Friday, September 05, 2014

'All The Things You Are' by Leon Fleisher

5 September 2014

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” is an often mis-attributed quotation which appears to have been coined by the comedian Martin Mull (see for a lengthy investigation of its origins). As a musician I often find written descriptions of pieces of music (particularly in novels) excruciating. (And don't even get me started on the common misuse of the term 'crescendo'!) So it was a pleasure to come across two excellent pieces of writing this week that sent me scurrying off to listen, not just to the works in question but to the particular recordings that the authors were describing. I rarely listen to solo piano music, so it is an additional testimony to these pieces of writing that both were about this genre.

I've just started reading the new novel by Haruki Murakami, 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage', and I was intrigued by this passage: “As they listened to one piano recording, Tsukuru realised that he'd heard the composition many times in the past. He didn't know the title, however, or the composer. It was a quiet, sorrowful piece that began with a slow, memorable theme, played out as single notes, then proceeded into a series of tranquil variations. Tsukuru looked up from a book he was reading and asked Haida what it was. “Franz Liszt’s 'Le Mal du Pays' – it's from his 'Years of Pilgrimage' suite, Year One: Switzerland ... The piece seems simple technically but it's hard to get the expression right: play it just as it's written on the score and it winds up pretty boring, but go the opposite route and interpret it too intensely and it sounds cheap. Just the way you use the pedal makes all the difference and can change the entire character of the piece.” “Who's the pianist here?” “A Russian – Lazar Berman. When he plays Liszt it's like he's painting a delicately imagined landscape … there aren't many living pianists who can play it accurately and with such beauty. Among more contemporary pianists, Berman gets it right.”” Apparently copies of Lazar Berman's CD sold out almost immediately after the publication of Murakami’s novel, and a new release is now planned.

I also loved this New Yorker article by Alex Ross: , which persuaded me to listen to the pianist Leon Fleisher's album 'All the Things You Are' – an eclectic collection which includes pieces by Bach, George Perle, Gershwin and Jerome Kern. Ross writes: “In the mid-nineteen-sixties, Fleisher began suffering from focal dystonia, and for several decades he lost the use of his right hand. Eventually, thanks to experimental treatments, he returned to playing with both hands, but he still gravitates toward the left-hand repertory, much of which was commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, one of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brothers, who lost an arm during the First World War. Fleisher has expanded that repertory further, and draws upon it in 'All the Things You Are'. The central work is Bach’s 'Chaconne in D Minor for violin', arranged as a left-hand piano exercise by Brahms. In a letter to Clara Schumann, Brahms told of his love for the Chaconne – “a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings” – and said that he enjoyed struggling in solitude to execute it with one hand, because “one does not always want to hear music actually played.” The miracle of Fleisher’s account is that, while he performs with astonishing dexterity, he retains that atmosphere of exploration, as if no one were listening. The most wrenching passage in the Chaconne comes toward the end, when, after an upward-striving, light-seeking section in D major, there is a shuddering collapse back into the minor. Here, as sonorous, multi-register figuration gives way to spare, confined lines, you may remember what you might have forgotten, that the pianist is using one hand, and that the impairment of the other has caused him much sorrow.”

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