Category: piano

Christian Immler: “Maybe This Is The Time For The Smaller Things To Become More Known”

Christian Immer, stage, opera, music, classical, performance

Christian Immler in Der Freischütz, 2019. Photo: Julien Benhamou

One of the many unexpected if oddly welcome  blossoms from the current lockdown era has been an increase in the quality of listening. The teenaged neighbours’ shouts at a bleepy-bloop video game, the burrrrrr of a truck engine outside the window, the whirl of a fan; all tangle with the sounds emanating through my speakers at various times throughout the day. Sometimes it’s a distraction, and sometimes such noises are mere counterpoint; my quality of listening has, in any case, deepened in a way I couldn’t have foreseen twelve months ago. I want to think I will keep this heightened listening as a new normal unfolds, but I am scared of what such a gift (is it that?) might entail; the thought of returning to a live forum is both exhilarating and frightening. It’s strange to contemplate such a transformation, since I am already what could be called a close listener, and as a result, I don’t – can’t – usually play “background music” in performing most tasks, because whatever is intended to act as “background” tends to become foreground very quickly. I’ve lost count of the knife wounds to fingers and hands as a result of listening while making dinner, for instance; cooking and classical is not always a wise mix. I was a musician long before I was a writer, after all, and my love of words and music only intensified through the direct experience of being onstage in both musical and theatrical capacities.

Such elements doubtlessly have fuelled my love of lieder, an art form which demands close listening, and one I’ve written about in the past. Made famous by Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and especially Schubert, the art of song asks something quite specific of its listeners: an understanding of the text, combined with an imagination recalling theatre, and an appreciation of the role of sound. Scansion becomes (arguably is a key part of) comprehension as much as actual dictionary definitions; the feel of words in the mouth and tonal resonance of sound in the chest render an inner truth in which the sensual and the spiritual might blend. It is impossible to simply “churn it out” with such an art form. Lieder is not about immediate thrill or satisfaction, thrilling though some of it can be; rather, it is a slow burn, a stew of words, sounds, rhythms, and resonances, delivered via the simple bowl of voice and (usually) piano. There is nowhere to hide with the art form; soloists are utterly exposed, and, I would argue, so are listeners. Such vulnerability is part of lieder’s appeal. Schubert’s famous song cycle Winterreise (1828) has enthralled (and frightened) many a soloist, and is considered by many as a “Mount Everest” of the art form. The work has enjoyed multiple recordings and inspired various iterations; a “composed interpretation” by Hans Zender (1936-2019) from 1993, for instance, has been complemented with a creative choreographed version by Christian Spuck at Ballet Zürich. Lieder can be elastic, but its requirement – close listening – is still very much extant. Tenor Ian Bostridge has written in relation to Zender’s recomposed Winterreise, which could well be applied to the entire art form, that it is “a work that offers us a conversation – and sometimes a confrontation – between the past and the present.”

Hans Gál, composer, music, classical, 20th century

Hans Gál. Photo: Berthold Bing, http://www.fotorevers.eu/de/ort/Wien/1502/ – Israel National Library, Schwadron collection, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17737088

That’s a notion wholly applicable to the work of Hans Gál (1890-1987), whose works are enjoying a deserved revival, with Hidden Treasure: Hans Gál’s unpublished Lieder (BIS Records) being part of this renewal. The album is a collection of 26 songs released this past January and featuring bass baritone Christian Immler and pianist Helmut Deutsch. Gál’s songwriting is itself a conversant with time and its passing, with touches of the past (Schumann and Brahms), the composer’s contemporary present (Zemlinsky, Strauss), and possible future (Stravinsky’s neoclassical compositions). Gál enjoyed great success as a composer in his native Austria and was awarded the Austrian Art Prize in 1915. His opera Die heilige Ente: ein Spiel mit Göttern und Menschen (The Sacred Duck: A Play With Gods And Men) was written in 1920-21 and premiered in Düsseldorf in 1923 under the baton of George Szell; it went on to enjoy productions in numerous German-language houses across Europe, and a special status as the first contemporary opera to be broadcast by Österreichischer Rundfunk (the Austrian broadcasting corporation). He became director of the Mainz Music Academy in 1929 on recommendations of both Wilhelm Furtwängler and Richard Strauss. With the Nazi rise to power, however, Gál, as a Jewish artist, faced censure. Die beiden Klaas (Rich Claus, Poor Claus), his fourth opera, was to have been staged as a double premiere (in Hamburg and Dresden) in 1933, but the piece, like many others, was cancelled. (It was only performed in 1990, in an English translation by York Opera.) Gál fled Europe in 1938, travelling to the UK; in 1940 he was interned as an “enemy alien.” He later went on to teach at the University of Edinburgh, (1945-1965) and became a respected member of the Edinburgh music community. His output was considerable: two large cantatas with orchestra, four operas, four symphonies, four string quartets, numerous piano works, and an array of orchestral and vocal works. A chamber version of Die heilige Ente was presented by Oper Köln in 2007, and a full revival at Sophiensæle Berlin in 2012.

Various listenings of Gál’s works, symphonic and vocal, have been undertaken with a far greater degree of focus and concentration than could have been imaginable in February 2020. There is a far deeper appreciation of the interplay between words and sounds, an integration I suspect was purposeful on the composer’s part. As Christian Immler remarked to me recently, Gál had “first-rate taste” in his texts. The poems Gál set to music are both timely and timeless, and contain thematic elements which hold a dualistic tension between the desire for solitude and the need for community, between the pain of isolation and the pain of congregation. In a recent article for Gramophone, Immler outlined Gál’s connection with text and describes the feeling of learning music which hasn’t been heard for over a century as “a powerful combination of curiosity, pioneer spirit and obligation. One is indeed living history!” Immler is himself a highly accomplished singer and soloist, known for his Baroque work as much as for his explorations of early 20th century repertoire. A member of the famed Tölzer Knabenchor (boys choir) in youth, Immler has worked in an array of classical idioms, including oratorio, opera, and lieder, singing the work of Monteverdi, Handel, Rameau, Steffani, Graupner, Weber, Mozart, Zemlinsky, and most especially Bach (the Passions are something of a specialty). He has worked with an array of conductors as well, including René Jacobs, William Christie, Raphaël Pichon, Marc Minkowski, Ivor Bolton, Masaaki Suzuki, Philippe Herreweghe, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the latter of whom he speaks about in glowing terms as part of our exchange, below.

In 2003 Immler was part of Continental Britons: The Émigré Composers (Nimbus Records), a collection of works from Jewish composers forced to flee Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. With pianist and Professor Erik Levi, Immler performed Hans Gál’s Fünf Melodien (Five Songs) for middle voice and piano, 1917-1921), Op.33, a collection which, at the time, was believed to be the composer’s only known lieder work. The cycle was recorded again for the 2011 album Modern Times (Cavi Music), featuring Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Similar to Émigré, Modern Times features the work of composers labelled “entartete” (“degenerate”) by the Nazis. It was this album which first caught my attention roughly a year ago, for its breadth of inspiring content as much as the palpable chemistry between its performers. The music (of Korngold, Eisler, Grosz, Goldschmidt, Schreker, Zemlinsky, and Gál’s collection of five songs) is performed with deep sensitivity and that unique feeling for text joined with sound; it’s as if Immler and Deutsch are reading one another’s thoughts – not “breathing together,” mind you, but with distinct visions and voices, in an energetic comprehension at once imaginative and intellectual.

Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, opera, classical, lieder, voice, piano, music, performance, Hans Gál

Helmut Deutsch and Christian Immler. Photo: Marcus Boman

(That “breathing as one” phrase is one, by the way, Deutsch himself writes about in his lately-released memoirs, published in English through Kahn & Averill; my interview with Helmut, about his memoirs, about Gál and working with Immler, and about much else, is coming soon. Stay tuned.)

Hidden Treasures came about through a meeting with Eva Fox-Gál, the composer’s daughter, after a live concert years ago, at which time Immler and Deutsch were made aware of the existence of the collection. Immler recalls her hesitancy to grant permission for the recording of the unpublished songs, the feeling being that her father never intended for them to be heard in public. The singer, together with Deutsch, made a recording in the pianist’s own living room of a selection of the unpublished works and sent them to her. This initiative, combined with the composer’s rising prominence in other recordings and media (including those by conductor Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra and Royal Northern Sinfonia; Gál was also BBC Radio 3’s Composer Of The Week in 2014) convinced the family that, as Immler put it, the Lieder would be properly contextualized within the composer’s larger compositional oeuvre. The 26 songs featured on Hidden Treasure were written between 1910 and 1921, with the album including the Op.33 song cycle. The poetry of Heinrich Heine, Herman Hesse, Christian Morgenstern, Rabindranath Tagore, Richard Dehmel, Hans Bethge, Walther von der Vogelweide is given shining prominence here; already possessing a thoughtful musicality, Immler’s textual and vocal flexibility highlights his own deep listening, to both the music enveloping those words and to Deutsch’s virtuosic playing. The artists have worked to create a beautiful album, one to be slowly savoured over repeated instances, aided by the heightened listening skills the pandemic era has mysteriously (or not) endowed.

My chat with Christian Immler began by discussing writing and discovery,  and moved on to possibilities for our very own “modern times”, and if he feels like an ambassador for the music of Hans Gál.

score, Hans Gál, original, music, lieder, song, handwriting

A portion of the original score of “Lady Rosa” by Hans Gál. Photo courtesy of Christian Immler, private collection.

The lockdown seems to have provided a perfect listening opportunity for Gál’s work, and for the work on the album more specifically.

People have more time now, and I think they finally said, “Okay I have to sort my stamp collection, I have this to do and that, now I really have to sit down and understand what the opening theme in this Beethoven means” – and if not now, then when? People start to listen in new ways. My wife is also a musician and pianist, she’s’ very much into storytelling, and there are a lot of evenings she’ll just listen to various broadcasts– my mother would do and grandmother as well; they would sit and just listen.

That form of deep listening is certainly required for this collection. Is it true this album grew out of your live experience?

 My very first experience of Gál’s music was of his Opus 33 collection; I did them with Erik Levi, who is kind of the authority – he is a dear friend, extremely knowledgeable, he’s also Visiting Professor in Music at Royal Holloway College. That performance was at Wigmore Hall (in 2002). The one with Helmut Deutsch was at King’s Place (in 2010), a beautiful hall in London, and then after that, we put part of the Gál songs onto Modern Times. But Helmut and I met Eva Fox-Gál, the daughter of Hans Gál; we went to her house in York and looked through a lot of manuscripts and had a visit – there’s a beautiful garden, I remember that well. Gál’s original piano isn’t there, it is with his grandson Simon, who recorded (Hidden Treasure), but there, in the collection, are songs which might be more for a woman, it’s difficult to say, not because it talks about a woman, but in terms of style. And what was a bit difficult was finding enough variety, because also they’re quite slow songs, darkish songs, slightly melancholic songs. We were happy to find things which moved along to lighten the mood. I had a certain order in mind as I do this with all my recitals.

That’s what you did here? Ordered them as you would a recital?

That’s what we did here, but I wanted “Lady Rosa” as the opener. First of all I *love* the name, it’s just wonderful,”Lady Rosa” – you want to just say it out loud! – and this song, it sounds so simple but it has… you, the singer, must keep in this very specific way, and with the piano in rhythmic proportion; the (vocal line and instrumental line) are not *quite* coming together. It’s a wonderful song and that had to be the first one, I insisted, but other than that, we played around. We left the huge stuff to the very end, which in some recording sessions is risky.

Christian Immler, opera, singer, performer, artist, vocal, classical

Christian Immler
Photo: Marco Borggreve

That choice implies a clear narrative line. The selection of poetry is notable – for instance, the Morgenstern works are a nice microcosm of the album’s themes of dark and light. And you have a style which elucidates the text really well.

Gál had a first-rate taste in texts! That is unlike some very well known composers, I’d say, who had a very mixed success rate in doing so – just think of Brahms. I love some of his work, but some of the texts are a bit… hmmmm…. ! But with Gál, his daughter told me a few things, like for instance he helped with editing some Schubert and Brahms works with his friend and mentor, Eusebius Mandyczewski (1857-1929), who himself was a friend of Brahms. (Mandyczewski and Gál co-edited Brahms’ complete works in the early part of the 20th century.)

Now, if you transcribe stuff in front of you and you can read music, then that music is absorbed by the system of the body, and at such a young age when everything goes in like a sponge… well. I was astonished the manuscripts are super-neatly written. Remember a lot of these songs were written during war-time, so 1917 or so, and he had bursts of energy like Hugo Wolf or Robert Schumann, where he would write five songs in five days – which doesn’t sound like much, but he was a soldier then, and I find such an activity within this context highly fascinating. Those manuscripts are super-neatly written; he must’ve been a very disciplined person, and had huge integrity as a writer. I put the question to Eva, if he was ever interested in the risqué poems, like those by Richard Dehmel written twelve years earlier, which Schoenberg had set to music (Verklärte Nacht) which talks about premarital sex and two people walking alone in the night. Eva said her father was never interested in second-guessing; his audience should always know how to receive something. He didn’t want to create ambiguity…

… which is unique, considering how many of his fellow contemporary composers were. He really went against the grain. 

Well according to his contemporaries. he was very disciplined, he was a really hard worker, he had a kind of ironic sense of humour which might’ve endeared him to (the work of) Heinrich Heine, but he was quite a serious person, and could play anything by heart. You can see it in the photos; his is not a face who is up for a lot of extramarital craziness, for instance, but is very dedicated to his work – and so I think this direct writing style was enough for him. He wanted to stay true to himself and I don’t think he was… you know, there were people who were constantly on the lookout in terms of, “How can I make this more lush? Or make this even more tonally modern modern?” Gál  never went into twelve-tone music, for instance…

… which is also notable.

Yes. And with some songs (by other composers), you think, “Well, what shall I do here? Do I need to do a bit of magic here if I don’t want to put the pedal down?” And that’s not the case here (on Hidden Treasure) at all. It’s direct.

Gál’s’s music is direct and creative at once.

Yes! The harmonic changes for example, in “Vöglein Schwermut”, whoah! We performed it several times onstage and you can hear a pin drop at the end. In the concert hall there is just silence at this moment! (Gál’s writing) goes up in the piano, and when Helmut plays it, you hold your breath, literally! I’m so, so grateful for this collaboration – Helmut and I are good friends, and when I asked him first if he was interested in doing a recital I expected, you know, “Let me get back to you” but he said, “Sure, why not?” He deals with what’s in front of him and is an excellent sight-reader – I have so many scores of music here at home which at one point when I can travel again, we‘ll look through in Vienna. Luckily he’s very interested in Gál’s music – he loves doing it, and of course he loves Winterreise, but if you’ve played it five hundred, or I don’t know, a thousand times now like he has – it’s like for me and St. Matthew Passion: I love it, but if anything else comes along, that’s where my energy would go at this moment.

I wonder if the things Bach gives a singer might help with performing early 20th century music; do you think your Baroque experience helped you with Gál?

Yes and no. What certainly helped me which I will always be grateful for, is the discipline you learn in a boys’ choir – I was in the Tölzer Knabenchor, and it was there I got to know (Nikolaus) Harnoncourt, when I was nearly eleven years old. You have to get used to traveling at a very very early age and just to deliver something in the evening, nobody’s interested in your personal little worries or whatever; you learn the trade if you do it early, and by simply being there, you absorb a lot. I think that experience was helpful to learning Gál. Now, if you are in the vicinity of someone like Harnoncourt, who had this total dedication to what’s in front of him, even better. I did a St. Matthew Passion with him years later as an adult; this was a few years before he passed away. So it went full circle! I couldn’t sleep for two days afterwards, I had so much adrenaline – we did it in the Musikverein where we rehearsed. Sometimes I had to pinch myself it was really happening.

But the discipline one learns was useful, and without wanting to sound kind of arrogant… well, it’s very difficult to teach how to phrase, or how to conduct a phrase. You can show it to somebody but ultimately it has to be felt, and understood, and conceptualized, but *not* on an intellectual level. And for instance, Harnoncourt combined this enormously intellectual approach – he knew everything and would discuss everything with everybody, not a big deal – with such a level of understanding. Onstage he was 100% a musician. He knew about that sort of Baroque phrasing, where you go somewhere and come away, I think, with this sort of sensuality for phrasing, so for any vocal repertoire, especially that of Gál, it really struck me (in recording the album) that I never had to help the vocal line; it has a natural flow. It *can* be challenging in that it leads you up and you think, “Oh, I need to work!” but it always makes sense. And having Helmut is like having a carpet under you anyway. He and I didn’t actually talk about interpreting when we rehearsed these songs – we don’t really talk about it anyway, but *especially* for this. There was just one song where we had totally different tempos in mind, but that was the only thing, the only time. Gál, certainly, had the experience (in vocal writing), he had good training with a cappella ensembles wherever he was, in Vienna and in the UK; he was looking for an older idiom and he found it. In things he wrote in 1917 you can totally hear, in some of the songs, the actual piano part becoming an extended orchestral section, and when you hear this, as a singer, you know you really need to go for it then.

Did you ever feel Helmut were sonically competing at points? There are times when things don’t resolve the way we’re expecting as listeners, and it’s almost like vocals and piano are at tension.

I can confirm onstage, in the recitals I did with Helmut, there’s always an edge to him and he always makes noise when he plays – you can hear it on the recording too, he kind of does this “mmmnnnmmm” – like, “Helmut, shhh!!” But onstage, he is really negotiating and renegotiating the percussive element of the piano. He is a master in that and I simply do not want to play with pianists anymore who play works just as-is. The piano is a percussive instrument through which you can only create the illusion of line, and Helmut knows this; he sings all the time, he has this kind of forward approach, for which I’m grateful. We did Korngold (works) together, and (those of) Zemlinsky also, and if you start to become free floating in space, and take rubati whenever you want… no, it needs to come to a time from which you steal, rubato, you steal it *from* something, which is an orderly arrangement. But if you create something which is a space-floating thing, no rhythm or tempo at all, you lose out, and Helmut is breathing with this understanding; he doesn’t pull the entire structure apart. You *know* where to breathe. But it’s challenge to be onstage with him! I will not deny, he will never play against you – he always has a big ear and can adjust if you run out of breath – but he won’t make life easy. He keeps ploughing forwards, and so do I, and of course that’s when the energy comes.

Hans Gál, music, classical, lieder, album, Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, voice, piano, 20th centuryThat’s what this music demands – and the light/dark dualism of these songs has a corollary in the isolation/community themes which seem particularly meaningful right now.

It’s very much of its time 100 years ago. I’m not big into the “Oh, this was written as an omen!” way of thinking, but I do think often about that time and what it means for our days. We had a good time until this tragic Covid hit; things were working, although it was a bit *too* fast, the pace, for me. I’m a workaholic also, and of course now that tendency totally crashed and… you know, you have to rearrange yourself, and then you think, “How can I be of use? For my family? For what?!”

“How can I be of service?”

In a way… yes. I find this time super super-interesting, and in fact I’ve never before had enough time to pursue it but now, I’m writing my Doctorate about the the song landscape between the two Wars, the interbellum times. There is so much repertoire which Helmut and I have discovered and will play through, but right now I can do a lot from home, and it keeps me busy. Maybe this is the time for the smaller things to become more known.

I recently wrote a formal feature about reductions and am considering doing something more about how this time might or might not change the nature of listening and live experience. Small is not ideal of course but it isn’t necessarily bad either!

You should do it! I mean, I find Schoenberg’s rearrangements of the Song Cycles of Mahler to be somewhat more interesting, and more to the point – they are just fantastic. I’m working with another pianist as well, and we are thinking about doing Korngold and Zemlinsky songs for a small ensemble – I have no idea why nobody’s done it. For some of these songs it can take up to two minutes before you as a singer even open your mouth, they are *that* orchestral – and yes, you can do it in this reduced way.

But that means audiences have to readjust expectations, too, and organization need to be open to taking that risk in their programming.

It doesn’t take long to re-train the ears but it takes a few times (of doing experimental things) to get people in. And there’s a limit to doing reductions, in my opinion; some things make sense, others maybe not. But the time right now is ripe for experimenting; Schubert songs, of course, have been orchestrated by the best, but for a smaller ensemble there is something still, I think, to be done, and to bring it onstage in a more thematic way. I’m just dreaming here…

Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, opera, classical, lieder, voice, piano, music, performance, Hans Gál

Christian Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Photo: Marcus Boman

… and now is the time to do that, is it not? I feel like there’s a place for Gál’s music amidst all of this. Do you and Helmut feel like ambassadors?

We are! And we didn’t become ambassadors because we had nothing else to do! It happens to be the case that both of us are interested in it but we don’t have to record things which have mediocre quality which makes it much easier. Helmut and I have a little rating system which, independently, we use when we go through things; you have to be a bit careful as sometimes you miss the essence of a song the first time round. A lot of Gál’s stuff is in Vienna, at the exil.arte Centre For Banned Music – things are literally just sitting in boxes there. Helmut is already in Vienna, so one day he and I went and looked through the archive of Gál’s music. I know he’s not so keen about going into twelve-tone music, but there’s great stuff, and what I want to say is, with this experimentation, I want to do more CDs in this direction, first to take one slight step back and do things by Theodor Streicher (1874-1940; awarded the Großer Österreichischer Staatspreis in 1936) – who is a little bit like Hugo Wolf gone a bit crazy! – and then the work of Gál, which we did already, but then go one step further as well, into more tonally daring composers like Ernst Toch (1887-1964; awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1956 and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1958). The list of composers yet to explore is endless.

So you’re an ambassador, not only for Gál but for the many composers like him.

I would think so! Helmut also has time, but we’re not allowed to travel right now, but when we are, we will hopefully plan for this – and more.

Personal Essay: Curiosity In The Time Of Corona

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Over the past month I’ve found myself strongly gravitating to things that satisfy my curiosity and simultaneously whet it further, amidst grappling with memories of cultural restriction. Such limits, imposed by an opera-loving mother, manifest themselves in the comfortably familiar, a tendency experienced as an adult amidst periods of non-travel (i.e. now).  The dynamic tension between familiar ephemerality (laziness calling itself comfort) and explorations into the unfamiliar (sometimes difficult; always rewarding) has, over the past five weeks, become increasingly exhausting to manage. I try to ride the tension even as I make attempts to be less harshly judgemental toward myself in enjoying cat gifs/Spongebob Squarepants/Blazing Saddles alongside the work of Ludmila Ulitskaya/Moomins/Andrei Rublev. There may be room for both, but I’m also determined not to let laziness squash curiosity, a curiosity I frequently had to fight to defend and cultivate.

That curiosity has found wonderful exercise in select digital work. Sir Antonio Pappano exudes (as I have noted in the past) a natural warmth as befits someone who once hosted a four-part series for the BBC exploring classical music history through the lens of voice types“What potential for a great opera!” he exclaims of a motif from Peter Grimes he’s just played on the piano, closing his latest video for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, of which the eminent maestro is Music Director. Amidst the recent glut of online material, this particular video was, when I first viewed it, a pungent reminder of my incomplete musical past, one that firmly did not feature the music of Benjamin Britten. My Verdi-mad mother would make a sour face if she happened to see the Metropolitan Opera or, closer to home, the Canadian Opera Company, was to feature certain operas (i.e. Peter Grimes, Wozzeck, Lulu) as part of their respective seasons. “That isn’t music,” she’d snarl, turning on the old stereo, where the voice of Luciano Pavarotti would invariably be heard, singing “Celeste Aida”, “La donna è mobile”, or any other number of famous arias. “That is music.”

mother child retro vintage meal memories

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Highly wary of anything perceived as too intellectual, my mother’s feelings (a word I use purposely) about what constituted good music were tied to traditional ideas about art from her being raised in a conservative time and place, in 1940s-1950s working-class Canada. I wasn’t aware of the influence of these things growing up; I only felt their effects, and strongly, for a long time. One feature of childhood is, perhaps for some more intensely than others, the desire for parental approval. Only in youth does one become better acquainted with a burgeoning sense of self that might exist outside so-called realities presented (and sometimes forcefully maintained) by parents. That I did not grow up with the music of Benjamin Britten, or Berg or Schoenberg or Shostakovich, nor distressingly large swaths of Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner, or very much besides, is a source of continual bewilderment, frustration, and occasional shame, feelings more pronounced lately within an enforced isolation. There’s much to learn; sometimes catching up feels overwhelming, impossible.

Many of those feelings are owing to a restrictive and very narrow childhood musical diet consisting largely of what might be termed “The Hits” of classical music. “Things you can hum to!” as my mother was wont to say; the worth of a piece of music, to her mind, lay largely here. Many may feel this is not such a bad thing, and that to criticize it is to engage in some awful form of classical snobbery; I would beg to differ. It’s one thing to enjoy something for its own sake, but it’s another to feel that’s all there is, and moreover, to dismiss any other creative and/or historical contextualizing and to belittle related curiosities. (“You’re ruining the enjoyment,” was a phrase commonly heard in my youth (and beyond), another being: “Just enjoy it and stop picking things apart!”) Being raised around the work of Verdi, Puccini, Offenbach, and Bizet, and equally famous voices (i.e. Callas, Gobbi, Di Stefano, Corelli) set me on the path I now travel, and I’m grateful. I must’ve been one of the only suburban Canadian teenagers in the late 1980s and early 1990s to have seen Pavarotti, Freni, and Hvorostovsky live (and more than once) – but it’s frustrating not to be able to remember those performances in detail, and to not know who was on the podium, or who directed and designed those productions. Blame cannot be entirely laid at my mother’s (perennially high-heeled) feet; responsibility must surely be shared with young music instructors who, probably not unlike her, simply did were not in possession of the tools for knowing how to engage and encourage a big curiosity in a small person. 

Anyone who has been through the conservatory system in Canada might be familiar with the sections that were required as part of their advancing in grade books. During the years of my piano study, they were (rather predictably) chronological – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern – with selections from each to be played at one’s yearly (entirely terrifying) exams. To my great surprise, I found I not only had an intuitive knack for playing the work of modern composers, but enjoyed the experience. This happy discovery coincided, rather unsurprisingly, with my teen years, though I barely understood basic elements like chord progressions, resolutions, polyphony, dissonance – these things remained largely unexplained, unexamined notions, big words dribbled out in half-baked theory classes. I played triads and diminished 5ths and dominant 7ths, but I couldn’t tell you what they meant, why they were used, or how they related to the composition and its history.

Still, I realized on some intuitive level, and partly through direct experience playing those modern works, that there was an entire cosmos I was missing. Exposure to world cinema confirmed that feeling, and led me to sounds that opened the door of discovery slightly wider; from there were trips to the local library for cassette rentals. Winter months found me alone in my bedroom, sitting on the floor, listening to the music of Prokofiev coming through my soup-can-sized headphones. This was definitely not Peter And The Wolf (which I’d loved as a small child), and though Cinderella was welcome… what would my mother make of Ivan the Terrible? Was it acceptable to play Queen’s “We Will Rock You” right after The Lieutenant Kijé Suite, or or George Michael’s “Faith” right before Alexander Nevsky? Did it make me awfully stupid and shallow? Did my intense love of dance music diminish or besmirch my desire to learn about what felt like its opposite? Was I not smart enough to understand this music? Was I always going to find certain works  impenetrable? Should I stick with the tuneful things my mother would swoon over every Saturday afternoon?

Rather than resolve any of this, I stopped playing the piano. For years I had been wheeled out like a trained monkey to entertain adults, and I yearned for cultural pursuits I could call my own. My intense love of theatre and words took over my once-passionate music studies, eventually manifesting in writing, publishing, producing, and performance. The irony that my return to music came through these very things is particularly rich, if also telling. Writing about music, examining libretti, observing people, listening to dialogue sung and spoken, meditating on how various aspects of theatre transfer (or don’t) to an online setting, contemplating audience behaviours and engagements with various virtual ventures that move past notions of diversionary entertainment and ephemeral presentation – these are things which awaken, inspire, occasionally infuriate but equally fascinate. In watching Pappano’s Peter Grimes video, I recalled my experience of seeing it performed live in-concert at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest last autumn (in a driving presentation by the Romanian National Radio Orchestra and Radio Academic Choir led by Paul Daniel), and to what extent my mother might have judged my enjoyment of that experience. I’m grateful to artists who whet my curiosity, replacing the comfortably familiar with the culturally adventurous.

Daniel Hope, violin, violinist, soloist, performer, artist, host, Hope@Home, classical

Violinist Daniel Hope (Photo: Nicolas Zonvi)

Violinist Daniel Hope excels at this. As well as performing as soloist with numerous orchestras from Boston to Tokyo to London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Paris and Berlin, Hope is also the Music Director of the Zürich Chamber Orchestra, Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (in San Francisco), and Artistic Director of the historic Frauenkirche Cathedral in Dresden. In this, the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth, he also assumed a rather special role, that of President of the Beethovenhaus Bonn. He possesses a fierce commitment to new music. Hope’s current online series, Hope@Home (presented with broadcaster Arte), is recorded live in his living room in Berlin and has become something of an online smash since its debut in March, with over a million views on YouTube. The smart daily program offers a varied array of offerings, which, over the course of 30 episodes so far, have offered performances presented within a smart context of either personal memories or well-known anecdotes (or sometimes both), creative pairings, and affecting readings, not to mention an unplanned appearance by his Storm Trooper-masked children at a recent episode’s close. Many of the works featured on Hope@Home are reductions from their orchestral counterparts, in adherence to social distancing rules, with Hope, pianist Christoph Israel, and (or) guests performing at appropriate distances. Touching but never saccharine, the program frequently enlightens on both verbal and non-verbal levels, hinting at the alchemical trinity of curiosity, communication, and reciprocity that exists as part-and-parcel of music – indeed art  itself – any and everywhere, in any given time, pandemic or not. 

Hope’s guestlist has been engagingly eclectic, with  figures from a variety of worlds, including director Robert Wilson giving an extraordinarily moving reading of an original work set to Hope’s intuitively delicate performance of the famous “Spiegel im Spiegel”, the utterly delightful actor Ulrich Tukur, who, in his second appearance recently, exchanged lines with Hope himself in a touching performance of the final scene of Waiting for Godot. Equally powerful was an earlier episode with director Barrie Kosky which featured a poignant reading from Joseph Roth’s novel The Hotel Years, preceded by the Komische Oper Berlin Intendant dedicating the reading to those who might be quarantining alone. (I shed a few tears of gratitude at hearing Kosky’s words; the experience of being seen, however figuratively, right now, cannot be underestimated.) Another recent episode featured a very moving musical partnership between Hope and pianist Tamara Stefanovich (and later featured baritone Mattias Goerne), while another found Hope reminiscing about his experience of knowing and working with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. A regular feature includes Hope’s sharing videos of musicians performing together yet separate from various organizations; one such share was a stunning performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil by the Netherlands-based choir Groot Omroepkoor. There’s a real understanding and love of the larger cultural ecosystem on display here, one that betrays a great understanding of the ties binding music, theatre, literature, and digital culture together. That understanding was highlighted with memorable clarity for Hope@Home’s 30th episode, one heavy on Russian repertoire and featuring conductor Vladimir Jurowski and soprano Evelina Dobračeva. The stirring combination of elements in the episode, which featured the music of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, and (inspiringly) Schnittke, left strange, and strangely familiar anxieties over old questions, with an odd, older-life twist: am I smart enough to understand this music now? Is this really so impenetrable? What things should I be studying? Listening to? How should I contextualize this? What is missing? Will I remember the things I learn, and will be learning? 

Curiosity, discipline, focus, commitment: these are the tenets one tries to abide by, even as one allows for falling off the track every now and again with Spongebob and Lily von Schtupp. Such ambitiousness isn’t related to any idea of worthiness vis-a-vis productivity (not that I don’t have some experience of the profound connection between perfectionism, workaholism, and depression) , so much as taking advantage of the lack of outer distraction, and engaging in what author Dr. Gabor Maté has termed “compassionate inquiry.” Indeed, this piece itself, inspired by various inspiring video posts, might qualify as a valid manifestation of that very inquiry. How much we will absorb what we are learning now, in this time, consciously or not? Whither enlightenment, empathy, inspiration? We may scratch at the door of transcendence, but we are seeking respite, comfort, reassurance, and for many, familiarity. It is rare and very special for me to experience things which are curiosity-inspiring  but equally comforting within the digital realm, to swallow lingering awkwardness and allow myself the permission to admit and embrace my cultural curiosity through them, and to have them inspire a reconsideration of the past, one that leads to forgiveness, acceptance, and a fortifying of commitment to that path’s expansion. To tomorrow. To curiosity.

Lucas Debargue: “You Are A Human First; Then You May Be A Musician”

Debargue pianist piano French Scarlatti artist musician performer

Photo: Felix Broede

The famous sonatas of 18th century composer Domenico Scarlatti are daunting, not only for their sheer number but for their demands. As Gramophone‘s Patrick Rucker observed, “pianists do well to think twice before recording this enticing but treacherous repertory.

Scarlatti wrote 555 sonatas in all, though many were unpublished during the composer’s lifetime. As well as utilizing unique modulations and dischords, some of the sonatas were clearly influenced by Iberian folk music. Along with the sontas, Scarlatti composed operas, cantatas, and liturgical pieces, and counted fans among composers (Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, but also Shostakovich,  Messiaen, and Poulenc) as well as pianists (Horowitz, Gilels, and Schiff). The late American harpsichordist Scott Ross was the first to record all of the sonatas (across 34 CDs for Erato/Radio France) in 1988.

French pianist Debargue acknowledges Ross in the liner notes to Scarlatti: 52 Sonatas (Sony Classical), and also notes Ross’s influence on his own playing, but in releasing the work (in October 2019), Debargue must’ve known the challenges he would face. As Music Web International’s Richard Masters notes, “every piano-fancier has their champion of choice” for the sonatas.” Playing against preset favorites is always a risk, as any classical artist well knows, and yet Debargue is an artist who embraces such risk, and always has. The album is a continuation of a risk-taking drive that has been present ever since he burst onto the classical scene in 2015, his playing a deep and discernibly personal expression of an ever-evolving authenticity, to craft and to self.

His entrance into the classical music world is not the story you might expect, but it’s one that has directly influenced his approach. With no family or background in the industry, Debargue only took his first piano lessons at the age of eleven. As he told the Seattle Times in 2016,

I met a very nice pedagogue who was not trying to put me in a box and tell me what to do with a piano. She let me go my way. I was quite undisciplined and could not bear practice. For me it was absurd and I just wanted to play what I wanted to play.

Piano playing ceased in his teens, and Debargue instead went on to play in a rock band and work in a grocery store. He studied art and literature before returning to the piano at the age of twenty, attending the École Normale de Musique de Paris “Alfred Cortot”, a top French conservatory, and studying with famed Russian pianist and professor Rena Shereshevskaya, which he still does. Shereshevskaya’s opinion is one he very much defers to for her being “an authentic listener.”

In 2015 Debargue placed a controversial fourth place at the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition; many felt he deserved a higher placement, and that snobbery (related to his background, which included being self-taught) prevented his being awarded top honors. In any case, it hardly mattered; Debargue was invited by Competition Chairman Valery Gergiev to perform in the winner’s gala – in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin, no less. The French pianist has since attained much success, with non-stop rounds of touring, recording, and yet more awards, including an Echo Klassik (Germany’s major classical music award) in 2017. He’s played an assortment of great halls (including Wigmore, Carnegie, the Concertgebouw, the Philharmonie Berlin, Theatre des Champs Elysées, Munich’s Prinzregententheater, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, and the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall) and has worked with top artists including conductors (including Andrey Boreyko, Mikhail Pletnev, Yutaka Sado, and Tugan Sokhiev) and musicians (Gidon Kremer, Martin Fröst, and Janine Jansen). His discography includes recordings of the work of piano greats, including Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, Bach, Beethoven, and Medtner; he recorded a stunning album of the music of Schubert and Szymanowski in 2017. His most recent recording, of the carefully-selected Scarlatti sonatas, offers a very unconventional if highly inspiring listening experience, one which finds intellectual, emotional, and spiritual coherence through its various pedal-less ascents to grand harmonic vistas and gentle descents into valleys of varied tonal melody. Debargue’s rubato-infused playing is hypnotizing, heartfelt, intelligent, and intuitive.

I’ve written in the past about how certain pianists inspire my desire to return to the keyboard myself, and this disc is perhaps the most supreme encapsulation to date of that urge; Debargue’s gorgeously delicate if quietly confident Sonata in A Minor  K. 109 (the 13th track on the first disc), for instance, is devastating in awful, awesome beauty, a whispering grandeur rustling through his delicious phrasing and touch. More than once I’ve hissed a happy “yassssss” listening to this, and to other tracks on this grand, sometimes overwhelming album. Richard Masters rightly notes in his review that this is not an album to be experienced all at once, but rather, savoured, “like a box of expensive chocolates,” with each of the three discs making up the album existing as their own sort of recital – its own little species of plant, which is possibly an appropriate reaction, as my conversation with Debargue revealed.

It wasn’t a surprise to learn that NPR rated Scarlatti: 52 Sonatas as one of their top classical picks in terms of albums that might best usher in a new decade, with writer Tom Huizenga noting Debargue’s “great self-assurance” and his ability to find “clarity, texture, and color” in order to coax “the mercurial personality in each of these miniatures, whether it’s the spirit of flamenco strumming, a tender aria or a boisterous march.” Currently on a tour that takes him to Toronto (on January 16th), Montreal January 19th) and New York (January 22nd in Brooklyn and January 31st at Carnegie Hall), Debargue and I chatted in the midst of a bustling festive season, in December 2019.

Debargue pianist piano French Scarlatti artist musician performer

Photo: Xiomara Bender

You have said in the past you feel Scarlatti’s music is very psychological – what did you mean?

It’s because he plays with our consciousness. Music is language, and it’s playing with the connections you can make, not only between elements but surprising you, or confirming something you were expecting. He plays with the mind.

Fragments of the scores indicate Scarlatti didn’t write them himself… 

Yes, the thing is that we only have so much information about Scarlatti, it’s hard to figure out how he managed to write those pieces, the copies are not in his hand, so someone copied this. We don’t have the draft from his hand directly, so it’s hard to figure out how it was originally made. 

… but there’s a suggestion others copied down his improvisations. To me that echoes how your album sounds: very natural, very improvised.

It’s is one of my biggest interests – and this is part of the point of my approach also, an important part of my approach. Improvisation is probably the highest side of musical practice, and every piece I play I try to aim for improvisation – it has to sound that way. You can really be driven by the playing, because so often (these works) sound not like improvisation, and if you play them this way, you lose the energy of the music. And the energy of the music gives the presence, and the presence is expressed through the improvisation; it all goes together, especially for Scarlatti.

How does that translate into larger works? You worked with Tugan Sokhiev in December, for instance; how does this connection with energy and improvisation translate into an orchestral situation?

It’s not the same thing when there’s an orchestra; it’s less possible to improvise. The first thing is that it has to be very clear; for this reason you cannot really be free in time. For the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, I allowed myself to be free when I played alone – so during the Adagio, playing alone I just did what I wanted. But when it was with the orchestra, and you don’t play with this orchestra very often – I played only once before with the Orchestre National Du Capitole de Toulouse – this makes it more…  for me the priority is to be attentive to the elements, to find some common points. It’s better to be more simple at the start.

If you collaborate again and again with an orchestra there are natural things that appear and it can be more flexible, but it requires time, and a lot of listeners and music lovers are not concerned about the time to takes. Even speaking about recital programs, a lot of people ask me, “What will you play in your next concert?” They don’t realize that a recital program takes at least one year to prepare. It’s not a question of being slow at memorizing – I’m fast at that, I can learn big pieces in one day or one week, but this doesn’t matter, there is nothing to admire here – what is important is the time it takes to actually raise it, as if you were growing vegetables or flowers. It takes time to make an interpretation exist, because it’s not only memorizing a score and playing the notes, it has to be like a living being, and the cultivation of a living being takes time.

Debargue pianist piano French Scarlatti artist musician performer

Photo still: Bel Air Media

The recital you’re doing at Koerner Hall features the music of Scarlatti as well as that of Medtner and Liszt; what was the thinking to feature these three composers on the same bill?

It’s not so easy to explain, but there is a connection. It’s very personal. I would not try to put a bridge between these pieces and explain intellectually why, but within these works there is a kind of energy in terms of how they’re crafted. Scarlatti and Liszt have a lot in common in terms of the ability to transcend the techniques of the keyboard in order to express their musicality – Scarlatti with harpsichord and Liszt with piano, but it’s the same thing, to use all possibilities of the instrument to go beyond, spiritually. And you will hear, between the Liszt and Medtner pieces, that there are lots of connections, speaking about the form, the theme…  I think the two pieces go well together, like some kind of Faustian inspiration, these romantic, Gothic, cosmic dreams I would say, fantasies. They go very well together and are good with the Scarlatti. With recital programs I like to use the possibility of having two parts, so there is a big contrast between the first part and the second part; then the people can have the sensation having attended two concerts instead of one concert.

You’re also forcing audiences to listen.

For me, yes, because I don’t think the audience is stupid, I think the audience has the ability to listen, to be moved and participate in what is happening, so I play as if my audience will not be passive but active, and participating with me.

This idea of transcendence is interesting in terms of your background, which is not musical.

My little brother is a musician but there are none before – parents, grandparents, no one was involved in music.

Debargue pianist piano French Scarlatti artist musician performer

Photo: Felix Broede / Sony Music Entertainment

So you transcended your own background being a classical pianist.

Yes, but I take things simply. For a lot of people it’s special to be a musician, but for me it’s normal. I try to live with it as if it was just my job and my vocation – I take it seriously, and I do it with all my heart, but it’s not this prestigious, elite thing that people should admire. For me it can stay very simple. I see myself… I don’t have the desire to transcend normal life with what I do, but for speaking this language, and for sharing this kind of spirit with others. 

What do you think that desire has given you? Especially since you don’t hail from a background where you had parents involved and conservatory training from a very young age?

Of course everyone has a mental picture of child prodigies but most of the big masters of the piano, if we talk about the piano and masters like Gilels and Rachmaninoff, they were not child prodigies not at all, they took their time,  and they were doing other things and had other interests. What I see nowadays with children is that they are just obeying teachers and parents, and I’m not interested in this way of practising and this vision of music. For me I cannot be inspired by such musicians, they cannot have something to say; they are living like in a jail. And it’s very important for an artist to get inspired by a lot of things, to have other outside interests – to see movies, to read books – to manage to have a human life. So many musicians allow themselves to have a special life because of being in music, but I don’t think being a musician is special, and I don’t think one can allow one’s self to live with a special regime just because he or she is a musician. You are a human first; then you may be a musician. But it can never replace being a human first.

There’s a tendency for many in this industry to ensconce themselves within the classical-world bubble, which seems obvious but also bad for art.

Of course it’s bad for art – but it’s the same for all the other fields. We live in an era of specialization; everyone is a specialist in his or her own field. And that’s a problem because then people don’t really know what others are doing outside of their own channel. We all should manage at least to have the real life of a man or a woman, and not be overwhelmed by the job, or by the need for an audience, or for fame, or money. Those things take so much of the space of the spirit … and it’s crazy, actually. 

It kills the spirit of taking risks also, a spirit which is discernible on your recordings. 

I do it because I have no choice – it’s my only way, the only one I can consider sincere and honest, and where I am doing my best. That’s why I follow this path – otherwise I’d do something else. To not be true to one’s self in the field of arts… for me it is like a betrayal, really, because where you have such a gift of being able to understand a language like music, you don’t have the right to betray this, or to put yourself or your ego ahead of that. No! You need to cultivate humility. I wonder what one can communicate if he’s not putting his ego aside and thinking about being humble and having music be a tool to being more open and human.

Debargue pianist piano French Scarlatti artist musician performer

Photo still: Bel Air Media

Few things make an artist more humble than doing recitals.

Yes, the recital is special — the solo recital is so special! There is something psychologically that is a bit insane, though; there are one thousand people attending the show, it’s a one-man or one-woman show, you are there for two hours, and you are the master of the time and the silence. It’s crazy if you think about it – it’s like a dictatorship, in a way! The people pay for being submissive to the atmosphere of one man or one woman for two hours; there is something not normal there, and it’s very important for me to feel it’s not normal. Before every recital I have these strong thoughts in mind: “What am I doing here? It’s not normal at all! This is insane! It’s crap!” And then the whole energy is to transform this crap situation into something nice, in which people are involved in a creative process, an expressive process. The aim is to feel better, for me and the people. And that’s a spiritual process. 

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