Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Atlanteans

That title was for a script I wrote many years ago, but it also fits our topic.

A few days ago I ran across a youtube video of a brilliant pianist, Valentina Lisitsa, and my eye was caught by her very unique style of playing. Look at this lovely performance of Chopin's Nocturne in D Flat Major (Op. 27, No. 2), and pay close attention to her hands. It's the fluid motion of her hands that mesmerized me:

I've spent three days watching those hands.

Now watch this video of her performance of Grieg's 1st Concerto (in 3 parts on youtube):
Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

It was this superb performance that first attracted my attention. I've always liked Rubinstein's interpretation but it sounds lifeless compared to Lisitsa's. Watching her hands -- she makes it look effortless, though I was a little taken aback at first by the somewhat (I thought) theatrical style.

Then I noticed this fascinating comment by someone on the web page for the first movement:
"The secret of her success is that she is completely relaxing her muscles after each stroke. This technique comes from Liszt and she understood how to preserve her from muscular problems. In her repertory are the most physique pieces existing and she does them brilliant. This capacity of relaxing allows her to go on without problems (Horowitz could not...)"
She has many dozens of videos up on youtube right now if you want to hear her play, and in just a few years she's acquired many fans from every country on Earth. Many of the videos are being produced right now as an explicit means to promote her career, but they are of very high quality, like that first one, and a real delight to watch.

After listening to the Grieg Concerto I had to know a little more, and I immediately found this charming interview:

Watching this, I was struck by how unpretentious she is, and by her repose--an utterly relaxed self-confidence and assurance that reminded me distinctly of interviews with Ayn Rand. She says,
"I think of myself as an American pianist", 
"My technique is unusual and I didn't learn it from anyone. In fact my teachers tried to fight me all the way ... I get so offended when people try to assign me to certain schools of play... no, no, no! And Russian school, definitely not!"
These things are never accidents. A Ukrainian by birth, she was 3 years and some months old when she started learning to play. She's now a proud American citizen and resident of rural North Carolina where she lives with her husband. Combined with the romanticism in the music, the pieces all started falling into place for me.

Here's another thoroughly charming interview where she explicitly states something  I figured out from a comment she made elsewhere, that she has a photographic memory--when she plays, she sees the sheet music in her mind, and even sees the pages turning!  This partly explains how she learned 24 Chopin Etudes from scratch in about a month...  But if you watch the interview, you'll get much more insight into who she is, what it was like to grow up in Russia, where classical music was like a competitive sport, what music school itself was like (she did everything the opposite of what her teachers taught her), and why she gave up a parallel ambition to play competitive chess-- she found herself looking for the most beautiful moves rather than the best moves!

In a brief biography on her web page, she lists Rachmaninoff and Chopin as among her favorite composers (an affection I strongly share), so let's return to that first video of Chopin's haunting nocturne and you will see some of the romanticism again. I noticed that she posted the following comment on youtube:
"I went through love-hate "relationship" with this Nocturne. When I was asked by Lanaudiere Fesitval to select 7 Nocturnes for the concert (I never played any before -- to my utter shame) I had to quickly flip through the sheet music and pick ones I thought I might stand :-) This one was number "last" on my list of things to do. I didn't start learning it until it was almost too late (those who watched my webcast of practice can confirm :-)). I dreaded the moment when I will get sick and tired of this sweetest thing ever written with its gorgeous but repetitious melody....
"Then I had my "eureka" moment. It happened when I started looking at Chopin's metronome markings -- in all other Nocturnes they were perfectly in sync with today's consensus -- maybe little faster here, slower there... But this one -- oh my God! Lento Sostenuto marked as 50 beats per minute in half-measure (150BPM in eights). You know how fast is it???? Check it out and see if you can keep up with Mr. Chopin LOL ..... I can't , I still play it waaaaaay under tempo. Let's see how many "critics" will leave comments saying it is too fast .....But , no matter what, it makes a perfect sense-- and suddenly my dread turned into astonishment at Chopin's genius. The whole piece is suddenly transformed from overly long sugary-syrupy chant to an exalted and impassioned speech- you make whatever you want of this speech, maybe it is a declaration of love? After all -- the piece ends with the most beautiful duet of two voices...."
How many people use words like "exalted" and "impassioned", or phrases like "declaration of love"? I know one.

Now listen to one of my favorite Rachmaninoff preludes (G minor, Op.23 no.5), performed absolutely brilliantly in an off-the-cuff performance:

Then contrast with this encore performance (her third encore) of the same piece in Seoul (where she performed the Grieg Concerto):

Or listen to Chopin's nocturne in E Flat Major (Op.9 No.2), another favorite of mine to play:

When I was watching some of these, another thought struck me -- she's not really playing the piano.

She's making love to it.

Watch her entire body. I've never seen anything like that before. Watch her lips -- she speaks silently to the piano while playing some of these pieces, especially the tender ones.

And Chopin's beautiful "Berceuse" lullaby in D Flat Major (Op 57):

Here's a brilliant performance of one of my favorites -- Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2. The speed of her hands in this defies my imagination.

Again, it was her hands that captivated me in all these pieces. I confess I've watched them over and over again. As I said, they're mesmerizing.

If you want a greater sense of her virtuousity (this is mainly for the pianists out there), watch and listen as she plays my favorite concerto of all--Rachmaninoff's 2nd... without the orchestra!

Part 2:

Part 3:

Wait till you get to the very end of the third movement! The hands are moving so fast they're a blur.

Here's another example of that, the third movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, which I've always enjoyed playing (it has a dramatic intrigue I like, and a flow when you play it that's very enjoyable):

Or the conflict presented in the first movement to Sonata Appassionata, another that I used to like to play (it's been a long time):

I can't fault anything about how she plays this. Not a note.
(Click here for parts 2 and 3.)

When I watch these videos (and all of them are best watched full screen -- they are beautifully produced high definition video!) my nose is rubbed into the fact that someone like Valentina Lisitsa is so far above a self-taught dilletante duffer like me that she might as well be in another galaxy on the other side of the universe.  But it's a nose-rubbing I'll take any time and any place so long as I can see a glimpse of greatness through my hobbyist telescope -- I worship at the altar of ability.

There's much more on youtube, but as a follow-up to all this, here's another interesting 25 minute documentary (in three parts) of Valentina's recording of Rachmaninoff's 2nd with a full orchestra.
Part 1:

(Here is Part 2 and Part 3.)

The second part of this documentary connects to the version minus orchestra. The third part of the documentary offers some more of her criticism of the Russian music school (which she says Rachmaninoff didn't follow!) and a few outtakes at the end (the last is funny).

You may note that the musicians in this documentary are rather in awe of her ability.

In my opinion, she may be one of the finest pianists of the last century--but she's in our time, and watching her play, the full scope of the human potential just amazes me. Imagine if everyone in every field fulfilled their potential to this degree. We'd live among giants in Atlantis.

Footnote:  the day after posting this, I was listening again to her delightful performance of Rachmaninoff's "Moments Musicaux," Op 16 #2 E flat minor, and noticed this interesting comment on her approach to recording in one take:
Here is a tiny bit of Rachmaninoff -- his #2 of Moments Musicaux (I am going to perform a complete set in Montreal for Pro Musica this March 7th by the way).
No fancy camera work here -- just one (first note to the last) take from the real recording session. Just one of many takes, not necessarily the one that will end up on Rachmaninoff solo works CD (with First Sonata and miscellany of Preludes etc).
See, nowadays recording process is about basically making sure that every note is played, at least once. It can easily lead to making hundreds or even thousands of little "takes." If one person is apt to make a mistake here and there -- multiply it by orchestra members -- and you arrive into 1000+ takes. Everybody who tried to take a photo of a group with iPhone can relate to it. How many times have you have to take a picture to NOT get somebody with eyes shut or mouth open :-)
The difference between a live performance and a recording is just as vast as the difference between watching a play in a theater and a movie. All of it of course thanks to modern recording and editing equipment (in movies just as in music). It used to be different and great musicians of old times would come to studio, play just as they would for the audience (the only difference being, they could do another try if things didn't quite work on the first take) and go away with a magnificent recording. We can complain all we want about old recordings as being sloppy and full of wrong notes, messed passagework. We just have to remember that those are honest, unadulterated, unaided performances and I challenge any modern pianist who dares to laugh about old-timers to try to match the recordings of golden era without faking it with editing. We are all good singers in a shower - but if you face a set of microphones staring at you from a complete silence, and then the little light goes off -- and you are about to face your posterity without a safety net of "oh, we will clean it up later"-- and every little note that you miss, and every phrase that you don't play beautifully is going to live forever as your damnation--it can unnerve the strongest and most confident. Being a musician is fun!!!!!
And then after posting that footnote, I was listening to her excellent performance of Chopin's Fantasy in F minor (Op. 49), and saw an even more fascinating extended comment she made:
This is Chopin's response to Liszt's "Funerailles" (I know, I know, Liszt wrote it AFTER Chopin died -- so let's say it was Liszt's response to Chopin's Fantasy.) The same plan -- starting with a funeral introduction , same f -minor, same abundance of octaves... But Funerailles is a great piano war-horse, favorite of any "virtuoso" with a decent octave technique -- sure and cheap way to impress and thrill the audiences. Fantasy in comparison is a poor cousin, underappreciated and often misunderstood: the worst offenders are often female pianists (LOL, huuuuuge grin goes here) playing it in overly sentimental and romanticized way - complete with hands flailing, eyes rolling and hair flying :-) Guys just can't do it :-)
How did it happen? Liszt was a great self-promotion and marketing guy -- he discovered a neat trick of "programming" in music, forcing music "to tell a story"- and listeners suddenly thought, "Gee, now we understand what this music is about, how cool!" This was his trademark -- but it was certainly not his invention. In fact, most if not all music has a "program", something composer thought of when composing and something we think of when we listen. It can be something very concrete and extremely detailed (Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique for example) -- or just a vague hint of an idea that makes us think further (Beethoven 5th Symphony).
The problem with detailed programs is that music can become "dated", tied to a certain event that might be of no importance to future listeners. People can relate in perpetuity to "the fate knocking on the door" of the 5th symphony. But we can never again (hopefully) feel what French audience must have felt on Berlioz' premiere during the third movement with its guillotine strike. I bet their hair was standing up and Goosebumps were covering the listeners who still remembered Terror some years before... I think that even watching Avatar in 3D is nothing in comparison to that experience :-)
Chopin was much more subtle in his "programs" -- he catered to more sophisticated smaller audience of salons rather than big concert halls. These people knew the historical context and could understand him without need to spell it out. In order to fully appreciate his music we must know at least a bit of history too. Then it becomes clear that Chopin was so different from a stereotyped effeminate, sickly romantic virtuoso image. He was a true titan, not in body but in spirit -- singlehandedly (with few brethren poets, artists etc) keeping the whole people from oblivion and cultural destruction. For his people, his country, was at this time a mere geographic term. Formerly a proud and powerful nation, one of Europe superpowers, Poland has fallen so low because of internal discord that it was picked piece by piece by strong and brutal neighbors until it disappeared. New "owners" were bent on wiping national identity and pride to secure their new acquisitions. They would have succeeded was it not for Chopin.
You know that musicologists call him a first" national" composer. For a good reason -- he created an epic of his nation in music just as Homer created his in Odyssey or Virgil in Aeneid... And we are not only talking about things like Polonaises or Mazurkas fitting into this "national" category. Fantasy is a prime example of thinly veiled national music. Why? Bear with me while I take you through last foray into history. Chopin and his family ended up in a part of Poland that was grabbed by Russian Empire. He traveled abroad with Russian passport (Chopin, a Russian composer? LOL) and he had to lie on his exit visa application (yes, I am serious) that he is in transit to New World, Americas. He lived for almost whole his life with a stamp "in Transit".
The single event in history that changed his life was Polish uprising of 1830-31, a noble but doomed to fail attempt by patriots to overthrow occupying forces. (Revolutionary Etude was written the night he got the news of Russian Cossacks entering Warsaw, he didn't know if his family even survived all carnage and rape.) The rebels was brutally destroyed and all the hope of freedom was lost. Chopin realized that he will never see his native land -- or even his family. All his life he was carrying in his soul -- and in his music -- the memory of this event and of its unsung heroes. Fantasy is an ode to all those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom.
I find these comments the most interesting -- they give the artist and her music much more depth, and  meaning to me.

Footnote 2: Another interesting comment is attached to this lovely nocturne in C minor by Chopin (Op. 48, No. 1):
One of Chopin's most priceless performance remarks is at the beginning of this Nocturne -- "sotto voce". Just like that: not a girlish "piano", not an ambivalent "mezzo forte", not even meaty forte (the last thing you want here is an "opera" voice for this melody). It effectively bars all over-the-top cheap and showy "expressive emotions" -- no eye rolling allowed, no hair flailing, no hands flying, no sobs, no visible tears.... A musical equivalent of the famed British "keeping a stiff upper lip"-- this "sotto voce" gives us the right sense of what this piece is about. Just as Chopin's 2nd sonata, this nocturne deals directly and openly with such tragic subjects as death, loss and grief ... except, here you are allowed to leave personal comments. 2nd sonata is a depiction of all those things, this Nocturne is a commentary -- or an epitaph..... the fifth movement that would come after the Finale ...If you ever visit La Madeleine in Paris (Chopin's parish church where his funeral was held on October 30th) think about this Nocturne, OK? 
PS: Talking about parallels between Rachmaninoff and Chopin works, don't you think that "doppio movimento" part ( last pages) sounds ominously like Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableau E flat Minor Op39?
One other thing I like in these commentaries is that the music is not something that exists just in isolation like an abstraction divorced from concretes, but it has a history and a meaning to her that goes so far as visiting these places. And in that I can find my own expanded meaning.

And connecting to this, by fortuitous coincidence, is the interview that just came out yesterday:

Footnote 3: I might as well add this fascinating comment she made about Chopin's C Sharp minor Nocturne (op 27, #1)  that I actually discovered before adding the last two:
This is an enigma of a nocturne. There are many things written about it , all trying to explain it away, to make sense of it. You probably heard about " death in Venice, murder perhaps.. ....body silently covered by soft waves while the moon keeps shining etc ".....Ah, all this romantic stuff -- I will add just my two cents worth, no more ... 
If nocturnes are indeed songs of love, this one has strong undertones of jealousy, betrayal and, ultimately, death. 
It hauntingly fascinating -- but you can't call it beautiful. Just think about the melody here -- where is it??? And can you call this strange and gratingly chromatic chant a melody? Or .... another question, which key IS it -- C sharp minor or major? Is it a half-smile or half-cry? ...The melody very soon becomes a duet -- and then middle part comes all of a sudden as a violent burst of energy and action. I don't recall any other piece of Chopin (supposedly effeminate and weakling invalid of a composer) where he would use triple forte- fortissimo so boldly (that is like FFF forte!) The octave recitative in the left hand before the recap sounds like a curse. The most telling and poignant remark however is reserved for the very last "words" of the duet before the coda: Chopin writes "con duolo" (with grief) - the last farewell of unhappy lovers perhaps... 
PS: For those visual people (like myself LOL) here is a perfect visual match: type pre-Raphaelites into Google image search -- you will see "Ophelia" and many others that fit the mood and color of the piece perfectly. 
PSPS: On understanding composer's intent: Chopin often uses remark "con anima". Don't mix it with "animato" . Yes, the root is the same but the meaning and action is opposite. It was made very clear in this nocturne -- in the middle part there are measures marked "con anima" and then come the ones marked "stretto"."Con anima" bars are slowing down. He treated con anima literally -- "with soul" -- not "in an animated way". Russian language has a better direct translation "душевно"! 
I had looked up "pre-Raphaelite" paintings in Google after first reading this, and her description was perfect, but about two days after reading it, I woke up late after working till 4AM, and one sip of microwaved two-day old coffee later, I suddenly realized I hadn't a clue what the term "pre-Raphaelite" meant.  So I searched again, and came up with this interesting explanation off of Wiki:
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (also known as the Pre-Raphaelites) was a group of English painters, poets, and critics, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The three founders were soon joined by William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner to form a seven-member "brotherhood". 
The group's intention was to reform art by rejecting what they considered to be the mechanistic approach first adopted by the Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo. They believed that the Classical poses and elegant compositions of Raphael in particular had been a corrupting influence on the academic teaching of art. Hence the name: Pre-Raphaelite. In particular, they objected to the influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder of the English Royal Academy of Arts, whom they called "Sir Sloshua".  
To the Pre-Raphaelites, according to William Michael Rossetti, "sloshy" meant "anything lax or scamped in the process of painting ... and hence ... any thing or person of a commonplace or conventional kind". In contrast, they wanted to return to the abundant detail, intense colours, and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian and Flemish art. 
The Pre-Raphaelites have been considered the first avant-garde movement in art, though they have also been denied that status[citation needed], because they continued to accept both the concepts of history painting and of mimesis, or imitation of nature, as central to the purpose of art. However, the Pre-Raphaelites undoubtedly defined themselves as a reform-movement, created a distinct name for their form of art, and published a periodical, The Germ, to promote their ideas. Their debates were recorded in the Pre-Raphaelite Journal. 
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in John Millais's parents' house on Gower Street, London in 1848. ... They kept the existence of the Brotherhood secret from members of the Royal Academy. 
The Brotherhood's early doctrines were expressed in four declarations:
1. to have genuine ideas to express;
2. to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
3. to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote;
4. most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.
These principles are deliberately non-dogmatic, since the Brotherhood wished to emphasise the personal responsibility of individual artists to determine their own ideas and methods of depiction. Influenced by Romanticism, they thought that freedom and responsibility were inseparable.  
Nevertheless, they were particularly fascinated by medieval culture, believing it to possess a spiritual and creative integrity that had been lost in later eras. This emphasis on medieval culture was to clash with certain principles of realism, which stress the independent observation of nature.  
In its early stages, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood believed that their two interests were consistent with one another, but in later years the movement divided and began to move in two directions. The realist-side was led by Hunt and Millais, while the medievalist-side was led by Rossetti and his followers, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. This split was never absolute, since both factions believed that art was essentially spiritual in character, opposing their idealism to the materialist realism associated with Courbet and Impressionism.
In their attempts to revive the brilliance of colour found in Quattrocento art, Hunt and Millais developed a technique of painting in thin glazes of pigment over a wet white ground. They hoped that in this way their colours would retain jewel-like transparency and clarity. This emphasis on brilliance of colour was in reaction to the excessive use of bitumen by earlier British artists, such as Reynolds, David Wilkie and Benjamin Robert Haydon. Bitumen produces unstable areas of muddy darkness, an effect that the Pre-Raphaelites despised.
...all members of the Brotherhood signed works with their name and the initials "PRB". Between January and April 1850, the group published a literary magazine, "The Germ". ...
In 1850 the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood became controversial after the exhibition of Millais's painting Christ In The House Of His Parents, considered to be blasphemous by many reviewers, notably Charles Dickens.[3] ...Their medievalism was attacked as backward-looking and their extreme devotion to detail was condemned as ugly and jarring to the eye. According to Dickens, Millais made the Holy Family look like alcoholics and slum-dwellers, adopting contorted and absurd "medieval" poses.  
...The movement influenced the work of many later British artists well into the twentieth century... some claim, strongly influenced the young J.R.R. Tolkien... 
In the twentieth century artistic ideals changed and art moved away from representing reality. Since the Pre-Raphaelites were fixed on portraying things with near-photographic precision, though with a distinctive attention to detailed surface-patterns, their work was devalued by many painters and critics. In particular, after the First World War, British Modernists associated Pre-Raphaelite art with the repressive and backward times in which they grew up...
 Now that was interesting, and again, it lends even more insight into the musician, and her own work.

Footnote 4 (August 6):
This next video caught my eye for one reason: it shows better than almost any other how hard Lisitsa concentrates. Note especially how much she has her eyes closed--as I noted previously, she has a photographic memory and reads the music while playing, but in her head. And it shows more of how she speaks to herself while playing, and her very fluid technique, a method of relaxation and precision.

As I also noted, she normally practices 12 hours a day--because that's what she enjoys doing, to the exclusion of almost everything else. You can see it via her website -- she's put up videos of entire practice sessions, and I recommend them for anyone looking for insights into how someone becomes great at what they do. I think too many people simply have no idea--they imagine it's a little more work over the average person, a little more innate talent.

I mention all this because a topic of longtime interest to me is -- what makes greatness? I observe at least three essentials: total passion for one thing; extremely focused, consistent and precise effort to grasp what they are doing and how they do it; and an utterly dedicated work regimen.

I'm tempted to add: unusual intelligence and some unique ability that most people don't have (like photographic memory), but I'm not sure these are essential. Given the first three and a very good natural endowment of intelligence, I think the "unusual" part develops in time, especially if someone starts early enough in life. (Lisitsa started at age 3.) Some "natural" ability will help initially energize the passion, then the passion will drive the ability, and passion and ability together will drive the dedication, and all three will feed on each other.

Exceptional instruction is important, but I think a fourth possible essential factor is that the great person usually has some very early insight into the key principles of what they do so well that quickly puts them beyond the need for much instruction. This gives them a big jump in their starting point, and early confidence and enjoyment.

Footnote 5 (10/19/2011):
I just have to add one more comment. This develops the psychology of greatness somewhat more.  Early in this post I echoed the comment of another fan of Valentina's, who remarked that her hand technique was a form of relaxation--anyone who's played the piano knows that difficult pieces can cause cramping in your arms or hands if you don't do some kind of relaxation while you play.  But I was never fully satisfied with this explanation.  She was using the technique on easy pieces, too.

Then I had a flash of insight the other day.  Two comments she made starting resonating in my head.  First, was her anecdote about giving up a potential career in chess because she found herself looking for the most beautiful moves rather than the best moves.  Second, was her comment that she is a very visual person--code, in part, for the fact that she has a photographic memory (which I'm terribly jealous of), but the meaning is deeper--she's a very visual person.  Because of her photographic memory or not, she's a very visual person.

Put those two pieces together in the context of a technique that she herself acknowledges is very unusual, which her teachers couldn't break her of -- and you get:  a visually beautiful technique.   That is, I think she strives to bring beauty to more than the sounds -- she strives to bring beauty to the fluid movement of her hands while she plays.  I don't mean this in terms of any kind of theatricality for the audience, which had been my first unfair impression.  I mean she strives to play beautifully.  Sound and sight. Not primarily for her audience.  I think she does it primarily for--herself.  As I remarked, she makes love to the piano.

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