck by swathes of material, both crucial and beautiful, which I had somehow missed or glazed over. I’m so very glad that I have decided to reinvest time into something that I have already received so much from. This repetitive act has thus far been anything but.

I suppose it’s somewhat like one’s second trip to a place like Rome. Having previously had one’s sense boundaries greatly expanded by the breadth and depth of living and once-living society, one can safely and leisurely explore these new areas of experience. Of course, expectation plays a crucial and unavoidable role. Will that memorable Carbonara be just as haltingly intense as the first time?

As far as I understand, identical repetition is a physical impossibility due to the constant variability of all things. But perhaps things which are even superficially and super-atomically repetitive can never be identical if for no other reason than the variability of their surroundings. ie. context seems to be rather important. Even if one imagines a tightly controlled setting such as a sleep study (alone in a sound-proof, climatically-controlled and window-free environment for a week), the activity in one’s own head provides more than enough variability.

This brings me back to Wallace, who, in a 2005 commencement speech entitled ‘This is Water’ gives the commencers an exhortation to cultivate awareness – just awareness of each moment as something other than what he calls the ‘default setting’ of unconsciousness. The underlying message being: our experiences are what we make of them (cf. Hamlet 2/ii) and those things which we deem repetitive are usually an invitation to look closer, if only for the sake of variety.

18.11.11

A.

We can be happy Underground

Watching Kusturica’s hilarious and devastating epic Underground (1995) a few days ago gave birth to a few thoughts.

Firstly, it’s interesting just how Western-centric my view of European history is – my basic knowledge of people, places and events is strongly tethered to the field encompassing London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. And I don’t think I’m alone in this, as Norman Davies has indirectly and repeatedly pointed out.

Perhaps more worrying is the fact this ignorance occurs despite the fact that my own ancestors (and not in the long-lost sense) were reared in the extreme vicinity of the action of this movie and more likely than not had stories which would strikingly resemble those (perhaps overly dramatised) of Petar and Marko.

Secondly, the ‘score’ of Goran Bregovic is just amazing. It’s the kind of music that all classical musicians, publicly or privately, wish to make. Immediate, understandable, exciting and necessary.

Brilliant…

2.11.11

A

A few thoughts on Chopin’s Preludes 

I’m certainly not the first to point out that this rather famous set of (mostly) miniatures in all twenty-four keys is the only one out of quite a proliferous genre which is performed almost exclusively in its entirety. Although fine collections of Preludes ‘in the 24’ exist by Clementi, Hummel, Kalkbrenner and too many others to name it is only Chopin’s which have a place at all in the repertoire. Perhaps it’s simply because unlike its genre stablemates, Chopin’s set eventually tires of its miniature scale (read: one briefly explored idea per piece) and begins to flesh out some of its motives. By the time we get to the f# minor prelude the mould has been broken and we have something of a large-scale structure.

Maybe it’s also the ingenuity of the keyboard writing which makes this set durable. In particular, the left hand throughout has very little pedestrian writing. Even in the sadly-overplayed e minor piece, the left hand writing constantly makes one think and never repeats itself out of torpor.

For recordings of the work, perhaps Koczalski above all. As much as it sounds like a cliché, it’s true that he never lets his technique interfere with his music-making.

A. 25.10.11

Comments are closed.