Roberto Piana: 25 Pictorial Preludes

“When I first heard Roberto Piana’s music, I was struck by the sheer depth, beauty, and directness of it. No affectation of any kind. Roberto’s language is uniquely his own, but rooted in tradition, blending the romantic, post-romantic, impressionistic, and modern idioms with a melodic vein that I can only describe as Italian, in the best sense of the word. Sometimes he also uses harmonic and rhythmic patterns that come from popular music, and even jazz. His deep knowledge and understanding of compositional styles and techniques from early to contemporary music allows him to have a vast array of devices at his disposal, all of which are masterfully used. He is not the kind of composer who rejects a type of language or a compositional technique just because they have already been used before (fortunately!), but he makes everything his own.

I have never liked very much composers who ignored and scorned anything that preceded them, as if they grew up in a vacuum and music started with them. Unfortunately, there were quite a few like that in the second half of the 20th century, and they were the ones who shouted the loudest, attacking anybody who dared innovate from within tradition, and seizing the limelight, so to speak.
I think it is as a result of their work, and of their shouting, that nowadays almost no one cares to listen to contemporary composers. There is true fright on the part of concert organizers, and to some extent record labels, when you propose to play music written by people who are still alive, or who passed away less than 70 years ago, because they know the public tends to stay away from that music, rejecting the very idea of contemporary classical music as a whole, without even listening to any of it. Those tyrannical few composers who shouted the loudest accomplished something terrible: to make the public at large believe that all contemporary composers sounded like them. And that is a pity, because there is a lot out there that is beautiful, that can really enrich our lives, and that is worth listening to. In truth, the last 70 years seem to me to be one of the most eclectic, interesting and varied eras in music. But I digress…….

What I find most fascinating in Roberto Piana’s music is that it flows completely naturally, and apparently effortlessly. It is based on traditional techniques, and it is mostly tonal in its harmonic frame, yet it sounds modern, current to me.

In composing these “25 Preludi Pittorici”, Roberto was able to create a large cohesive work (about 29′) made of twenty-five short pieces, each inspired by a different painting. Not only that, but the paintings come from artists with hardly any connection among them, from different countries, eras, styles, and depicting broadly varied subjects. These “Pictorial Preludes”, in my opinion, are a masterpiece. The way Roberto evokes the paintings through his music is absolutely wonderful. The paintings themselves are gorgeous. The sea is a recurring subject, from the beginning in Preludes 1, 2, 3, and then in the last one, 25. Then there is a prominent presence, if not in number at least in weight and position occupied within the general architecture of the work, of the religious subject. There is also the comical (Don Quijote), the ironic (La Risata), the reverent and learned (portrait of Bach), the tender (mother and child) and much, much more. The cohesiveness of the work through these many changes of character is assured by thematic relationships, sometimes subtle, sometimes more evident. The paintings are extremely important, yet I am convinced that if Roberto had not disclosed his source of inspiration, I would still find thousands of images evoked by the music, and I would love the work just the same, as absolute, pure music.
I hope you enjoy listening to one of my favorite contemporary works!

Where we have been.

Dear Readers,

So much time has passed since my last blog. So much has happened since… My last one talked about the works I was going to play at the Museum of Art on January 29th. That program was recorded, and the CD is about to be released by Centaur Records.

Soon after that recital, in talking with my friend, the conductor Domenico Boyagian, we decided to collaborate on a project to record the Grieg Piano Concerto. We picked the venue (the Museum of Art, again), talked to Ted Good of Steinway, who gave us a superb instrument, enlisted the services of Thomas Knab, a fantastic sound engineer, and scheduled two public performances of the Concerto, with the Ohio Philharmonic Orchestra. Those live performances are the basis for the CD that is about to be released. 

In the meantime, teaching at CIM was in full swing, and I was playing recitals in Oregon, Spain and South Africa, and concerto performances in California (Prokofiev Third with the Stockton Symphony), and Florida (Rachmaninoff Second with the Pensacola Symphony), as well as Texas (Grieg with the Longview Symphony). The South Africa trip at the end of March was a fantastic one, and a perfect prelude to my South African tour of August. I went to Stellenbosch, to be part of the Piano Symposium organized by Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhaes. I had a blast. It was well worth the interminable flights.

The Liszt Society Festival in Eugene, OR was also a wonderful experience. I met or saw again colleagues and friends who I respect and admire, such as John Perry, Luiz de Moura Castro, Alexandre Dossin, Gila Goldstein, and many others. I also had a wonderful time playing my recital on a New York Steinway that did not seem to be the instrument of choice at the University of Oregon Music School, but I loved it and am happy I chose it. 

I also had many trips to beautiful Santo Domingo throughout the winter and into late spring/early summer, to teach masterclasses there. That is always I place I love to go to, especially for the dear friends I have there.

I returned to San Jose, CA at the beginning of June to preside the jury of the International Russian Music Piano Competition. Dan and Irina Morgan, as well as Julie and Alex Poklewski, always do a magnificent job at organizing that event, aided of course by wonderful board members and volunteers. They have all become great friends of mine and Emanuela’s, as well as fantastic “uncles and aunts” to my daughter. Eleanor’s birthday falls during the competition, and the fact that we were together on that day made the whole experience even more special.

The summer festival season was now upon me, and I traveled to Italy, and more precisely to one of the most beautiful places on earth: the Amalfi Coast. The Amalfi Coast Music Festival was unforgettable. I arrived quite tired, after all that activity and not a day of rest. The weather was scorching hot, air conditioning insufficient, or not available. I’m Italian, so that was nothing I didn’t expect. What I did not expect was how the beauty of the surroundings would make me feel regenerated, even while working hard. July in Amalfi, radiant, splendid, sweet, unforgettable, gave me emotions I will not forget as long as I live.

Those emotions and feelings carried over to the next engagement, a workshop in Napoli. I have been returning to Napoli every year in the third week of July. Never have I loved it more.

At the end of the workshop, I played a recital in Nancy, France. Place Stanislas is simply incredible.

Then came my South African tour, which lasted over 3 weeks. I played the Grieg Concerto several times with the Johannesburg Philharmonic, Rachmaninoff Third with the Cape Town Philharmonic, several recitals in Jo’burg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, and Knysna, as well as numerous masterclasses all over the country. I met so many wonderful people. I’m happy I will return there at the end of June 2013. 

By the time I played my last engagement in South Africa, I had barely time to fly back to Italy, and drive 6 hours from Rome to Taranto, for my brother’s wedding. It was a wonderful ceremony and reception.

Summer was now over! Fly back to the States, start teaching right away, mix that with more traveling and performing: four concerts with the West Virginia Symphony, then Rachmaninoff Third with the National Symphony of the Dominican Republic, then Hong Kong, Macau, back to the US to play Mendelssohn First with the Winston-Salem Symphony, then a quick trip to Japan, and here we are! 

Two more trips in November, one to Santo Domingo to teach, and another to Rio de Janeiro to judge a great piano competition, from November 25th through December 8th. Then, perhaps, finally, a few days to catch my breath?

Program Notes

Dear Readers,

I will play a recital in Cleveland, on January 29th, and here are my program notes:

Carl Czerny (1791-1857)
Variations on a theme by Rode, Op.33 “La Ricordanza” (1822)
Carl Czerny is mostly remembered today for his Études and exercises. However, his catalogue of compositions lists 861 Opus numbers, many of which are brilliant concert pieces. It appears that Czerny chose the theme by violinist Pierre Rode after hearing the great soprano Angelica Catalani perform her own variations on the same theme. The title “La Ricordanza” The Reminiscence, seems to indicate that Czerny composed this delightful set while reminiscing about that fabulous performance. Elegant, charming, extremely virtuosic in some of its passagework, this set makes for a wonderful concert piece.
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)
Sonata No. 5, Op.81 in F# minor (1819)
Johann Nepomuk Hummel is the greatest composer of that period of transition between the Classical and the Romantic eras. He studied with Mozart for two years, living under the same roof with the great Wolfgang Amadeus during the last two years of the great Master’s life. Subsequently, Hummel studied with, or came under the influence of great composers such as Clementi, Dussek, Salieri, and Haydn, who became his mentor, and whom he addressed as “my beloved Papa”. While studying with Haydn, Hummel became friends with Beethoven, whose respect he earned and maintained. Following Beethoven’s wishes, Hummel improvised at Beethoven’s memorial concert. At this event, he met and became friends with Franz Schubert, who dedicated his last three sonatas to Hummel (unfortunately, by the time of their publication, both Schubert and Hummel were dead, so the publisher changed the dedication to Robert Schumann instead). While Kapellmeister at Weimar, Hummel formed a close friendship with Goethe and Schiller, who both worked for the Weimar Theater. Hummel turned Weimar into a European musical capital, attracting the best musicians of his day to perform or be in residence there. As a teacher, Hummel represents one of the most influential figures of the 19th century. He taught Carl Czerny, Ferdinand Hiller, Sigismond Thalberg, Adolf Von Henselt, and Felix Mendelssohn. Franz Liszt’s father refused to pay the high tuition fee Hummel charged, so Franz ended up studying with Czerny (Liszt eventually became himself Kapellmeister at Weimar). The Sonata Op.81 (1819) is a great example of the incredible virtuosic piano writing, prodigious sense of form and proportions, melodic and harmonic inventiveness of Hummel. The second movement of this Sonata, much like the Hummel Concerti in A minor and B minor, makes it abundantly clear that Frederic Chopin knew and admired Hummel’s works, and was greatly influenced by them. The two became friends, and Hummel was a great mentor to the young Chopin.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op.42 (1931)
In 1931, while visiting Switzerland, Rachmaninoff bought a piece of land to build a new Ivanovka, as his summer residence in Russia was called. The villa, on Lake Lucerne, would be called “Senar” (SErgei and NAtalia Rachmaninoff).
While waiting for its completion, Rachmaninoff composed the Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op.42. It took him only three weeks to finish it. This would turn out to be his only original solo piano piece composed after leaving Russia.
Rachmaninoff seems to have been unaware that the theme was not by Arcangelo Corelli, but rather a Portuguese popular melody called “La Folia”, the existence of which is first documented in treatises and compositions dating from the 16th Century. Lully, Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, J.S. Bach and Franz Liszt all used this theme to compose their own variations. The Spanish Rhapsody by Franz Liszt, based on the same theme, had been part of Rachmaninoff’s repertoire since 1919, and that is probably how Rachmaninoff came in contact with it.
The op. 42 is dedicated to the great violinist Fritz Kreisler, Rachmaninoff’s friend and colleague. This encourages the thought that Kreisler might have even enticed Rachmaninoff to compose the Variations. It does not seem like a big stretch to think that “Les Folies d’Espagne”, Arcangelo Corelli’s violin sonata based on “La Folia”, might have been the object of a conversation, or even a private reading by the two great musicians.
Rachmaninoff’s style at this stage had evolved considerably, allowing the composer to express the full range of his emotions with an economy of means already manifested in the revision of the Second Sonata, as well as the Fourth Concerto, and without his earlier redundancy. One can’t help but notice a similarity and a contrast with the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op. 43, composed in 1934. The “slow movement” in Op. 42, constituted by Variations 14 and 15, is in D Flat Major, just like the famous Variation 18 in Op. 43. However, in the Op.42, the two Variations do not turn into a vehicle for the Composer’s lyrical vein. They have a rather introspective, dreamy character, not very impassioned and almost diametrically opposite to Variation 18 of the Rhapsody.
The Coda of this work is an absolute gem, finally resorting to chromaticism to intensify the emotional outpouring, just before releasing the built-up tension through a final, wistful statement of the theme.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
From “Années de Pèlerinage, Première Année, Suisse” (1855)
Vallée d’Obermann
Au bord d’une source
The first volume of “Années de Pèlerinage”, Years of Pilgrimage, is subtitled “Suisse”, Switzerland. It was published in 1855, but eight out of the nine movements had already appeared about twenty years earlier, under the title “Album d’un Voyageur”, having been composed while Liszt was in Switzerland with countess Marie d’Agoult, with whom he had eloped. Liszt re-worked all the movements, and added one, “Orage”. 
“Vallée d’Obermann” is inspired by Étienne de Senancour’s novel, “Obermann”. Liszt musically describes the philosophical meditations, the existential doubts, the torment of unanswerable questions that Obermann goes through while living in a solitary refuge in the Swiss Alps. The Valley of Obermann is as much a spiritual as a physical place. Through his struggle, Obermann longs for spiritual peace, love, harmony, hope, and eternity. Liszt masterfully renders this longing by a transfiguration of the initial, desolate theme, and by a crescendo that reaches an ecstatic climax.
“Au bord dune source”, Beside a Spring, is a splendid example of “water music”. It flows quietly and calmly, with occasional big splashes, but its apparent calmness disguises enormous technical challenges to the performer.
“Orage”  is a musical description of a violent storm in the Swiss Alps, thus creating a violent contrast with the peaceful water music that precedes it. 

Franz Liszt’ Second Ballade. What’s the story behind it?

In the last few years, I have been telling my students (and audiences at my recitals) that I believe the Second Ballade by Liszt to be inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. A few people have asked why I believe such a thing, when no sources prove it. Furthermore, an oral tradition, perpetuated by the great Claudio Arrau–who apparently learned it from his teacher Martin Krause, who was one of Liszt’s pupils, seems to establish a link between the Ballade and another myth, that of Hero and Leander. While that is possible, I doubt it. 

The Second Ballade was composed in 1853 and published in 1854. In those same years, Liszt composed his 8th Symphonic Poem, titled “Orpheus” (this is actually known as the Symphonic Poem n. 4, but that numeration does not follow the chronological order of composition). In 1854, Liszt conducted the Weimar premiere of Gluck’s opera “Orfeo ed Euridice”, and replaced Gluck’s original overture with his own Symphonic Poem. 

I think the Second Ballade truly fits the Orpheus and Eurydice story like a glove, and I cannot help but think that it is this myth that was very much on Liszt’s mind when he wrote the Ballade. So much so, that I think every moment of the piece can be directly linked to the unfolding of the story:

 -The repetition of the same material at the beginning, first in B minor [bars 1-34], then in B flat minor [35-69], physically accompanying Orpheus‘ descent into the Underworld; 

-The murky river Styx represented by the left hand chromatic figuration; 

-The sublime “love theme”, sung by Orpheus accompanying himself on his lyre [24-34, and 59-69]; 

-A three-headed dog named Cerberus, ghosts, spirits, vultures, other threatening creatures [70 and following] all being tamed by Orpheus’ song [“Allegretto”, bars 143 and following]. In his journey to meet the King and Queen of Hades, Orpheus is confronted by numerous scary creatures at various times, but continues undeterred;

-Orpheus pleading to Pluto and Persephone, King and Queen of the Underworld [“Appassionato”, bars 225 and following]. This is the same theme we hear earlier, at bars 135 and following (‘a piacere, cantando”), softer and more hesitant, as if Orpheus first rehearses what he is going to say to the King and Queen, whispering it to himself;

-The transfiguration of the disconsolate opening theme into a glorious B Major, after his wish is granted [“Allegro Moderato”, bars 254 and following]; 

-The ascending arpeggios, and later scales, representing the ecstatic journey back to the world of the living, both hands moving upwards, both Orpheus and Eurydice so close to the goal, the music building up to what could have been such a triumphant finale; 

-The crushing blow of the diminished seventh chord that suddenly interrupts this ecstatic journey, representing the very moment in which Orpheus turns and looks at his wife, contravening the one condition set by Pluto and Persephone [bar 297]; 

-Orpheus chasing Eurydice as she vanishes before his eyes [bars 298-299];

-The contrary-motion alternate octaves, Orpheus and Eurydice being separated so precipitously and forever [bars 300-301]; 

-The return of the “love theme”, this time presented in a very frantic manner, as Orpheus realizes that his beloved is lost forever [302-310]; 

-Resignation [bars 311 to the end], but still Orpheus’ longing, his yearning for Eurydice can be felt by the way the music resists the arrival of the final B Major chord through a series of G#s in the top voice, and chromaticism in the inner voices. The last note of the piece, an F# played over a tied chord, sounds like the ultimate gesture of resignation, Orpheus lowering his head and accepting his cruel fate.  

On Gestures and Facial Expressions at the piano.

A friend called me the other night, telling me about a YouTube video, uploaded by user name th3wing3dpaint3r, titled: “Drama at The Piano: Pianists making unnecessary gestures while playing.”  The video does me the honor of being briefly included, among a number of fantastic pianists, and I really enjoyed it because it offers food for thought. Thanks to th3wing3dpaint3r for uploading it.

 I would like to offer a few considerations about gestures at the piano. People have different ways to summon up inner energy and emotions. As in life away from the piano, some of us wear their heart on their sleeve. It certainly does not mean that we express more through the music than other, more self-restrained performers, but just as surely it does not mean that our emotions are more superficial.
I think of two Titans like Richter and Michelangeli, and how diametrically different they were in their physical approach to the instrument (apart from the other differences between the two).
I think the only “unnecessary gestures” are those made without any corresponding emotional surges, fabricated artfully with the only purpose of attracting more attention to oneself. When the powerful rush of an emotion or feeling takes you, I don’t see anything wrong with it being reflected on your face and in your body, if it is sincere. I assure you, I have no idea what expressions my face is making while I am playing, and I actually feel a bit self-conscious when I watch my own videos. However, and with perhaps a few exceptions, I don’t think nirvana should be the goal of performing and/or listening to music. In music, we have suffering, desire, happiness, and the whole gamut of human emotion, and we cherish it all.

Annamaria Pennella

Last night, with my family, we gathered round and listened to a stunning performance of Anton Rubinstein’s Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 70.  It is a live recording of a radio broadcast from 1959. The soloist is my teacher, Annamaria Pennella, performing with the Scarlatti Orchestra and Francesco Molinari-Pradelli in Napoli, Italy. It was aired in 1959, and it is absolutely beautiful:





 Rubinstein – Concerto No.4 (Pennella) by AntonioPompaBaldi

True, this is a concerto that has somehow become obscure, in great contrast with its popularity during the first one hundred years or so of its existence. Rachmaninoff and Paderewski both had it in their repertoire. Mrs. Pennella’s playing is of such immediacy that one cannot help but being immediately captivated by it. It is more than just being transported to another place. It has such power that it almost changes the world around you, making you believe you are presently living in a better, purer world of high ideals. It is the kind of playing that brings the Golden Age back every time you listen to it. Of course that age was just about a thing of the past even in 1959, but her playing here reminds me more of the Rachmaninoffs, Hofmanns, Paderewskis than of the other famous artists of the 1950s.

Her singing tone is as pure and gorgeous as that of any other giant of the piano from that Golden Age. What is more, every note is invested of that singing quality, even in the more virtuosic passagework. 
Mrs. Pennella will be 88 in July. After a life completely devoted to her students, she is playing again, and practicing like a 19-year-old preparing a competition! This past summer I visited her, and on a beautiful, sunny morning, in her living room, she regaled me with an unforgettable performance of the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5 , all 5 movements and with repeats! It is obviously quite a feat to be able to just play a monumental work like that at any age, let alone at 87, but the freshness, the quality and the accuracy, the naturalness…I could go on forever but there really are no words. We are very grateful for her presence in our lives, and look forward to hearing her future recordings. She has a few already scheduled, and among the various possibilities, there is the idea of recording the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15. What a beautiful gift to the world that would be!
Italian translation:
Ieri sera, con tutta la mia famiglia, abbiamo ascoltato una stupenda esecuzione del Concerto No. 4 di Anton Rubinstein. E’ una registrazione dal vivo di una trasmissione radiofonica del 1959. La solista e’ la mia insegnante, Annamaria Pennella, che suona con l’Orchestra Scarlatti, diretta da Francesco Molinari-Pradelli a Napoli. E’ un’esecuzione assolutamente fantastica.
In verita’, questo concerto e’ uscito dal repertorio, e cio’ e’ in grande contrasto con la popolarita’ di cui ha goduto per circa un secolo. Pianisti come Rachmaninoff e Paderewski lo avevano nel proprio repertorio. La Signora Pennella suona questo pezzo con tanta immediatezza espressiva che non si puo’ non essere istantaneamente catturati. Il risultato non e’ solo quello di essere trasportati in un mondo migliore. Il potere espressivo della solista e’ tale, che sembra quasi cambiare la realta’ attorno all’ascoltatore, rendendola migliore, elevandola ad una purezza ideale. Questo e’ il modo di suonare che ci riporta all’eta’ d’oro del pianismo mondiale, ogni volta che lo si ascolta. 
Il tono cantabile della solista e’ puro e meraviglioso, come e ancora piu’ di quello di qualsiasi pianista mitico dell’eta’ d’oro. Ogni nota e’ investita di questa qualita’ cantabile, anche e persino nei passaggi virtuosistici piu’ complessi.
La Signora Pennella compira’ 88 anni a luglio. Dopo una vita spesa completamente al servizio dei suoi alunni, ha ripreso a studiare e suonare come se fosse una pianista di 19 anni che si prepara per un grande concorso!
L’estate scorsa, durante una mia visita, in una bellissima mattina di sole, nel suo salotto, mi ha fatto un grande regalo: una indimenticabile esecuzione della Terza Sonata di Brahms in Fa minore, tutti e 5 i movimenti e pure i ritornelli! Suonare bene quest’opera monumentale sarebbe gia’ una sfida per chiunque, a maggior ragione per un’artista di 87 anni, ma la freschezza, la qualita’ e la precisione, la naturalezza…Potrei continuare a lungo, ma davvero non ci sono parole. Siamo molto grati per la presenza della Signora nelle nostre vite, e aspettiamo con ansia le sue incisioni future. Ci sono vari progetti, tra cui l’idea di registrare il Primo Concerto di Brahms. Sarebbe un dono meraviglioso a tutto il mondo, musicale e non.