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Freedom of Expression

French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie is marking the Chopin anniversary year by returning to the composer’s etudes - 25 years after he first recorded them. His approach, he tells Andrew Stewart, is a balancing act between the technical polish of modern pianism and the free-spirited readings of Chopin’s golden age interpreters

For all the romantic myth bolted on to the biography of Chopin (1810-1949), the most striking details of his life and work are rooted firmly in fact. Take for instance the bare story of his first collection of etudes, those dozen genre-defining keyboard studies published in 1833. The composer began work on the pieces four years earlier, completing a quartet of etudes ‘in a way of my own’ while still in his teens. Their eight siblings, making up op.10, and the equally remarkable op.25 etudes from 1832–6, were crafted with breathtaking ingenuity and inventive brilliance - offspring of a young musician’s phenomenal talent.

Schumann, writing in 1836, saw how ‘imagination and technique share dominion side by side’ in Chopin’s etudes. However, countless pianists since have skewed the equation’s equal balance to favour technical display. It’s small wonder given the Everest-like challenges set not least by the G sharp minor ‘thirds study’ and B minor ‘octaves study’ of op.25 (nos.6 and 10) or the tempestuous left-hand arpeggios of the so-called ‘Revolutionary’ study of op.10 no.12.

Louis Lortie is notably absent from the etude showmen. The French-Canadian musician, who turned 50 last April, is marking Chopin’s own big anniversary year with complete performances of the composer’s studies, the trio of Nouvelle etudes of 1839 among them. He prefaced his Chopin bicentenary series with a complete run-through of the etudes at Duke University in North Carolina last October, before presenting a spellbinding account of all 27 pieces a month later at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, echoing the freshness of performances from his career’s early years while projecting an even greater variety of inflection, colour and nuance. Repeat performances are scheduled for Bilbao, Vienna, Kraków, Valencia and Udine in March and the Gilmore Festival in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in April.

Canada’s ‘Little Mozart’

André Mathieu

André Mathieu
Credit: Family archives. All rights reserved

Rachmaninoff and Einstein declared him a genius, so why is the life and music of André Mathieu unknown today? The pianist Alain Lefèvre tells Martin Anderson his tragic story, and explains why his music deserves to be heard

The story of the Canadian composer André Mathieu is a strange one, even tragic: perhaps the earliest flowering of musical genius in history, followed by a difficult life in a climate hostile to his musical language, made more difficult yet by the alcoholism and infidelities that undermined his married life just as his parents had undermined his childhood. The silence that settled around his name after his early death is only now beginning to be broken.

Mathieu was born in Montreal on 18 February 1929, the son of two musician-teachers: his father was a composer and his mother a cellist. His precocity was apparent almost immediately: he began to speak at four months and to walk before he was seven months old. His father, cynical about the opportunities that music might offer, initially forbade his son to touch the piano but, faced with the unarguable evidence of his three-year-old’s musicality, swallowed his words and began to teach him. André began to compose at the age of four, first performed his music in public at six, appeared with orchestra as soloist in his Concertino no.2 at the same age and broadcast the Concertino no.1 at seven. Later that year, 1936, he took up a Canadian government scholarship to study piano with Yves Nat in Paris, giving a recital in the Salle Chopin-Pleyel that stirred up enormous excitement. A second recital, in March 1939, drew an emphatic response from the critic Émile Vuillermoz. In a review entitled ‘Le Mozart canadien’ in Excelsior he stated: ‘If the word genius has a meaning, it is here that we will be able to find it’ - and, intriguingly, he hedged his bets on Mathieu’s development: ‘I don’t know if little André Mathieu will become a great musician like Mozart […], but I declare that at the same age Mozart had written nothing comparable’.

Later that year Mathieu and his parents returned to Montreal on holiday, intending to return to Paris, a plan sunk by the outbreak of the second world war. He continued to give recitals across North America, though they now made their base in New York, where André was studying once again. Still only eleven, he won a composition competition run by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the orchestra, and soon thereafter performed in Carnegie Hall the Concertino no.2 that he had premiered five years earlier. Returning to Paris in 1946, he found himself bored and broke, and took to the bottle to distract himself. His drinking continued back in Montreal after 1947: he carried on appearing in public, but often squandering his talent in circus-like ‘pianothons’ intended to break performance records; he taught; he composed. And then on 2 June 1968, aged only 39, he died and was lost from sight.

Friedman’s Chopin

Ignaz Friedman

Ignaz Friedman
Credit: Tully Potter Collection

Ignaz Friedman’s Chopin recordings stand alone among golden age interpreters for their ability to capture the composer’s true spirit, says Brian Davidson

In November 1940 the great Polish pianist Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948) spoke on New Zealand Radio about Chopin’s music. The following is a slightly abbreviated version of his comments:

A great number of people conceived the wrong idea that Chopin is a drawing room composer. As I pointed out in the foreword to the edition of his works [an edition which today is very much a collector’s item], Chopin was a prophet who anticipated things for the future, which only started to be realised about half a century after his death. In other words, we find in Chopin germs of Wagner, the late Russian School and Debussy. Chopin has in his palette as many dramatic/epic elements as sentimental and romantic ones.

The opinion of the contemporary music critics on the so-called ‘matter-of-fact’ or ‘rational’ or ‘constructive’ music is, in my opinion, false. The fact that Chopin remains unique in his music and that nothing of his musical soul or importance perished after a period of one hundred years, and his compositions are gaining understanding and admiration now, all proves that Chopin is more vital than scores of musical messiahs who came and have gone. From the purely pianistic point of view, Chopin revolutionised its entire technique. He discovered and exhausted the modern piano. So Liszt, for example, considered the greatest pianist of his time, and composer as well, recreated only a great number of external sounds for piano transcriptions, arranging orchestral works or vocal compositions in piano translation. Full of admiration for the violin technique of Paganini, Liszt rearranged his composition for the piano. Chopin, on the other hand, extracts from the piano itself all sounds, aromas and colours in a masterful, unsurpassable manner.

The technique of the modern French composers, such as Debussy or Ravel, is a sort of alloy of the old ‘clavecinistes’ and Chopin. The same may be said of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff in Russia and Szymanowski in Poland. Chopin is essentially Polish in his art of composition not only because he wrote mazurkas and polonaises but also because his Polish spirit dominates his ballades, preludes, scherzos or etudes. It is worth mentioning that the form of nocturne and its romantic flavour is the invention of the Irish composer John Field, who greatly influenced Chopin during the main period of his activity. 

Still practising

Gary Graffman

Gary Graffman
Credit: Courtesy Opus 3 Artists

When Gary Graffman lost the use of his right hand 30 years ago he turned his attention to teaching - cultivating some of the world’s best-known talents, including Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. Now 80, he tells Nancy Pellegrini about the parallels between China’s musical culture and his own background

Not many internationally celebrated pianists would turn a hand problem into a career opportunity quite as successfully as Gary Graffman has; but then, Graffman isn’t just any internationally celebrated pianist. After winning the Leventritt Award in 1949 when he was 21 he spent the next three decades touring almost continuously with such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy and Zubin Mehta, and making over 30 recordings - among them an acclaimed series for Columbia and RCA. When a debilitating condition in his right hand forced him to stop playing two-hand repertoire in 1979, he began performing pieces composed for the left hand, becoming an advocate of new left-hand repertoire. He also turned his attention to teaching, joining the piano faculty of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music where he served as director from 1986 and president from 1995 to this day. This past October he celebrated his 80th birthday with a much-anticipated solo recital debut at the twelfth Beijing International Music Festival.

But Graffman wasn’t supposed to be a piano superstar, or even, for that matter, a pianist. He was born in 1928 in New York City to Russian immigrant parents. His father, Vladimir Graffman, had been a student of Jascha Heifetz and played in orchestras all over Russia and China before moving to the US. Vladimir gave his three-year-old son a tiny violin, but a year later took it back. ‘He decided I had no talent,’ says Graffman. The next instrument on the list was the piano, and at age four Gary was making rapid progress on the instrument with a neighbourhood teacher. In 1936, at the age of seven, he was accepted by the Curtis Institute of Music to study under the devoted if at times tyrannical wing of Isabelle Vengerova, who used to throw pieces of furniture in frustration. Graffman took this all in his stride, however: ‘The Russian immigrant musician colony was very connected; I knew her when I was being wheeled around in a baby carriage,’ he recalls. ‘Her yelling at me was no different to my parents yelling at me.’

In his twenties, and by now a regular on the concert circuit, Graffman received several years’ intensive instruction from Vladimir Horowitz, and, during the summers at the Marlboro Music Festival, Rudolf Serkin, absorbing the very different teaching styles of both. ‘To Horowitz, the piano was like a human voice. You had to think, “How would someone sing this melody?” For his part, Serkin believed that the piano represented different instruments, for example, “a bassoon, not a cello.”’

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