Noteable releases: Trifonov/Babayan

Trifonov/Babayan Rachmaninoff for Two

I really wish that Daniil Trifonov and Henle or someone would do a deal and release his transcriptions. He has done some lovely work on Bach.

However, quite by chance, I found out about this yesterday. I asked myself, how good can it possibly be? Oh god, it’s amazing. I’m not really familiar with Sergei Babayan’s playing but I’m going to be frank, this album is approaching the recordings Trifonov did of the Rach concertos a few years ago and I wish he would record the cello sonata without a pesky cellist grabbing all the limelight.

In particular, I’d kill to have the sheets for the Symphonic Dances from this. It’s amazing.

This is one of those albums that has to be on your listen-list. I really would love to see them if they toured. This lad does things with a piano that very, very few other people can manage. I love listening to him play.

There are not enough superlatives in the world for this. The dynamic range is extraordinary; the pianos sound like god built instruments and the mics are disturbingly clear (this means one of them was singing along while playing). It’s the end of March. Debargue’s Fauré album is exquisite, and Tharaud’s duet album is also due in May and I expect wonderful things from that (the tasters are already gorgeous).

But I have a feeling this will be my piano album of the year.

Alexandre Kantorow and the HKPO at Bozar, Brussels, 9 March 2024

I didn’t realise when I was booking the concert tickets, but the performance of the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Alexandre Kantorow was the opening concert of the Clara Festival of music in Brussels. In one way, it didn’t matter.

Looking at Alexandre Kantorow, it’s really hard to absorb just how young he is, how recently he won the Tchaikovsky and just how much buzz there is around him. He’s 26 years old. I remember when I thought that was ancient. But that was 40 years ago. Maybe 35 years ago.

He was scheduled to play Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It’s the case that I would never pass by a chance to hear a piano/orchestra work by Rachmaninoff, and this was the second time in six months I was up to see this, albeit with a very different orchestra and a very different soloist. As usual, I hunted for seats that gave me an optimal view of the piano keys, and found myself in the front row. I was very glad to be there because watching Kantorow touch the keys of a piano is a remarkable experience and almost mind altering to be frank about it. His pedalling style is intriguing. I don’t understand how he does it, in the same way as I don’t understand how Yuja Wang does it with high heels (although that is still more easily understood that Kantorow pedalling with zero purchase on anything; just hanging in mid air).

So, to the performance. It was extraordinary. These pieces, they are standard repertoire, and you could cynically say there’s nothing more that can be said with them that we haven’t already heard from superstar pianists in the past. But Kantorow, there’s something special about how he plays, how he physically approaches the keys (and the pedals), almost as though he is sculpting sound from the air. Watching him play is as much a performance experience as hearing the notes sounding that result. I would have given anything to sit in a solo recital in the same seat just to see what he does with Liszt and maybe some more Brahms.

The standouts for me were the 15-20th variations. I don’t usually pick out pieces like that (especially not in that work as I think it stands complete). I would cheerfully listen to and watch him play those almost ad infinitum. He reinforced the cinema images I have always had from them (black and white moves of the interwar years) and the interplay with the orchestra was just * chef’s kiss*.

He gave us one encore, a piece of Brahms, one of the waltzes from Opus 39. I’m not sure what arrangement he played whether it was A major or A flat major. I note this only because I spent some time looking for it this morning and I found it existed in several forms, all done by Brahms himself. I find the A major arrangement for solo in my sheet music. The touch was delicate and in only the way that Brahms could compose, full of yearning love. I added it to my to be learned list but of course I’ll never play it like that.

Opportunities to hear him play should be grabbed.

The rest of the programme consisted of a commission for the orchestra by a Hong Kong based composer; as contemporary pieces go it was listenable and enjoyable. I suspect it will stay in their repertoire. The main event following the concerto was Brahms’ mighty first symphony. This is a piano blog but I will acknowledge that on the symphony front, Brahms and Sibelius, they the men. This was wonderful. But really, the highlight for me was Kantorow.

Love of my life

I bought this when I was about 15 years old.

Love of my life
1980s edition of Rach 2, reduced for 2 pianos.

That wasn’t today or yesterday. In fact, it was about 35 years ago and I bought it in a music book shop in London. I would give anything to find it again but I suspect it doesn’t exist. In my memory, it was a branch of Oxford University Press but it was, above all other things, a dream world. It had floor to ceiling drawers with mysterious labels. Ladders to get to the higher drawers. Middle aged men having heart attacks as I searched for Rachmaninoff’s name on the drawers.

I wanted two things. This and something else called Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Both of them together were too expensive, so after some no doubt annoying humming and hahing in the shop, I chose Rach. I’m not going to say Rach 2 has always been my favourite piano concerto but I hadn’t heard Saint-Saens 5 by then and Rach 2 is currently my favourite piano concerto.

You can tell this is an old edition. It doesn’t have the standard pic of Rach on the front of which most of the Boosey and Hawkes editions of his concertos do. Also, it is extremely grubby.

I didn’t really realise how grubby it had got until I looked at it today. I took it a lot of places with me. I sat in cars, on rugs, at picnic tables, analysing it, listening to Julius Katchen’s iconic recording and picking out bits of it. We got that from the Great Composers back in the day, on cassette and I recommend it. It’s a tragedy he died so young. The tape lived in my Walkman for most of my teenage years except when I was listening to Jean-Michel Jarre.

One of the girls I knew at choir said the coda was very hard and I would never learn it. She didn’t know it was a coda but the notes were small and there were lots of them. My music teacher did not want to know about it. It’s not like there was an orchestra handy where I grew up. I’m not going to say I was actively discouraged but I definitely was not encouraged.

Looking back, I think this was a pity. Claire Huangci says she learned it at 14. I bet she was encouraged. It’s standard repertoire. There are any number of renditions of it on YouTube. God I would have loved YouTube as a teenager. I just had The Great Composers partworks in cassettes. I learned the opening chords, before I bought the sheet music, from the accompanying magazine. I think my mother donated those magazines. I may regret that now.

I started learning it the summer I was 17. I was doing exams; I had worked my tiny little heart out on chemistry French and maths for two years; I had 2 weeks off before my exams would start and at that point, I didn’t think there was much I could do to improve further my chances in the Leaving Certificate in 1990. I scored two As, 4 Bs and a C back in the day when that meant something (old woman shakes fist at sky about the simplification of the maths syllabus amongst other things) so I probably wasn’t far wrong on that. I knew my theorems and I was the first person in years to do the chemical equilibrium question at my school and I got it 100% correct. I’m not bragging here. I’m about to explain that what I engaged in for the study break was the greatest torture known to a family in Ireland whose piano was in the same room as the TV.

I started learning the second movement of Rach 2. It was in E, a key I preferred to C minor in general (this is still the case). I used to get up, have breakfast, fill a pint glass with Ribena, the sugar filled version, put it on top of the piano, open Rach 2 somewhere in the middle and repeat a few bars endlessly. I must have spent 5 or 6 hours on it on occasion. I have a very fuzzy memory now but I’m certain I had had afternoon practice sessions which lasted 4 hours or more. I cannot imagine the focus I had that allowed me to decipher the notes (sight reading is not my strongest point although it has improved lately), and get myself to a point where I could play around the first – well this is the question. If I look at where I think I stopped, I got about 4 minutes in before I hit the polyrhythms for which I had no help at all and never navigated. But I really didn’t realise it was that far. I almost definitely got about a minute and a half in. There are some notes in the script – not many because mostly I tend to put in things to help to get the rhythm right and after a few years of RIAM and the Leinster School of Music, I have a horror of notes on my script (so I’m totally out of sync with most musicians, it seems) and everything is carefully in by pencil.

Why are we talking about this today? Because I have heard people learning Rach 3 on Reddit and Rach 2 on Tonic and I realised, if they are doing it, why can’t I? I am sure I wrote a bit about some of the people learning Rach 3 and yet I cannot find it quickly. So squirrelled away at the back of my head is that I would pick up the piano concerto again. The same movement – I love it – and start seeing if I could reawaken the memory of what I was able to do when I was 17 years old, drinking Ribena by the pint class. Today, I took it out and looked at how godawful grubby it is. I have the Henle Urtext on my iPad as well but there is some sort of emotional connection between me now (better sight reader and with some tools to deal with polyrhythms) and a girl with a crazy unrealistic dream in a house in the middle of rural Ireland.

I cry tears for that girl sometimes. She had a lot of life before her; I know now what that life included and a lot of it didn’t include a piano which is perhaps a shame.

I can’t still play the first 4 minutes. But I can – almost at will – play the opening page without fault and I can make it sound heart breaking. There is something about I play that which is absent in how I play Mendelssohn, for example. You can pick up senses of it in the Rebikov that I play with affliction when the mood takes me. But the heartbreak in these notes by Rachmaninoff is on a different scale.

I should be learning other exam stuff. I can’t even say how far I will get with this piano concerto this time. It’s mostly way above my skill level when you look at the piece as a whole. But I am now 50, and I can do what I like and what I like at the moment involves pieces of the greatest piece of piano music ever written.

BRU: Flagey Capucon and Trifonov

Back in June, when I was at Kissin, I was browsing the upcoming dates for Flagey and noticed that Messers Gautier Capucon and Daniil Trifonov were coming to play some Rachmaninoff in February. It seemed a long long way off last June but the day finally arrived on 7 February.

I’m going to be frank here: Daniil Trifonov is, in my experience, the best live concert pianist bar none at the moment and I’ve seen Yuja Wang, Lang Lang and Evgeny Kissin and Daniel Barenboim and Khatia Buniatishvili. So I would go to watch him playing variations on a nursery rhyme or any of the pieces on my 40 pieces learning list. Gautier Capucon plays the cello which isn’t really my instrument but I seriously appreciated his daily pieces during Covid and I cannot deny that he is a superlative musician. I had wanted to catch him live for a while. So, concert date was basically a marriage made in heaven.

The programme consisted of Debussy and Prokofiev sonatas in the first half, and then Rachmaninoff in the second half. I am not at all familiar with either of the first half sonatas, which is my own fault. They are beautiful and contrasting in style; to my mind rather mournful. The playing was masterful – there is something very special about how Trifonov balanced the depth and might of the Model D Steinway to allow the cello to sing. I enjoyed it very much but really, I was there for the Rachmaninoff more than anything. It was on a far higher plane than either of the two first half pieces. I read a comment once that Rachmaninoff’s cello sonata was not really a cello sonata as such, but a sonata for piano and cello. I tend to agree with this, especially after Wednesday night. I think the piano part could stand alone as a sonata in its own right; it has also many, many little sketches that you find littered around his concertos. Quotes, if you like.

On Wednesday, the two musicians played as equals. Where in the Prokofiev and Debussy, the piano very much tended to the accompaniment, in the Rachmaninoff, it was an equal partner in the endeavour. I loved it. Everyone around me loved it. I resolved to find the sheet music because I wanted to learn it.

There were two encores, Vocalise by Rachmaninoff and the Dance of the Knights by Prokofiev. The latter was particularly striking – I would like ot learn that too but it’s not something that my precious little Kawai digital will be able to fit. I’m also not sure if there’s a piano transcription currently available. I need to check.

With all due respect to the cellists amongst us, for me the highlight was the piano playing. I first saw Trifonov playing Rach 2 about 7 years ago in the Philharmonie in Luxembourg – I had no idea who he was but I would go to any concert of Rach 2 that I happen across. He does things with a piano that I lack the capacity to describe; but he makes me feel, oh how he makes me feel. I was so glad I did not miss him this time (I wound up on a waitlist for him last year). I really hope next year he comes back and plays a concerto with one of the orchestras here in Brussels. I would love to see him in that context again. Gautier Capucon will be back to do a masterclass at the Elisabeth Chapel in Waterloo in March.

All told, a wonderful evening. For the Rachmaninoff, Gautier has a recording with Yuja Wang. It is beautiful but far from being the same experience; the piano is some steps back and of course, nothing matches the sound of a grand piano in the flesh.

BRU: Flagey: Rachmaninoff150 Day #01

The Brussels Phiiharmonic and Flagey are running a series of Rachmaninoff concerts to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth and while I will miss the two concerts dedicated to the second and third piano concertos, this weekend included the first and fourth along with And Supporting Pieces. I will pick up Piano Concerto No 1 along with Rimsky Korskakov’s Scheherazade later today but I want to post briefly about last night’s concert. Details of the festival are here.

The soloist is Boris Giltburg, artist in residence in Flagey at the moment as I understand it. He is a Moscow born Israeli pianist in his late 30s and for some reason, last night was the first time I had come across his work. This surprises me. He was excellent. Last night he chose to play a Fazioli and I think this is the first time that I have seen a piano that was not a Steinway or a Yamaha in years. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t see a Steinway. I like Faziolis so this pleased me. And I was in Row B. I know they are somewhat of the cheap seats and “the sound is better further back”. But. I like to watch the soloist and in this respect, Boris Giltburg is definitely worth watching.

The programme for last night was the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, An American in Paris by Gershwin and then, the fourth piano concerto, sometimes the forgotten of the four brothers, as it were, often overshadowed by the Symphonic Dances (which if it was programmed near me this year I somehow endeavoured to miss which is a pity because that is a mighty piece).

The Paganini was superlative. There isn’t really any other way to describe it and I doubt any other performance will match it for pure power and delicacy. I suspect the piano in part had something to do with that – for me, the piano personifies a river running through the countryside of the orchestra for that piece (and sometimes that countryside is frozen, covered in frost and snow with ice on the surface of occasional pools of still water) and the sound of the Fazioli definitely enhanced that image for me. Equally, the fourth piano concerto was an outstanding performance – it is hardly surprising that Giltburg picked up standing ovations for both performances and will probably pick up a few more customer’s for today’s concert this afternoon. I liked him very much; he provided one encore from the Moments Musicaux, one with which I am less familiar but glitteringly beautiful nonetheless.

Touching on the Gershwin, I have to confess he is not really my favourite, and I couldn’t actually remember ever listening to An American in Paris but I must have because it was extremely familiar to me. Maybe I heard it quite often when I was very young. That being said, the performance last night was top flight. I’m left with the feeling that in the repertoire, this should be performed much more often. I would also tend to suggest that it is a piece that really bears being heard live rather than in recorded format.

After the concert, there was an Aftertalk, questions and answers with the conductor and the soloist. It was something I’ve never experienced before but I have to say it was fascinating. It touched on the challenges for both composers, the changes Rach made to the fourth piano concerto a couple of years before he died, how it fitted into his dire for American citizenship before he died. The presenter prior to the concert suggested this was a jazzy concerto and in discussion afterwards, I would venture to suggest that isn’t quite right, at least in the final revisions; I learned there are elements of jazz impro in the first edition of the concerto. But for me, again, it evokes snowy scenery rather than the jazz view of the United States o the 20s. Emigrés fall between several cultures and I suspect Rach is no different in that.

On the question of Gershwin it was pointed out that he wanted to be taken seriously by the classical establishment; that he had been an immensely musical theatre composer – I have heard this store more recently of course with Andrew Lloyd Webber. In Europe at least, Gershwin is seen as a great composer and has been for the last 40 years at least. Giancarlo Guerrero, who conducted, is fascinating in this discussion and he notes that in the US, Gershwin is still seen as lesser despite this being the first great American symphonic piece. It’s an interesting perspective and that discussion is one why those after concert discussions can be fascinating and extremely fascinating.

Anyway, I came home and took out the 18th Variation transcription for solo piano and had a go at it again. My god it is so lovely, I should put more work into it, despite the Bach two part invention that stands before me like an undesirable but necessary Everest (once I am past that, Bach will be carefully selected rather than imposed).

7 October, Rachmaninoff with the Brussels Philharmonic, Guerrero and Giltburg.

Sheet music acquisitions

Latest purchases
More Brahms and lots more Rachmaninoff

I wanted to get some plastic covers for my Henle music that I carry to acoustic piano practice, and also, I wanted non-tearable manuscript notebooks.

On the sheet music, every time I buy some, I think that’s the end. Most of the Rachmaninoff that I own is published by Boosey & Hawkes and I couldn’t get everything I wanted in London a couple of months ago. I was also experimenting with Prelude in G minor the other day (perhaps not the greatest idea) and I realised I didn’t much like the quality of the paper I was working from. I never thought I was so picky. I could see Henle had an edition of it so I decided I wanted that. I’ve been increasingly. Elegie and chunks of Etudes Tableaux are on my to be learned at some point in the future when I don’t hurt myself trying to do this, and I wanted the 117 intermezzi as well. I have one or two of them in the Brahms piano book (I should probably do some reviews. Score happy me.

Of course I should do this electronically, space and all that.

Sporting injuries – Rachmaninov

I’ve never worked out whether I prefer the v or ff spelling and today I bought some more music published by Henle who spell it with a w. Gotta love German.

Anyway. I’m fully aware of my limitations – I started working on the second piano concerto when I was 15 and still struggle with polyrhythms – and I like to think I pick my encounters with Rachmaninov carefully. I have some pieces on my longer to do list and then I have some snippets on my snippets. I lately came across Heart of the Keys having a go at the Prelude in G minor (playable by people who have been learning since yesterday 4pm according to Reddit) and it occurred to me that it had been a while since I had listened to it. So I did and it’s broadly an ABA structure, which is nice from a logical point of view, and the B is really a gorgeous piece of music.

I already had the sheet music, in a Boosey & Hawkes edition [and I have say I am not totally lost on the paper] so during a bout of insominia yesterday I got it out.

The sheet music is here on IMSLP, if you want to have a look. This is the key part, right at the beginning of what my popmusic soul still calls the bridge:

Clip from the sheet music of Prelude in G Minor, first bar of B section

See that chord highlighted in red? That there is an innocuous looking little octave sized chord where the position of the D and the F which is an F sharp courtesy of an earlier accidental are basically impossible for me to play at this point. Yes, I hurt myself.

I have a 9 white note span. I was not expecting this and I would be disappointed except Ouch.