On this page I talk about the music I am working on
It has been a long time since I wrote, and. lot has (and hasn't) happened. At the start of lockdown, by some miracle I managed to travel to Germany to record the Complete Etudes of Henselt (you can hear a snippet on the homepage) which is finally going to be released in the Spring.
One of my first lockdown work casualties was Tchaikovsky's 2nd Piano Concerto in Regensberg, and I am very happy that this is now rescheduled for this Summer. It is not a piece anybody is frequently asked to perform, so this is a project I am especially looking forward to.
I am also working on Bach's Goldberg Variations, which I know intimately but have never performed.
Here is a little info on the Square Piano I will perform on at the Gregynog Festival
My Broadwood Square PianoForte (to use the English nomenclature) was built in 1801 and has a 5 1/2 compass. The sustain mechanism is an original Broadwood pedal added in modern times. Although designed for domestic use, these instruments are by no means toys and, as time-capsules tell us a great deal about keyboard music of the period. At this time the older harpsichord/spinet/clavichord and the newer piano were in use. Most English title pages for keyboard works specify Harpsichord or PianoForte.
Field is one of the first composers to write music which can only be played on the piano, the works of Cogan, Geary and to some extent Clementi are interchangeable; Even Beethoven's Pathetique is written in such a way that a sustain pedal in not strictly necessary. It is worth remembering that the public piano recital in the sense we know it today did not yet exist and that composers all the way up to Beethoven and Schubert aimed many of their piano works at a largely female, domestic market; Clara Schumann was yet to erode pianistic gender stereotypes!
My piano may not be massive in terms of decibels but it's range of nuance across the registers - a thunderous bass which seems to make the whole instrument buzz with agitation and a delicately out of tune upper treble which hovers over a precipice! I tune it to a non-equal temperament to bring out the key colours in a way 19th century listeners would have expected.
A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be gifted a beautiful 1801 Broadwood square piano. It is an instrument of real subtlety and nuance.
Because I grew up near Finchcocks Musical Museum I have been open to the expressive capabilities of the old pianos since earliest childhood, and having this instrument close to hand has stimulated an almost childish pursuit of music intended for it - most particularly Haydn who seems to come alive with real freshness and forthright immediacy.
With this in mind I am planning to record Haydn and some English music with this instrument for which I am developing such affection.
I wish to share some thoughts on the Nocturnes of Faure in anticipation of the release of my CD on Edition Peters Sounds on the 10th:
It is hard to name another composer who enjoys such renown in his homeland and such relative neglect elsewhere. Like Liszt, Fauré’s fame rests on a small percentage of his output; an output which is consistently excellent. That pianists tend to shy away from his works strikes me as a peculiar quirk of my profession. The prevailing view seems to be that he represents a sort of Gallic musical island but this ignores the fact that his influences are as cosmopolitan as they are diverse - on one level it can be said that Fauré is defined by them. A product of the Niedermeyer School where he received a solid and old-fashioned grounding and a pupil of Saint-Saëns who, like his younger protégé might well be described as a ‘conservative revolutionary’, Fauré’s music always obeys time-honoured principles.
So self-assured in their suavity, the earlier works owe debts primarily to Chopin, to Schumann and Liszt and also to the Russians – in particular Scriabin.1 Essentially salon in style (by salon I don’t mean trivial, rather that 19th century style of composition aimed at a select, small and rarefied public, at which Chopin was the master) they effuse florid, generous melody and a certain austere calm, which is Fauré’s own.
The middle works are in many respects the most appealing. The sixth Nocturne is very characteristic, the former traits being enriched with a deep sense of nobility and exaltation.
Cleansed by the purifying fire of personal and universal tragedy the uncompromising and spare language of the late works baffle listeners even today. All of Fauré’s previous traits are still present but - as though with the application of acid on skin - what he referred to as “the terrible cloak of misery” of his deafness and the tragic events of the First World War scorched the surface of his musical language; what remains is unapologetically ascetic, private and irresolute. It is also in the late works that his schooling in plainchant and antique techniques of composition is most keenly felt. The use of modality is a steadfast feature of Fauré’s music but it is only in these last creations that it is heard explicitly, for example in the Phrygian/Lochrian inflected eleventh Nocturne. In all of his music certain qualities remain constant: from the outset a colouristic rather than functional understanding of harmony, a supple counterpoint between melody and bass, unresolved appoggiaturas, structural simplicity – he is very often content to use ternary form.
If Fauré is thought to be chiefly a melodist then his melodies are chicken-and-egg to his harmonies. This most endearing facet of his style is best summed up by Vincent d’Indy:
The musical invention with Fauré takes on a particular character which could be called ‘melody-harmony’ because the melody seems so closely related to his subtle harmonies that it could not be separated from them; the result is an eminently seductive effect, comparable to that of shimmering colours.2
While it is impossible to deny his vast influence on the following generation of French composers, his melodic lyricism holds him fast to the Romantic Era.
It is an axiom that changes in evolution are caused by changes in environment and as with the natural world this is very true of Faure’s artistic world. The thirteen works that make up this recording represent manifold journeys of technique, personal evolution and politics. As a cycle, alongside the Barcarolles they encompass virtually all of Fauré’s output. If one compares the first Nocturne to the thirteenth of almost forty years later one can see the former represents tragedy witnessed whilst the latter seems to express tragedy experienced. This, I feel, is the guiding force behind Faure’s musical trajectory, a gradual internalisation and personalisation of artistic discourse.
1) A lonely melody floats above repeated chords at the top of the piano. It is superficially similar to Après un rêve which shares the same dedicatee – Marguerite Baugnies - though the language is more austere. As with all of the early Nocturnes, the structure is ternary (A-B-A). The central section descends to earth with a funereal ostinato in the left hand. The scales of the ostinato break through the texture into a cadenza-like passage, which flies to the extreme treble of the keyboard before settling on the reprise, which is elaborated with an un-settled repeated note accompaniment.
2) The tolling bells of the accompaniment frame a melody of great warmth and affection. The toccata like central section reminds us that Fauré studied with Saint-Saëns though the former’s melodic flow ranges wider. The return, with the melody in octaves and the left hand accompaniment reaching upwards as though throwing confetti to the winds every half-bar culminates in a flurry of demisemiquavers flying toward a Pyrenean sunset.
3) This is perhaps the most cordial of the Nocturnes. The suave melody is accompanied by gentle syncopations. The central section has one of those simple yet effective changes of shade that Fauré excelled at; the texture reduced to two voices and marked senza pedale creating an Organ-like effect. Throughout this harmonically playful piece the voice of Liszt resonates.
A digression here: The huge body of French Organ music that is hardly ever listened to by any other than organ aficionados has wielded a gigantic influence over French music. How ironic that Fauré who was an organist rather than pianist left behind no published organ music!
4) Cortot described this piece as “rather too satisfied with its languor”3. Certainly there is no gigantic contrast between the leisurely outer sections and the hypnotic bell tolls of the middle section, but within a deliberately limited palette there is enough unostentatious variety to animate this most somnambulist of the Nocturnes.
5) Very much an apotheosis of Fauré’s early style. A languid melody drifts over a gently syncopated accompaniment but keeps breaking off after digressing to distant keys, rather like one falling asleep. The turbulent central section with its constant stream of triplet semiquavers erupts to a euphoric climax, which subsides to the reprise further softened with the triplet movement of the preceding music echoed in the accompaniment.
6) Considered by many Fauré’s finest piano work this Nocturne is the first real departure from its predecessors. Basic ternary form is replaced with an episodic structure with three musical ideas. The first pages would suggest another A-B-A work: The opening with its characteristic rocking motion possesses great nobility. The second theme with its peculiar shifting syncopated harmonies leads to a reprise of the restful opening triplet idea. With a stroke of genius Fauré turns the end into a new beginning and the third idea is born in all its shimmering iridescent beauty – “Garden of Gethsemane” music. The second two ideas are intertwined with ever more passion and urgency before subsiding into a return of the consoling opening triplets and disappearing in a sigh of languid ecstasy.
7) Considered by me to be Fauré’s finest work for the piano this piece might accurately have been entitled ‘De Profundis’. This is the only Nocturne in binary form. The austere first section uses an iambic 13th C rhythmic mode almost throughout which gives it an inexorable drive despite the slow tempo. In the second section we once again return to the Garden of Gethsemane. By way of a Coda Fauré resumes the opening iambic motion, though only for a few lines before dissolving into a haze of ascending scales. The commencement of the eighth Nocturne appears as an afterthought…
8) …following so closely from the end of number seven as to be almost inseparable. It is hard to believe therefore that it wasn’t even originally conceived as a Nocturne (it was one of the Pièces brèves Op. 84) and that the publisher suggested this appellation. It starts somewhat in the fashion of a baroque chorale prelude; a sober and tender melody framed by a scalic moto perpetuo. The accompanying scales gradually take on a life of their own. This is the freshest of the collection with its Fauréan rocking motion; I picture an Aeolian harp swinging in the breeze.
9) The tone of this Nocturne couldn’t be more opposed to number eight. This is sparse music with little calculated to ease the listener. It opens with a similar three-tiered texture to the second theme of number six (melody above a syncopated legato counter-melody and a syncopated detached accompaniment). Where the melody pauses, so does the accompaniment giving a curious disjointed, staggering gait. Together with its predecessor this is as close as Fauré’s piano writing gets to organ music. Detached rather than impassioned, this music gives the sense of a struggle viewed from afar.
10) Here, night music has become nightmare music. This signals the tone for the remaining nocturnes. There is a similarity to the central movement of the piano trio though this is darker hued and devoid of hope or comfort.
11) And welcome to the language of the 20th C! Yet more anguished than number ten, the tolling bell now has funerary undertones. It is a heartfelt Elegy to the memory of Noémi Lalo, who had recently widowed Pierre Lalo, a music critic and supporter of the composer’s. Perhaps owing to Fauré’s encroaching deafness – he was losing the peripheries of his hearing – this is exclusively focused on the piano’s middle registers.
12) A rebuttal of the tierce de Picardie, the major-minor deflation that eventually turns into a semitone clash which pervades this remarkable work, embodies the most salient aspect of Fauré’s conservative modernity: There is nothing here that cannot be explained in terms of conventional harmony yet some passages, even today, sound so novel that one could easily believe they were penned last week! It comprises two musical ideas - the oscillating bass of the first, reminiscent of Organ pedals, brings to my mind the swinging censer in a Catholic Church – the second, indistinct and ghost-like contains increasingly jarring harmonies. The structure A-B-A-B culminates in a frantic and dissonant coda.
13) Structurally this is a return to the Chopinesque ternary Nocturne. There the similarity ends; the sober contrapuntal textures of the outer sections seem to me to be remarkably similar to parallel passages in Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues. The harmonically restless central Allegro reaches a desperate climax, rocketing to the highest treble of the piano almost as though in violent revolt against the notes Fauré could no longer hear.
When Fauré first sat down to compose a Nocturne it is unlikely that he intended it to commence a cycle of thirteen. But a comprehensive cycle they surely make. In terms of understanding Fauré’s often elusive style they are key in clearly showing the secret passage of his musical thought.
As Spinoza wrote at the end of his ‘Ethics’ “…all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare”. Repeated playing constantly throws new light on Fauré’s music and understanding him requires commitment; equally listening to Fauré requires a commitment and hearing him can never be a passive act. However easy on the ear his music can be, it nonetheless works a subtle Magick on the mind: the world can never be the same place afterwards.
Of particular interest is Fauré’s harmonic language, which obeys its own logic and consistently evades category. This is where Fauré differs from most composers; harmony usually forms a road with a beginning and an end. Unlike the road, Fauré’s path has no clear conclusion or commencement. The goal of his harmonic pathway is usually obscure and seems to symbolise what I perceive to be the essence of his philosophical message: that the journey is more important than the destination.
1 I’ve yet to find any literature pointing to a Russian link but, as a pianist it seems very clear. At Siloti’s invitation Faure visited Russia in 1910 where he befriended Tchaikovsky who thoroughly admired him both as an artist and a man. Some cross-fertilisation was inevitable.
2 Morrison, 12
3 La musique de piano des origines à Ravel, 391
Now that the Brenchley Summer Proms have finished I am focusing my efforts on some music not by Adolf von Henselt! A couple of clips from the concerts can be seen on the Media page. Performing the great German's complete Chamber Music has been demanding and rewarding in equal measure. It has been joyful to collaborate with so many excellent colleagues and to hear the very positive audience reaction to Henselt's music.
Amongst the things I am now working for are a recording on Naxos with the wonderful Nazrin Rashidova of violin/piano music by Moszkowski. I am working on a piece by Widor for one of my Christmas concerts - expect to hear much more of this from me in the not too distant future...
The small and excellent list of pianists who elected to perform the Henselt Concerto makes for intimidating reading for even the most fearless of virtuosi; Clara Schumann (who premiered it), Liszt, von Bülow, Friedheim, Anna Mehlig, von Sauer (who chose it for his American debut), Klindworth (who performed it in London with Berlioz conducting), Rachmaninoff, Gottschalk, de Pachmann, Petri, Scriabin…. And yet, incredibly, it is one of the least heard of all the great Romantic Concerti – and great it is!
It is evident that Rachmaninoff, who rated Henselt’s Etudes alongside those of Liszt and Chopin for their great beauty, held Op.16 in great esteem as it forms the basis for his notoriously famous C# minor prelude: The first three bass notes of the whole concerto are identical to the prelude’s ‘motto’, and the final section echoes the central episode of the Larghetto from the Henselt which is, I believe, the earliest example of four-stave piano writing. The C minor arpeggio section in the first movement is also a clear model for the opening of the Russian’s second Concerto.
It is one of the quirks of music history that the fathers of Russian pianism weren’t in fact Russian – the Irishman John Field, and a generation later the Bavarian Henselt prepared the soil for the most fertile crop of great music and great pianists in the history of my instrument.
It is testimony to the power of his music that such a relatively small output has left such an enduring legacy; he is truly one of those rare composers (like Bach, Wagner or Paganini) where music couldn’t be the same after and his effect on Russian Romanticism simply can’t be overestimated.
On preparing the Concerto for performance in Henselt’s birth town of Schwabach, I must confess I feel the presence of Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Liszt hanging over my head like a beautiful-sounding Sword of Damocles. The difficulties are of an order pianists rarely encountere, made all the more soul-destroying by the fact that only a pianist would know! However, this is music of such rare beauty and nobility that it has to be worthwhile! In particular, the heartfelt Larghetto has to be one of the most ravishing things ever composed…
Today I have been practising for the following;
This is an exploration of music of the night from Beethoven's Moonlight through to Ravel's Gaspard. In between these titanic masterworks I have included compositions which reveal different aspects of our relationship with all things nocturnal ranging from the Romantic to the scary; from inventor of the Nocturne, John Field's poetic minaitures to Faure's nightmare music. I've added a few off-the-beaten track pieces - Clara Schumann should be more widely performed and the Clair de Lune of the Belgian organist, Joseph Jongen is a sumptuous work of impressionism.
The progression 'Beethoven taught Czerny taught Liszt' is one I have programmed before. I feel Czerny is an important link in the development of the romantic piano style and that many inventions that more famous composers have been credited with were in fact invented by him. Let's remember him for more than finger exercises!