The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: We need more concerts with smaller, “easy” and playable pieces. BONUS: Listen to Japan’s NHK Symphony in Mahler’s heart-breaking Symphony No. 9 | March 31, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

A few weeks ago, the elderly piano master Paul Badura-Skoda (below) returned to Madison, where in the late 1960s he spent five years as an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Even at 84, the Vienna native is impressive, though you can hear that he doesn’t have the muscle strength, mental focus or physical stamina that he did in his prime. After all, at one point he had some 200 LPs on the market – surely an impressive record, so to speak.

But when Badura-Skoda performed his ambitious recital on two historic or vintage pianos at Farley’s House of Pianos (below), he performed the kind of program we don’t hear a lot these days.

And that, I feel, is too bad.

Too often these days, the great pianists seem bent on humbling not only listeners but even accomplished amateurs.

How many of us, for example, can even dream of playing the impressive program that Jeremy Denk (below) will perform at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Thursday, April 21: Charles Ives’ mammoth Piano Sonata No. 1 followed by J.S. Bach’s complete “Goldberg” Variations. (Recently, at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, Denk coupled the “Goldbergs” to the late Gyorgy Ligeti’s fiendishly difficult etudes. He will play the same program in Carnegie’s main hall, the Issac Stern Auditorium when he substitutes for an ailing Maurizio Pollini.)

Instead Badura-Skoda performed pieces that many of us listened to early in our lives and then, during piano lessons, continually practiced and played as we tried to master them.

There was Bach’s Partita No. 1, made up of six short dance movements. There was Mozart’s fiercely anguished Sonata in A minor, K. 310. There were two Schubert Impromptus (the dramatic No. 2 in E-flat Major and the songful No. 3 in G-flat major from the Op. 90 set of four impromptus).

Then came the second half, a generous Chopin group. There were the four Op. 30 Chopin mazurkas. There were the two Op. 27 Nocturnes; the Barcarolle. There were three waltzes (the sad A minor waltz, Op. 34, No. 2, the aristocratic and famous C-sharp minor waltz and the charming so-called “Minute” Waltz in D-flat). He tossed off the “Revolutionary” Etude as an encore.

How refreshing it was to listen to these familiar and playable works, and to hear the subtleties and nuances that a seasoned virtuoso, who has spent many decades studying, playing, performing and teaching them, brings to those works.

Not that Badura-Skoda can’t play the BIG pieces if and when he decides to. For his previous concert in Madison a couple years ago, he performed the last sonatas of Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert on one program. And he has recorded all the Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert sonatas – a formidable feat. So he can certainly pull big pieces out of his repertoire hat when he wants to.

Clearly, his choice of generally more modest fare was deliberate.

Are they easy pieces?

Maybe relatively, compared to say, Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata or some brash modern works like Prokofiev’s sonatas or Ligeti’s etudes. But the older I get the more it seems that no music is really easy – not even the small Scarlatti sonata (the slow and heart-felt aria lament in D minor, K.  32) or the simplest Two-Part Invention of Bach.

There is something else to praise in such programming.

Badura-Skoda played to a full house.

It made we wonder how many more full houses we might see if more accessible and more familiar repertoire were programmed. Works that seduce us into a vicarious mastery are undeniably attractive.

The recital was also something of an homage to the great Romanian pianist Dino Lipatti (1917-1950, below), who died prematurely and performed many of the same works on his last concert program, except that he played all the Chopin waltzes rather than mixing waltzes with other shorter dance forms.

I like the idea of a re-programming project much as I like re-photographing projects.

But that is another topic for another post on another day.

In the mean time, what do you think about performing shorter, more familiar, accessible and even playable works?

Do they attract you to concerts?

Are there certain works you are hungry to hear and used to practice?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Posted in Classical music

2 Comments »

  1. Amen! Drew and I went to hear the Calder Quartet yesterday evening, appearing with pianist Gloria Cheng in the Stanford Lively Arts series. The program was Dmitri Shostakovich, Christopher Rouse and Alfred Schnittke. Rouse’s string quartet No. 3 (2009, commissioned for the Calder Quartet) was clearly extraordinarily challenging to play, and in case that wasn’t abundantly obvious, the program notes and on-stage announcement seemed much more about the difficulty per se than about the music. Glad we heard it, but it seemed to be more a conversation among the composer, the artists and other composers than one addressing or involving the audience.

    Comment by Ed Haertel — March 31, 2011 @ 9:32 am

    • Hi Ed,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      What you describe is much too typical of what happens with new music today, and “modern” music in the 20th century.
      As an art, music — and modern music in particular — should pay more attention to the pleasure principle. Too much of it almost seems ashamed to be beautiful.
      Ho to all and best.
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 31, 2011 @ 10:44 am


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