Friday, December 13, 2013

Schubert's Unfinished Piano Sonatas

With this, the companion piece for our popular Integral Edition Series post, we continue and conclude our survey of Franz Schubert's piano sonatas. This post concerns all the largely unfinished or posthumously published works, none of which appear in the Integral Edition Series. Schubert wrote a lot of unfinished works that were fortunately not burned, as was often the fate of lesser or unfinished works by others. It's difficult to properly number these works, though one can always rely on the Deutsch numbers. We'll continue numbering them after the first set, which ended with Sonata #15 being the B Flat Major D. 960, which Schubert completed in September, 1828, just weeks before his death. You'll find in this set all those works that you've perhaps heard before, yet they were missing from the first set.

Sonata #16 in E Major (1816-18) D. 549, D. 549A
Considered a fragment, this piece became a five movement work, the missing movements apparently found later and the first publication occurred in 1843. It is available, complete and beautifully laid out, in the third volume of Henle's urtext series edited by Paul Badura-Skoda. This E Major Sonata would be contemporaneous with the 1817 sonatas, so it makes many allusions to Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn. But this is the fourth voice of the Viennese classical style, the voice of the singer. One finds all kinds of textures and moods in Schubert. Think Mozart when you're playing these, because if you over play any of it, much of the music's uniqueness will be ruined. Just because there are a lot of chords doesn't mean that we want to understand by this the instruction to bang a lot on the piano. Nothing like that is ever intended. This music is a distillation of the styles of the other classical masters and even those who came long before them. Subtlety abounds. I chose Wilhelm Kempff's performance, as it superbly exemplifies all these characteristics. 

1. Allegro moderato
2. Scherzo: Allegro
3. Adagio
4. Scherzo: Allegro - Trio: Più tardo
5. Allegro patetico

Sonata #17 in f sharp minor (1817) D. 571, D. 604, D 570
This sonata is concocted of fragments, the first and last movements happen to lack recapitulations, which have been supplied by various editors. It's apparently not that hard to complete Schubert sonata-allegro forms, since in his finished works, he rarely deviates from his method, so that's what's frequently done. Some pianists, actually stop playing after the verifiable music actually penned by Schubert runs out. Richter and Brendel did this. It can be done as acceptable performance practise, but I've always thought it somewhat odd; if you're going to play a fragment, might as well make the best of finishing it if you can. Besides which, and perhaps this was even more true in earlier more romanticized periods, when one hears the music suddenly stop and knows its because the composer didn't get around to finishing it, one can then afford oneself the lament that only if the poor fellow had managed to live longer, that he'd have finished it himself. Believe me, as it is, plenty goes unfinished. One always hopes to accomplish what one can.

Victor Stanislavsky plays the first movement, including a recapitulation that is similar to that found in the Badura-Skoda Henle edition. The Andante is complete and is played here very well by an unidentified pianist. I don't usually like including unauthenticated performances, but we're dealing with the rare and difficult here. We want to give our readers an idea of the composition, so that perhaps they might make something of it themselves.

For the third movement, I chose a period instrument rendition by Trudelies Leonhardt. It gives you the sense of the times in which Schubert worked, with the instruments he had available, a transition period where you can really see how he was dealing with how to mould and shape the old dance forms with new harmonies and textures. The fourth movement is played by Alwin Bär who has the recording fade out as the development section nears its end. This piece is completed in the Henle edition, so I suppose you'd have to get a copy to find out how it ends.

1. Allegro moderato [D 571]
2. Andante [D. 604]
3. Scherzo [D 570]   
4. Allegro [D 570] 

Sonata #18 in C Major (1818) D. 613, D. 612
This sonata is also a concoction of fragments. The first movement is again offered here played quite competently by an unauthenticated pianist. It lacks a recapitulation, and one is supplied here. The one in the Henle edition will be somewhat different only near the end where Badura-Skoda provides a more conservative rendering. The second movement, a flowery period Adagio, is complete and here played by Peter Frankl. I regret not finding a recording of the last movement. That also can be found in the Henle edition, its recapitulation completed by Paul Badura-Skoda.

1. Moderato [D. 613] 
2. Adagio [D. 612] 
3. Allegretto [D3 613 said to be a Siciliana]
Sonata #19 in f minor (1818) D. 625
This is one of the more outstanding sonatas among the unfinished ones and one of the most recognizable. Richter played it, at least the parts actually written by Schubert. Paul Badura-Skoda played the version of it he completed in the Henle edition and his version is presented here. The middle movements are sometimes switched. Either way, the punchy scherzo theme offers a kind of shock to whatever preceded it. The Scherzo is complete, as is the Adagio. The fourth movement is missing the left hand part after a while, so Badura-Skoda completed it.

1. Allegro
2. Scherzo: Allegretto – Trio
3. Adagio [D. 505]
4. Allegro

Sonata #20 in C Major “Relique” (1825) D. 840
This is another amazing discovery, the latest to be found unfinished work in this genre by Schubert. It was given the name “relique” in the belief that it was his last written piano sonata, but it was in fact written three years earlier in 1825, and left to gather dust somewhere until it was discovered, put together and first published as a fragment in 1881, the same year Brahms' second piano concerto was premièred and Béla Bartók was born. It's first two movements were complete, and that's how much of it most people ever get to hear. But there were enough of the last two movements to nearly complete them. We are pleased to have Sviatoslav Richter's nearly complete performance of this recreated work. He quits playing when the last of the real Schubert ends and where editors like Badura-Skoda have completed the work.

1. Moderato
2. Andante
3. Menuetto
4. Rondo 

And believe it or not, there's actually one more; a completed version of Sonata #7 in E Flat Major D. 568 except it's in D Flat Major, D. 567, and there are some other changes to some of the music in the middle movements and so on. It's considered an earlier version of the more popular E Flat sonata (our #7). I wasn't able to find any recordings of it and as far as I know, no one ever plays it. It's included in the third volume of the Henle Badura-Skoda edition, should you wish to become the first to claim it as your own.

Thank-you once again for coming along with us to investigate the unfinished works of Franz Schubert. We're lucky to have them. We'd be even more lucky to hear newer and better performances and recordings of all of them.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

The State of The Late Quartets

In most serious music circles, when one remarks of the late quartets, one can mean but one thing; a reference to the last string quartets by Beethoven. In fact they were the last of his completed works and comprise a kind of last will and testament.

This post furnishes the last of a series that began with the last post on Beethoven's Op 18 string quartets, the six that began his contributions to this form. There will be one for the middle quartets as I am currently listening to them all once again. This time we're going to focus on live performances and their recordings available at this time on the internet. We're looking for the current state of excellence when it comes to playing these works. Those of us who have known these pieces a long time regard them with some sense of awe and reverence as being timeless, eternal and without peer in this genre and somehow part of that which lies nearest the very heart of everything classical music stands for or ever intends to be. Some of us who attend chamber music concerts regard many of the players as the equivalent of superstars. It is in that spirit that this post is intended and dedicated.

When one describes the “late quartets” one means those Beethoven composed after his 9th Symphony (completed in 1824). They comprise the following:

Opus 127: String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major (1825)
Opus 130: String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major (1825)
Opus 131: String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor (1826)
Opus 132: String Quartet No. 15 in A minor (1825)
Opus 133: Große Fuge in B-flat major for string quartet (1826), originally the finale to Op. 130
Opus 135: String Quartet No. 16 in F major (1826)

A song, "Der Kuss," that Beethoven had written in 1822, became his Opus 128. The lively little gen of wit, Rondo à Capriccio for piano in G major ("Rage over a lost penny") became his Opus 129. But he had written it back in 1795. His Große Fuge Op. 133 was originally intended to conclude his Op. 130 but he got into a disagreement about it with his publisher and then decided to have it come out separately as Op. 133. A four hand piano arrangement of the Große Fuge became his Opus 134 (1826). See, he really believed in his work and as it turned out, to a few of us anyway, he was right; the Große Fuge is on many of our lists as a piece we would dearly love to hear played live and by a quartet too, not a string ensemble. We'll be presenting it here as the final movement of #13, Op. 130, where we think it belongs! Beethoven's last three opus numbers, 136-138 are works that were all written much earlier. So these five quartets are Beethoven's last completed works and the Finale of Op. 130, a replacement for the difficult to grasp Große Fuge, and the finale of Op. 135 are in fact his last complete works. Modern conventions for Op. 131 are to play the movements as they will be presented here, with the Große Fuge in the place originally assigned it by Beethoven, while his replacement Finale movement is seldom heard, even though it is in fact his very last work. The Talich Quartet plays it at the inserted link above.

Quatuor Ysaÿe

String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major Op. 127 (1825) 
1. Maestoso – Allegro 
2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile
3. Scherzando vivace
4. Allegro

Quatuor Ysaÿe performed this piece sometime before 20 January, 2013.

The Brentano String Quartet

String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major Op. 130 (1825) 
1. Adagio, ma non troppo – Allegro
2. Presto 
5. Cavatina. Adagio moltoespressivo 
6. Große Fuge 

The Brentano Quartet performed this piece at Princeton University, April 2012.

The American String Quartet

String Quartet No. 14 in c sharp minor Op. 131 (1826)
1. Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo
2. Allegro molto vivace
3. Allegro moderato – Adagio
4. Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Più mosso – Andante moderato e lusinghiero – Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice – Allegretto
5. Presto
6. Adagio quasi un poco andante
7. Allegro

The American String Quartet performed this piece live at Tel Aviv Museum, January, 2013.

The Avalon String Quartet

String Quartet No. 15 in a minor Opus 132 (1825)
1. Assai sostenuto – Allegro
2. Allegro ma non tanto
3. Molto Adagio – Andante – Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart. Molto adagio – Neue Kraft fühlend. Andante – Molto adagio – Andante–Molto adagio. Mit innigster Empfindung
4. Alla Marcia, assai vivace (attacca)
5. Allegro appassionato – Presto

The Avalon String Quartet performed this piece sometime before 6 June, 2012.

Anima Kwartet
1. Allegretto 
2. Vivace
3. Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo
4. “Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß (The difficult decision).” Grave, ma non troppo tratto (Muss es sein?/Must it be?) – Allegro (Es muss sein!/It must be!) – Grave, ma non troppo tratto – Allegro

Anima Kwartet performed this piece in the Nederlandse Strijkkwartet Academie on 20 November, 2011 in Utrecht, Vrendenburg Leeuwenbergh.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Beethoven's Op. 18 String Quartets

Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowicz (1772–1816)
In the 1790's in Vienna, one gained a reputation among the cognoscenti as a composer by acquiring a commission to write something for performance in one of their palaces and then perhaps elsewhere. Many of the ruling class in Austria and certain among the diplomatic corps of many adjacent countries who were in regular attendance at the Hapsburg court were amateur or better musicians.
On another post we said that many of the first performances of the classical period string quartets took place within the confines of these palaces away from the attention (or lack of it) of the general public. Ideally suited to be played in dedicated rooms, as one hears those of the young Beethoven as they stack up against the creations of Mozart and Haydn, one is struck by a number of features missing in the works of the other two. Beethoven is always an innovator throughout these, which were Beethoven's first six string quartets and he remains throughout always unmistakably Beethoven.

One patron was Prince Lobkowicz who also figured in the production of Haydn's Lobkowitz quartets. Yes, there does seem to have been at least a genial competition between the young man from Bonn and the ageing composer from Estahaz.  These quartets are played here expertly by the now disbanded Quartetto ItalianoThese performances are thus a kind of musical treasure or legacy, the kind that is meant to set a standard for future performances.

Of course these remain a certain test of the abilities of any string quartet that attempts them. Rather than being confined to a room where only the four musicians can hear them, these works are better suited for performance in small concert venues where perhaps fewer than 500 can hear them at a time. We are placing them here that more become aware of the fact that though Beethoven's last quartets are certainly astounding, these early works are in their way no less remarkable and in fact they actually set down many nuances, scenes, balances of harmonic colour, structure of themes and phrases, etc. all of which he would carry though to their ultimate realizations in his last works. We believe it's high time for more to recognize the remarkable first six of Beethoven's incomparable production in this form for what they are; works demonstrating Beethoven's remarkable genius. As a friend remarked as we heard them together, “why should any composer bother to try and do any better.” Well, we all stand on the shoulders of giants in most fields of endeavour, why should it be any different in music? One of those giants has surely always been Ludwig van Beethoven, long may his beloved music sound!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Haitink Conducts Beethoven's Ninth at Tanglewood

Haitink Conducts Beethoven's Ninth 

Review: BSO closes with joy and majesty

Leonard Bernstein on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

Beethoven's Birthday: A Celebration in Vienna with Leonard Bernstein

It's not often that I can acquaint my readers with a musical event that I have actually attended. In this case though, not actually the performance you might get to hear at the first link on this page, but the rehearsal the previous morning. Bernard Haitink had them just play it through, though he did stop them at the beginning of the 3rd movement for playing ... not as sweetly as he wanted. 

I'd have nothing much to add to what the review in the Berkshire Eagle had to say except that my personal reaction to this concert was perhaps unique in my memory. I seriously doubt whether many have felt the same kinds of things, though I might be wrong. When it was all over, both my friend and I were utterly speechless for many minutes as we passed out from under the music shed where we'd heard the performance from good seats in the middle about 24 rows from the stage. I finally managed to say between choking sobs, (come on Burton, pull yourself together!) that had it gotten much better I might have died. My friend remarked simply that it couldn't have been done any better. Neither of us had heard things quite the way they are usually heard on every recording. We'd actually each heard this piece before live when we were in our 20's. Now in our 60's we were coming back for another hard listen and we couldn't believe how much better and deeper the music had seemed to have advanced with us. 

Neither of us had fathomed the depths of tragedy and indifference to it that the first movement contained, nor how sad much of it really was. The second movement seemed to shine with many specific instrumentalists and groups of instrumentalists contributing the unique colourings of this great music. The third was literally a landscape in sound, Elysium, with the sense of depth created by layering of instrumental groups. The fourth movement literally blew us away: the epitome of this performance was clarity, on so many levels; if the music is allowed to sound at proper tempo allowing each sound, each phrase to have a chance to resonate and that without excessive affectation or vibrato, then Beethoven's messages become stunningly more modern and immediate, especially those where he is clearly against war. 

Later my friend sent me a link to Leonard Bernstein's comments on Beethoven's Ninth (the third link). My own ideas concerning this work are tied up with the other work Beethoven was working on contemporaneously with this one, his Missa Solemnis Op 126. That piece too has an anti war undercurrent and is probably overdue a re acquaintance. 

Finally, I leave you all with Bernstein's Beethoven's Birthday Celebration in Vienna. Despite Bernstein's critique of Beethoven as a person, one perhaps way too easy for anyone to make, he seems to have little regard for Beethoven's condition as representing the effects of child abuse by his father and of the natural affects of enduring a terrible physical disability, especially for any musician, of losing one's hearing. We can't even imagin whatever other injuries were done to him as a child that may have resulted in other physical and mental abnormalities. The issue with his nephew was actually more direct and involved the plain facts of a terribly handicapped person needing someone to help him and look after him. Yes, before state intervention and socialism, such matters were the matters of families, as probably they should begin to become once again. Am I disagreeing with Bernstein's assessment? Not really. If you had been around in Beethoven's day or in Vienna, and had encountered him, no doubt you would have been repelled. It's just that a lot of it wasn't totally his fault. We have Beethoven's often miraculous music (Fidelio, the largest subject in Bernstein's Celebration, really isn't). The ninth symphony however, has no equal in all of music.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Dvořák's New World Symphony turns 120

This year's Tanglewood Festival gave us another opportunity to hear an old warhorse live once again. We each remarked just how American this music really was and still is, that is except for the trio of the third movement which is certainly completely Czech. Sitting under 20 rows from the stage, we got to experience all the Boston Symphony Orchestra had to deliver.

There are two versions of this piece for this post, an old favourite and a newer transcendental version. The first is by the redoubtable Cleveland Orchestra under the often inspired leadership of Georg Szell.  I recall vividly how those who regarded his conducting as the best were called Szellots. Contrast that performance, along with some of the more traditional orchestral tone with the newer approach of a Munich Philharmonic under the direction of Sergiu Celibidache who certainly had far different ideas concerning tempi and the critical parts played by solo instrumentalists throughout this unique masterpiece.

This symphony written and performed in 1893 must have been written rather quickly, taking the composer no more than a few months. It's difficult for us to understand just how much “local colour” he could have managed to get within himself in such a short period of time. It would be entirely fair to credit Dvořák with incredible powers of perception. Here he was, 52 years old, across a vast ocean in a new and very different country from Europe, a vast open country that spanned a continent, full of its own natural wonders and terrors. He would be in America about 3 years, he and his family. During that time he would write without question some of his greatest works. The same would later be true of other great European composers.

Listen now, once more to this music. Those who hear it for the first time, believe me when I say it, it still speaks tremendously about much that is true, real and everlasting concerning America.

Antonín Dvořák Symphony #9 in e “From the New World” Op. 95 
1. Adagio – Allegro molto
2. Largo
3. Scherzo: Molto vivace
4. Allegro con fuoco 

Version 2: Munich Philharmonic, Sergiu Celibidache

Dvořák and his family around 1893

Monday, July 29, 2013

Sibelius' Voces intimae

This was Jean Sibelius' second string quartet. It is a standout in many respects, it contains music that seems both ancient and modern by turns, some of its phrasings and techniques can stick in your mind and emotions (an "ear worm" as an associate called it) and create unforgettable moments. Here is an excellent performance of this singular 5 movement work by the Melos Quartet of Stuttgart, one of my long time favourites in this genre of ensemble for their strong clear intonation and precise yet penetrating interpretations ... and yes I tend to like German string quartets quite a lot.

String Quartet #2 “Voces intimae,” in D minor, Op. 56, (1909)
II Vivace

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Tenth Interview – On Pianism, Pianos, Practise & Pianists

A subject of this interview is pianism. Should I repeat the definition?
OK, we agreed that pianism was a noun, being either, the artistry and technique of a pianist, or the performance by a pianist as in an evening of first-rate pianism.
Yes, and ... 
... the practise and study of the piano and its music.
Bravo! Laughs
All right, well we were discussing before many subjects that relate to pianism focusing on the choice of a piano, the choice of a repertoire, the abilities of the player, the kinds of practise sessions, with some practical observations. What are these like for you right now?
Well, laughs the choice of a piano was certainly on my mind as I went back down to New York the first of last November [2012] and earlier this last Spring.
How many stores did you see during these trips?
Only two, Faust Harrison and Beethoven's.
Faust Harrison had some fabulous pianos, they always do. In November, they had a “perfect,” and I mean it, Steinway C, which is hands down my favourite of all Steinway's scale designs. Now, I know what I'm going to say about pianos this time is informed by that great experience I had there with Sara Faust conducting an impromptu master class / piano lesson. It laid bare the conditions under which a pianist, at whatever level, and we'll discuss that a little too, should choose one's piano, the kind to choose and why and so on.
You mentioned playing from Schumann's Fantasie Op. 17.
I don't have it down yet.
Well OK, but you said that somehow you felt that the people at these stores reacted positively to it.
Yes, but they are used to hearing many fine pianists down there. I think they appreciate it, but that's why we try and play these pieces in part; they represent the greatest pianism on some levels.
You posted several pages here about various pianists, you want to discuss them?
They each represent a kind of direction in pianism that is going on these days. George Li was added to the list. This young man, off to Harvard / NE Conservatory, certainly deserves his own page, and he too fits into a certain pattern for pianism.
The pianists you chose were ... 
Before getting to them, let's get back to my trips to New York and those pianos down there.
Both stores had lots of good high end product, but again what kind of piano are you or should you be in the market for? 
You think it matters?
I do. I think it matters because it's a way of staying honest with oneself. It would be different for instance if a pianist relied on other people's pianos all the time as many in fact do. I knew someone once who had studied all of the Beethoven sonatas and played them on a Wurlitzer spinet!
How could he do some of that ... ?
 Yeah, I know, some of it he just couldn't do on that piano, but I had him play the same thing, the end of #30, at an electronic keyboard and he knew what to do.
Shaking his head 
Well, piano availability or not is a fact of life for many pianists. Many can only afford some crappy old piano or a cheap electronic keyboard.
You don't like them.
No, they don't represent real pianos to me, but then again my friend's Wurlitzer spinet really doesn't either.
OK, so the pianos.
At Faust Harrison, you'll find the Mason & Hamlin B. This is a 5'4” piano, the strongest brand new baby grand on the planet right now with a fabulous new action. This is a perfect gem of a practise piano, the scale is excellent all the way down, remarkable for a piano this size. 
So compared to a car would this be ?
.... like an American tribute to a Porsche sports car, maybe something with all wheel drive and possibly a hybrid, gull wing doors, etc. I mean, Mason & Hamlin pianos have an almost symphonic quality to their sound, perfect tone all the way up and down the piano and touch that is an extension of your slightest whim, this piano would be every bit as good on a stage in a top tier jazz club, as it would be in your studio or living room. 
... and of course they have much more.
Oh yeah, they have much more. Faust Harrison's inventory at any time is among the deepest in the business.  
And Beethoven's?
I spent a lot of time looking at uprights there.
Didn't you go there looking for Hailun pianos?
Yes, but they didn't have any of the new ones yet. I spent most of my time there looking at uprights.
Why uprights?
Not everyone can use a grand. Some of us live in tight spaces and there are plenty of decent uprights around now that I'd have no trouble recommending to anyone. 
OK, did Faust Harrison have any uprights?
They have some of the best. The two I recall playing both had gorgeous tone and touch characteristics. One was a Bechstein, the same model Debussy used to write all his music. Believe me, you can get this piano to do anything. Schulze Pullmann, an Italian company started there by some Germans after the war, make some beautiful pianos, and then so does C. Bechstein. But at Beethoven's one would find Yamahas, either lightly used or reconditioned, in any case from what I observed, all were in excellent shape. They also had a few other contenders from China including Hailun, which sounded and played fine, except that ergonomically, the piano somehow didn't fit me. 
Well, it's really important to feel comfortable sitting at a piano. You have to have a situation where you can read the music easily, which is different for each of us, and that you are sitting at the right height relative to the keys. It's very important to know how to find one's optimum seating position, which promotes the best posture long term and that's going to be different for each of us. It's why I recommend adjustable benches if you can have them.  
So you consider these upright pianos to be ?
They are all practise pianos by definition. You'd usually only think of a live performance on a grand piano, although some of the uprights can sound well enough in a small space, they really can't fill an auditorium the way a concert grand can, especially in the bass registers. Of course you can do a lot with electronics and amplification but ...
That's cheating! Laughs
So these uprights are still important to consider by far more people than they often are. Their actions are getting better relative to grands too. Fandrich & Sons vertical action is the equal of any grand action and his uprights are gems.
You got to see some of those out in Washington last year too, didn't you?
Yes, and got to hear my nephews play them too, which was even better. We even had one of them play the same piece on an upright with the Fandrich action and one without it and you could absolutely hear the difference.
But, you think there are other uprights ...
I still think that Fandrich & Sons has the best upright action in the best upright pianos on the market, hands down. If one is really picky in regard to piano tone and action, and one wants or needs an upright due to space considerations, Fandrich & Sons would be my first choice. 
All others seek Yamaha?
Or a half dozen other brands, Schulze Pollmann definitely being among them.
But that by no means relegates them to ...
Well, here we come to another question, one regarding motivation. Just what is the purpose of pursuing pianism? For some it is like a duck to water, once encountered it was an instant fit, some are extraordinarily talented; they have no difficulty with reading the music, they face no difficulty with dexterity or other physical limitations that would make playing a piano difficult or impossible. The vast majority of players are occasional players who take up the piano for their own amusement. Most of these have professional careers or are otherwise interested in other things.
You told me once of that fellow at the NE Conservatory ...
That was another lifetime ago.
Yes, but it still fits. He said that many professional musicians were actually trained in other fields and even played at a professional level as amateurs.
There is only one arena where there is a basic difference between a “professional” and an “amateur” and that is that the former has an agent. This was made absolutely clear in Norman Lebrecht's work.
So most people who are active in classical music, even if they are getting paid, are amateurs?
Compared to the remunerations for “stars” they are. This is a serious problem for music and musicians that can only be made better by frank discussions; are these “stars” really worth the money?
I really want to steer the discussion back to pianos for a moment. So you advise people who want a piano to look at good uprights first?
Definitely. Then if they decide they want a grand and can afford it, and most of us eventually do, then one is faced with the obvious; what grand piano makes the most sense for me to own long term?
Some get into it for the “investment” angle.
Not a wise move. People involved in the investment business are used to seeing return on value written everywhere and attempt to apply it to all their purchases. Should something one buys that has some utilitarian value, like a candlestick for instance, increase in value at least 3% per year, as some of them believe? This is tying everything back to money.
Yes, but people buy Steinway because it has the name.
And that name is probably worth $100 million all by itself. It doesn't mean that there aren't other considerations when buying a piano. There are many fine piano makers that have product every bit as good as Steinway's.
What do you think about the recent news concerning Steinway?
It's essentially “taking it private” which is a good thing. It has a better chance of survival that way.
You know they're giving up their 57th Street location?
... and Beethoven's is moving too. So New York is constantly trying to reinvent itself. We can thank Isaac Stern and others for saving Carnegie Hall, which is in the neighbourhood.
Anyway, getting back to pianos.
Never consider it an “investment.” These are essentially machines that eventually need repair and restoration, although that can be after 30 to 60 years of use. Some pianos, as is well known to dealers and technicians the world over, are terribly abused. Many were built during the heyday of piano making before the advent of radio and these were in many cases built of shoddy materials. These are almost never worth considering.
Like your friend's Wurlitzer spinet.
If it doesn't impress you just the slightest bit to play something simple on it, then you wont want to sit down for the long hours it takes to really get good at it.
You told me about wandering through Beethoven's attic of second tier grand pianos on your last visit.
It will be interesting to see what Beethoven's becomes in their new location, whether they have a comparable area. I'll certainly find out. Beethoven's attic, their upstairs, there is where often one found some sleepers. These are pianos that are not always in suitable prep, they aren't supposed to be, as it wouldn't be worth their while, they aren't what most who enter the Manhattan showrooms, are looking for. I suspect most were obtained in trade in. But among these are where a lot more people need to be looking.
You mentioned a nice Baldwin grand.
Yes, from the 1930's I believe, maybe a B, so it was made in their Cincinnati factory. I could tell that it was an extraordinary Baldwin. And you could have had it for little. A potential buyer sees something like this and what they should have in mind is what a technician can do with it to bring it up to where it can shine. Plan to spend several hundred dollars on piano technical work while you save tens of thousands of dollars on the piano.  
So if it was that nice, why wouldn't you have it?
I owned a Baldwin L for many years, and as they say, been there, done that. But that does not mean that I hold Baldwin in low regard. Anything they made from the mid 1950's on back, is better than average and occasionally well above average.
Has your opinion changed regarding baby grands?
Yes and no. If you're going for the shape of a grand rather than the sound or the action, then there are certainly some tremendous grand pianos out there in the 5'3” to 5'6” range to choose from that would certainly make excellent practise pianos. But many are overlooking the space and money values an upright piano represents. Fandrich gets my top spot nod, but the Europeans and Asians certainly offer some extraordinary upright pianos. The New York stores have plenty to choose from.
Now onto practise sessions.
OK. You should visit your piano for a session at least once a day. You can make it for as long as a half hour or even less, to as long as two hours. I'm sorry, but anything more begins to start some processes in the mind and body that we do not want, a certain kind of automaton performance without cognition. Practise sessions should follow certain natural patterns. It all begins with how one sits at the piano, getting the ergonomics of keyboard, pedals and seat height just right. Then there are the types of sessions. Long sessions are where one gives oneself a concert and evaluates the performance. One may or may not decide to stop and return and rework a passage, but this usually is not the time to be doing that. Shorter practise sessions are of the sort where one is working on a particular passage. The repeats required tend to drive other people mad so it's best to choose times for these sessions when no one else is around.
You spoke earlier to me about hearing passages of music in your head while you are doing something else.
Yes, this inevitably happens to most musicians as they become involved in their music, they begin hearing it and want to respond by recreating it on their own instruments. Passages that are difficult require a process of breaking them down into their simplest parts and then often laboriously putting them back together, not at full speed at first, but later bringing the constructed parts up to speed.
So there are short practise sessions that are more like ...
... physical drills than like playing music. You sit down at the music making machine and you are drilling your fingers into performing certain kinds of passage work. Very often the only thought required is getting your mind to feel the changes in muscles in the fingers, wrists, arms, neck and back, to relax as much as possible and to let breathing be as natural as possible. There are times and places for more forceful attacks, but even so, most pianists perform these motions with too much extra muscular involvement. The natural force of gravity should be enough.
So you are saying that your practise sessions look much like these.
They are largely either “recitals to oneself” or they are specific to a particular problem posed by a particular composition. But there is a third kind and that is “exploratory reading.” Some who easily acquire the ability to read music want to spend their time plying through, or attempting to do so, as much music as they possibly can. I've known a few of these. But few of those that do this, excluding the other kinds of practise sessions, have actually buckled down to attempting to play from memory any single piece or group of pieces. That said, these are invaluable sessions for every pianist and should not be confused with sessions where one is working on a specific set of pieces for performance.
OK, then you and I were talking about performance pianos.
Well, these are the pianos that are intended for music before the public. They are meant to convey piano sound to large spaces. A piano can only really be heard well in a confined space. Out of doors, their sound seems to die away even more quickly than usual.
You have seen many of these too.
Oh yes, from the Bosendorfer Imperial Grand and the various others by Sauter (at Beethoven's), Steingraeber & Sohn (at Allegro), Fazioli (at Klavierhaus) and many fine Steinways (all of them). These are the pianos for those who have something to play. But isn't it more important for most people to find a piano on which they can learn something to play before encountering these performance pianos? If you want to take up the piano, it seems to me far better to start with a good reliable upright than blowing a huge amount of money (most of the performance pianos cost as much as a nice car or small house) on a piano whose best characteristics can only be heard in a large performance space. Yes, the big pianos are impressive. They should be. But most people don't live in houses with rooms specifically designed as concert halls. And anyway, it's about the music.
So about gaining a repertoire.
Some piano technicians I've known could actually play Chopin's fantasie-impromptu Op. 66 at full speed and perhaps nothing else. I still can't make my hands do it. Building a repertoire is about assembling something piece by piece until one has a programme, or several programmes, each an hour and a half or so long, that one can perform at will when they encounter a performance piano. You start simple and strong and build grace and agility with each succeeding piece. Some pianists stick to one composer, or just a few, like the photographer, Ansel Adams, who supposedly played nothing but Bach and Ravel. Others may play one piece by someone and that will be it. Each piece in their repertoire is by someone else. Most conservatory performance programs stress a balance between musical periods. This follows a practise going back to the early 19th century, when Felix Mendelssohn included Bach in the regular performance repertoire. Other neglected early composers would be added. Meanwhile, the 20th century now lying behind us, the various masterpieces of that era are emerging too. It's easy to say that there were far too many styles alive and thriving during the past century that a concert (or several) featuring nothing but 20th century music is certainly possible.
You'd expect to hear more of what?
You'd have to begin with those born in the 19th century; Ferruccio Busoni. Amy Beach, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Alexander Scriabin, who has certainly earned a place in the piano repertoire, Charles Ives is gaining popularity, Maurice Ravel has of course attained eternal status.
Yes, but we know of these, who of those most don't know?
There's Arnold Bax and York Bowen, there's Alberto Ginastera, I used to know someone who made his music her speciality. Nikolai Medtner is interesting as is Selim Palmgren. Francis Poulenc wrote some interesting things. There's really so much music that's worth programming, all from the 20th century alone, that it's amazing.
So, it just matters if you decide to take on a piece and work away at it until you have it? 
Essentially, yes. But there's still a lot of breaking it down, bit by bit, phrase by phrase, note by note sometimes. It's VERY helpful to play just the right hand or just the left hand, making sure that you have all the notes correct. Of course some pieces are written in such a way that you can't really do that, but where possible, you should use any technique to somehow get the notes into your mind and then down into your fingers. Again, learn to hear it first, sing it almost, before you can play it.
So again, it's pianos, practise and pieces.
That's the logical beginning and ongoing method whether one uses a teacher or not.
You want to say something about piano teachers?
For most people they could be helpful, but I would look for someone to coach you, to correct your mistakes (hopefully without marking up your music, which infuriates me), someone who will drive you forward a little, just enough until you are convinced that it really is worth it to keep practising and playing. You'll want someone who is rational and precise, who uses methods that are natural and easy rather than rigorous and extreme.
That may be a problem.
Yes, well finding rational people in any discipline is becoming rare because of the universal training everyone has been subjected to.
Very little willingness to pursue any discipline too.
Pianism has to reach beyond mere discipline if it is to succeed. It has to be approached as something that can literally change your life.
What's in store for your blogs?
The E. C. Riegel blog was down for 2 months and has come back up to receiving almost as many hits since as it received before it was taken down. We came back the first week of May and are getting hits from all over the world, particularly from Russia.
Yeah, so that one will continue. The Linton Bequest, the sci-fi adventure mystery novel I wrote a few years ago, is all up there and has had less than a third of the hits of the Riegel blog. Turns out I was wrong. More people would rather read about something that's potentially real than anything they know is intended as fiction.
It may be the times we're in.
No doubt.
This blog?
More of the same, oh yes, the list of pianists I put up.
Well George Li is a fabulous young talent and all the world of music agents loves that.
But you think he has talent.
Oh yes, he and his brother Andrew too.
The others?
Glenn Hardy is someone I knew during college years and a little after that.  I've always admired him as a musician. He was very seriously involved in building harpsichords at one time, he built many fine ones, and also studied early music, but Glenn was always attracted to the world of early jazz and related music. He actually sets about playing it as if he's playing something classical and his approach has produced many really astounding performances. He's made many CD's and I encourage all those interested in these genres to purchase them from Glenn.
And the others?
Justine Verdier is a young French pianist who has benefited from some exemplary European musicians and musical academies. She and her betrothed formed a duo and play four hand piano music in concerts around Europe. I know a few other piano duos. Whether it's two pianos or one piano four hands, the music for this genre is important and should be gaining in interest everywhere.
Violetta Egorova is a Russian pianist with both great strength for playing really demanding compositions; her Liszt is amazing, as well as the ability to coax the most haunting intentions from very soft piano music, particularly her Mozart, which she somehow makes sound as though she's playing Chopin. She spends he summers teaching music in southern Italy. What I always wish for with Violetta is that she somehow finds someone that will champion her and give particular attention to producing the best recordings possible of all her future performances. That should apply to all pianists as how they sound is part of their message.
Viktoriya Yermolyeva is someone with a rigorous classical piano education who decided to turn their attention to contemporary popular music. Anyone can tell right away that regardless of the musical content, she puts herself right into it and remarkably manages to produce an accurate distillation of each piece. We encourage all who can to support her efforts.
So you aren't one of those that insists that nothing but classical is real music?
There are those in other fields known to me that regard one form of something so superior to all others that they deny the existence of all else.
Gold bugs” and money?
Like it or not, the easiest form of irrationality is to insist that something that exists, does not in fact exist; nothing but gold and silver is money, nothing but classical music is music. These are very similar ideas that are both contradicted by apparent reality. Meanwhile, notice how often, here and there, one hears a piano used in advertising or movies, etc. Like it or not all these venues give new life to the piano.
Thanks for this interview, hope your readers enjoy it. Anything more?
Yes, there is. As a fitting end for this interview, I offer my audience the following video performance of Franz Schubert's Fantasy in f minor D 940 played by Paul Badura-Skoda et Jörg Demus, two of my favourites from my childhood. Look then at these two old men in their 80's sitting there side by side, playing a piece they probably have known since they were young men, a piece composed by a young man who would never see his 32nd birthday, who probably wrote it knowing he was going to die soon.
Yeah, really. There is something sort of spellbinding about this. They are playing a Bösendorfer. It doesn't include the whole piece, they cut off the last of it, where Schubert has decided to close his lament with a fast scherzo in a minor key, with something faintly diabolical about it.
A means of making peace with death?
Well again, thanks for the interview, let's make the next one sooner than later.
Will try.