Rhinegold Photo credit: Giacomo Ligi
Pianist Alessandro Stella

Josephine Miles

Celebrating the minuet: Q&A with Alessandro Stella

11:31, 22nd July 2019

Alessandro Stella’s album Minuetto: The Art of the Regal Dance, a programme of minuets by 20 composers inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s 1882 short story Menuet, was hailed as ‘fascinating, superb and unmissable’ by IP. We interviewed Stella to find out more about the conception and realisation of this unique project

How did you encounter Maupassant’s short story and what made you fall in love with it?

My producer introduced me to it. Reading it, I immediately felt that Maupassant had captured the essence and philosophy of the minuet. Grace, lightness, melancholy and nostalgia are written into the DNA of this dance. That’s why we decided to include the short story in the album – in its original version and in two translations from the same era. Today, when music is mostly consumed in a ‘liquid’ state, we wanted to create a physical product with added value.

Why did you decide to build a musical programme inspired by Menuet?

The idea of dedicating an entire album to the minuet in fact came to me before I read Maupassant’s short story. I like creating original programmes that provide a fresh perspective on a specific genre or body of repertoire – an approach that I’ve shared with KHA Records ever since working on my first album with them. We found that there are many albums dedicated to other musical forms or dances, but strangely enough not to the minuet. So we became curious, and our curiosity very soon turned into huge interest and enthusiasm.

How did you research the repertoire and choose which items to include?

My research for this project was a creative and thrilling journey shared with the KHA Records team. We exchanged proposals, ideas and suggestions for almost a year. Our starting point was Wilhelm Kempff’s version of Handel’s Minuet from the Suite in B-flat major HWV 434, but we soon started to explore the minuet world inside-out, spanning three centuries and various continents.

In some cases we struggled to trace the scores, which were often handwritten (such as the Giustini and Krieger). Sometimes we did not settle for our original ideas. Barber’s Minuet from his Three Sketches, for example, was initially meant to be included. However, we discovered an earlier version written by Barber when he was hardly more than a teenager, and this felt more essential.

When choosing the minuets for the album’s final cut we followed a simple rule: do not restrict ourselves! For instance, we took the liberty of extrapolating minuets from sonatas by Haydn, Dussek, Albéniz and Scarlatti. As for Mozart, we even picked out a single variation from a whole cycle (Variations on a Minuet by Jean-Pierre Duport K573). When devising the order of the track list, we reviewed various possibilities. We started with a chronological approach but finally opted to highlight associations that guide the listener through a journey of discovery.

The album opens and closes with the same minuet by Handel (in Kempff’s arrangement the second time), framed by a prologue (Purcell) and an epilogue (Barber) which is intended as a ‘farewell’. Listening to the album, some noticeable sequences are apparent, such as Schubert/Albéniz, Rameau/Couperin and Scarlatti/Zipoli. Other connections are less obvious but were conceived in a similar way, such as the three minuets by Haydn, Ravel and Viñes: Ravel’s in tribute to Haydn and Viñes’ in tribute to Ravel.

What qualities define the minuet as a form and is there more than one type of minuet?

The minuet is a dance that originated in France during the Baroque era and was very popular at the court of Louis XIV. Cultivated by the greatest composers of the time, it was soon integrated into the most varied musical genres, from opera and ballet to instrumental music. It consists of two parts, each with a refrain. The second part expanded over time to become a second minuet in its own right performed alternately with the first.

Naturally, the minuet has taken on very different forms over the centuries. As early as the Classical era, for instance, it was replaced by the scherzo in symphonies and sonatas. However, the minuet continued sparking the imagination of composers and always retained its founding characteristics – even though they may be expressed with very different languages.

What else have you learnt about the minuet as a result of this project?

Embarking on this long journey centred upon only one dance was extremely exciting – not only due to what I learned about the dance itself, but more generally for the reflection it sparked on the evolution of musical languages.

This project also made me reflect on the tight relationship between music and dance. Music has always been a natural partner for dance, but I am more interested in shedding light on the fact that the musician’s work is, in itself, tightly connected to dance – and not only because music is ‘metric’ and involves movement. Indeed, to convey their own idea of a work, a performer needs to create a real ‘choreography’, a series of movements so complex that many researchers have concluded this is one of the most complex activities the human brain can handle.

Can you dance a minuet?!

No, unfortunately! But I know there are schools in which it is still possible to ‘philologically’ learn this dance as they used to dance it in the court of the Sun King.

Please tell us about any new projects you have in the pipeline

My world premiere recording of the piano and flute version of Ninna Nanna Per Anna by Giya Kancheli, featuring the flute player Mauro Conti, will be released this autumn for Continuo Records. This project continues my exploration of the Georgian composer’s music that I started a few years ago with Midwinter Spring, released by KHA Records.

Over the coming months I will also be releasing two new albums with KHA Records: the first dedicated to Valentin Silvestrov’s piano music, and the second marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020.

This November I will be back in Cuba for the third edition of the Habana Clásica festival. This is an amazing event created and directed by my dear friend and piano duo partner, Marcos Madrigal, with whom I plan to record a second album for Artalinna next year.

Minuetto: The Art of the Regal Dance is now available from KHA Records (KHA0017). www.kha.it

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