domingo, 30 de octubre de 2011

The Unsung (Romantic) Heroes

In my experiences as a judge in piano competitions in Indonesia (I can't say a lot, since there are NOT a lot of (decent) piano competitions in this country), I've always been struck by one thing: the similarity of repertoire chosen by the participants. Even in my own Ananda Sukarlan Award competition, where participants can choose ANY piece of a romantic composer with a maximum duration of 12 minutes, I bet you that 70%+ chose a Chopin's Ballade or Scherzo. Then comes some Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies (yeah, their popularity in Indonesia somehow are decreasing, dunno why), Mendelssohn Variation Serieuses and very few other ones.

Certainly that situation is due to the limited repertoires of the teachers of the participants. That makes competitions quite boring to watch, since we are listening to the same pieces again and again, and most of the time in similar manners (again, due to the limited knowledge of the teachers and their inability to allow freedom of interpretation to their students, they just "teach" the student how to "interpret"). Gone are the expectations of boldly discovering "new" pieces that no (Indonesian) man has heard before. And yes, in this era where music scores and recordings can be downloaded free from internet, things haven't changed. We come to see competitions to listen how the same pieces are "executed", sometimes in a brutal way. There's so much inbuilt inertia in musical education, concert programmes etc here in Indonesia that it's very difficult do stimulate interest in the so-called "lesser" composers.

Now, who are the other Romantic composers, apart from the ones we know: Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Tschaikovsky? Certainly the most "romantic" of all is Gustav Mahler, but since I am talking in relation to the piano (competition), I can mention a few. Perhaps these names will help in arousing your curiosity in those beautiful music still unheard in Indonesia.

Carl Czerny (born in Vienna but from a family of Czech origin, hence his name, 1791 - 1857) may be considered one of the victims of history. Known almost exclusively as a lesser composer of boring, ugly and didactic (are they really?) piano pieces today, he was in fact a highly sophisticated artist who wrote in almost every know genre of music, including symphonies, masses, string quartets and much more, and his opus number goes up to the 800s. Student of Beethoven, Salieri and Hummel and teacher of Liszt and dozens more piano virtuosos of the 19th century he was arguably a key figure in his days. His most famous piano piece now is the Variations on the theme by Rode, since it was recorded by the great Vladimir Horowitz, but there are many, many other interesting and elaborate piano pieces of this great composer.

If you think that the title "Transcendental Etudes" only belongs to Liszt, you are wrong. There was another composer who also wrote 12 etudes of the same name, and they are not worse than those of the great Hungarian. Of course they were written inspired by Liszt's, but that's not a reason that we should think that he is "only" a followeer. His name is Sergey Lyapunov. In fact if you mention his family name, one's mind would go to his more famous brother, Aleksander who was an influential mathematician. Sergey's (1859-1924) most important works are in fact for solo piano. Himself a gifted pianist who concertized in Russia and Europe, his piano writing shows mastery of the instrument and a complete understanding of the piano's musical and technical capabilities. His finest works display considerable melodic gifts and, in its effective exploitation of the instrument's timbral subtleties, compares favorably with those of Rachmaninov, Scriabin, and Balakirev. As an orchestral composer, Liapunov wrote expertly in the style of colorful and imaginative orchestration that characterizes the works of the nationalist composers of his period. One hears that Liapunov had a voice of his own.

Now, have you ever heard of Sergey Taneyev's Prelude & Fugue in G# minor, op. 29? That's a great piece, I've played it several times during my busy concert career many years ago. That piece taught me that even a most "academic" form like a fugue can be poignant, expressive and .. well .. romantic. Taneyev (1865-1915) was an important Russian pianist, educator, and composer. Although he wrote a large quantity of keyboard, orchestral, vocal, and chamber music, he is known today primarily as the teacher of Scriabin, Rachmaninov, and Glière. As a young man, Taneyev made his first impact as a pianist, giving the first Russian performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, and the Russian premieres of all of Tchaikovsky's other works for piano and orchestra. For many years, Taneyev's teaching and administrative duties at the Moscow Conservatory prevented him from touring as a performer, but later in his life, he resumed his career as a pianist, particularly in chamber music. He was indeed a not-so-prolific composer due to his perfectionist mentality, but what he has written are mostly of very high artistic quality.

Apart from those 3 names I mentioned above, you should check these names too: Sigismond Thalberg, Moritz Moszkovski, Ignace Jan Paderewski (he was the Prime Minister of Poland, for God's sake!) ... and your curiosity will lead to hundreds of other names. And now, you can start to pick your pieces for the Ananda Sukarlan Award - BIMA International Piano Competition next year. Be innovative, be original and be creative, ok? Good luck!