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Yaroslav Senyshyn: 'I side with Vladimir Horowitz’s dictum that "the whole point of music is emotion"’

Owen Mortimer

Yaroslav Senyshyn plays Chopin and Liszt

2:08, 30th October 2020

Canadian pianist, author and professor of philosophy and music aesthetics Yaroslav Senyshyn introduces his new album of piano concertos by Chopin and Liszt

What qualities do you most admire in the music of Chopin and Liszt, and why do they make such good musical bedfellows?

Chopin and Liszt are often paired because they contrast very well in their differing but fascinating personalities. My concept of their personas has largely been shaped by their own letters and writings, excellent secondary sources and the highly emotional content of their compositions.

Liszt was an extrovert with a deep, introverted spirituality. He was remarkably generous with his time and money because he was a true and unstinting altruist. He was also a dedicated parent (even though not always a good one by modern standards) and a generous admirer of other great composers. Chances are that if we could have met Liszt we would have thought the world of him. He was certainly a better friend to Chopin and his music than Chopin was to Liszt.

Chopin on the other hand was an acerbic person who was highly introverted and mistrustful of others, except for his closest friends and relatives. He was conceited and not really a good friend to Liszt. There was a real tension and even a subtly repressed envy between the two great men. But Chopin’s private detestation of Liszt’s music was not reflected in Liszt’s authentic admiration for Chopin’s music.

What I admire most is the emotional impact of their music. Contrary to the limited thinking of theorists who deny that music can communicate emotion, I side with Vladimir Horowitz’s dictum that ‘the whole point of music is emotion’. Although this may not be true of all music, it certainly was true for Chopin and Liszt. They  believed in music’s capacity to generate emotions for which we have not yet invented words. Analytical philosophers believe that emotions are only learned through language, but this was certainly not the case for Liszt and Chopin.

I also admire how both men revolutionised and prodigiously expanded piano technique and its  capacity to communicate the vicissitudes of human emotion. How awesome are the demands of technique and imagination to actualise little gems such as the etude Feux Follets Op 10/2 or the breathtaking contrast between Chopin’s and Liszt’s B minor sonatas (which I will have the privilege of performing next year at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall). Both men struggled to express themselves in their own original and innovative musical forms.

Chopin’s music rests at the fulcrum between Classicism and Romanticism, combining purity and structure with powerful and heartfelt emotion. What interpretative challenges does this pose?

It would not surprise me at all, fancifully speaking, to learn that Chopin was a reincarnation of Mozart or even JS Bach himself! Chopin certainly went about the business of composing in a structural and aesthetic manner quite reminiscent of these composers. And like Mozart and arguably Bach, Chopin was an awesome prodigy and a budding composer from an early age. The fact that Chopin’s Second Concerto in F minor is a masterpiece composed by a 19-year-old youth amply supports my point. Chopin loved the music of Mozart and Bach and could barely tolerate the compositions of Beethoven and especially Liszt.

Yet taking a ‘Mozartian’ or ‘Bachian’ approach to Chopin by playing with a limited range of dynamics and a contrived, non-legato ‘lightness’ of touch has led us ironically backwards to a distorted miniaturisation and effeminisation of his music. This ethos was vehemently and passionately opposed by Arthur Rubinstein but has resurfaced in present-day Chopin performance practices. A similar effect can be heard in Walter Gieseking’s recordings of Mozart. Although his renditions display great control and dynamic shading, the result is akin to the ‘preciousness’ of a music box. This distorted approach to Mozart is sometimes also applied to Chopin.

Another prevalent fashion in Chopin performance practices today is metronomic ruthlessness that contradicts the natural flow of Chopin’s rhythmic phrasing. This stratagem is also coupled with a contrived ‘glossiness’ and, at times, sonic hollowness in recordings that ‘benefit’ from technological filters. In live performances, it has become a vogue for pianists to play with gloopy sentimentality and act out emotions with their bodies and faces for the presumed ‘benefit’ of the audience. We know that this was not the way Chopin performed, nor most other great pianists since.

We should never forget that Chopin called on Liszt to play his etudes for the power of sound he could not produce himself. I have no doubt that Chopin had the ‘fingers’ but not the ability to project high decibels. Although Chopin was frail due to contracting tuberculosis early in his life, his incredibly moving and quiet manner of performance in later years came from his psyche and the limitations of a man riddled with a debilitating disease. His was a unique and highly moving manner of performance according to critically sophisticated observers of his time. But it is a mistake to try and ‘copy’ this image in one’s playing. Unfortunately, this kind of overt emoting of music gradually becomes a cult of the fake.

Chopin was a dilettante and even a bit of a snob with highly cultivated senses. His was a fiery temperament that also displayed a disciplined and balanced approach to tension and a conciliatory balance between the vertical and horizontal in music. Yet he struggled with form, counterpoint and harmony, as can be heard in his sonatas. His last sonata achieved the Classical and Romantic ideal and is an extremely difficult work to play, not least because its rhythmic subtlety and harmonies are defined by vertical and horizontal considerations.

Chopin’s harmonic structures were always coupled with stunningly beautiful melodies that give the powerful illusion of being detached from the other elements that make up his music. The pianist has a gargantuan task to bring all this together and make it visible without losing the forest for the trees. Even that is not enough if the pianist does not feel authentically and – without extraneous physical grimacing, emoting and dancing on the bench – the ‘powerful and heartfelt emotion’.

You have written that you prefer Liszt’s more formally innovative Second Concerto to his popular and frequently played First. Why?

In a begrudging way I partly agree with the late Charles Rosen that the First Concerto is more popular because it is perceived to be better constructed than the Second – but only in the sense that the First reveals a direct, simpler and more accessible structural cohesiveness. If we relate this to an architectural metaphor, the First Concerto is more of a traditional house that enjoys recognisably harmonious and symmetrical lines because it is constructed in that manner.

The Second Concerto is a home with an irregularly elongated shape that allows a more episodic or picaresque approach to its thematic narratives. Its structure comprises a polygon of six irregular rooms connected by beams acting as themes, whereas the First Concerto is a rectangular shape. Both homes are vital and dramatically conceived but I prefer the hexagon over the rectangle. The Second Concerto also has more room for thematic transformation. Perhaps that is why its average duration is approximately five minutes over the twenty minutes of the First Concerto.

A review of your new album suggests that you ‘revel in exploring striking contrasts of dynamics, tempo and phrasing’. How do you go about balancing these contrasts with a sense of structural cohesion in your performances?

This represents a never-ending problem for the responsible instrumentalist or singer who interprets and represents a composer’s composition on the concert stage or in a studio recording. It is an awesome responsibility.

I will start out by saying candidly that I have both succeeded and failed at times in seeking structural cohesion while pursuing contrasts of dynamics, tempo, and phrasing. More of these failures occurred in the past, in my younger days, when I was prone to over-experimentation. (At worst they could – modestly speaking – be characterised as magnificent failures)! Put bluntly, a performance is not an authentic one from the standpoint of structural cohesion if a performer allows the dynamics, tempo and phrasing to undermine that cohesion. This is especially true if the performer is trying to do something different for the sake of being different.

Architectural metaphors can offer a useful way of thinking about structural cohesion in music performance. The dwelling may be ornately fashioned or consist of stark, non-contrasted rooms. Each structure, of course, depends on the epoch in which it was built (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc) and all the possible overlapping of styles. We may think of our home as a ‘safe’ structure if all of its parts, including the furniture and decorations, result in a dwelling that will not collapse. One may add a vase, a piece of furniture or a utility such as a clock that conforms with its periodicity. But one never takes away elements or adds others that may endanger its structural soundness.

In a music performance the artist deals with contrasting phrases, subtle tempi, a steady pulsation relative to and variable with the music’s and one’s own heartbeat, agogical accents, dynamic indications and acoustical properties at every given moment. The artist endeavours to make this all work in a structurally cohesive manner. If the artist overdresses a Classical room with Rococo intensity, or alters the foundations, the performance will fail and not satisfy our sense of the whole.

On the other hand, if a performer plays it safe and builds a house that is structurally sound but lacking in the comforts of home then that performance will be static in the worst sense of the word. Of course, there are people who prefer very stark but safe homes regardless of the epoch in which they were built. That too is allowed unless one is performing music of the Romantic period. But even there you have Classicist-Romanticists like Chopin and Romanticist-Modernists like Liszt. The same applies other epochs too. Complexity is the order of the day, especially when applied to the interpretative art of performance.

When preparing your interpretations of these concertos, to what extent did you draw on extra-musical inspiration, or did you rely exclusively on analysis of the scores?

Relying exclusively on a score and regarding it as a thing-in-itself worthy of iconic worship is insufficient for any authentic performance. (By ‘authentic’ I mean a performance that satisfies musicological definitions as well as the Heideggerian notion of authenticity as expressed in Time and Being).

Wherever possible, one should strive to download a copy of the composer’s autograph score. The handwritten notation provides clues for interpretation, such as the unusual scrawling and frustrated corrections of Mozart’s late Piano Concerto in C minor, or the remarkable architectural neatness of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.

One must also avoid clichés about published music editions. For example, it is useful to study Percy Grainger’s edition of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. I always study as many editions as possible to ensure maximum accuracy. I even take editorial recommendations seriously, especially if they come from someone like Cortot, Bülow or Schnabel. Primary and secondary sources relating to the composer are another important source of inspiration, as are recordings.

It is impossible for a composer to write down all of the agogical accents, inflections, subtle changes of tempi, phrasing and dynamics of a composition. For example, it can be difficult to determine precisely where a crescendo, diminuendo or ritardando begins or ends. Such questions generate a good deal of disagreement between musicians! If one also takes into account the infinite variables of each performance, including the acoustical properties of the venue, its lighting, temperature and humidity levels and their effect on the piano, one quickly realises that our performing world is not a static environment – far from it. For all these reasons one is constantly adjusting a performance while anchored to the elements that are arguably static in a score.

‘A musical performance is not an authentic one without both an objective and a responsible subjective element’

So, by ‘authentic’ I do not just mean following everything that can be followed in a score to the best of one’s ability. There is a good deal more to the art of interpretation than that. In order for a performance to be authentic, one must take courageous flight with eagle eyes over the terrain of your interpretation. To be this brave one must have read as much as one can about a composer, including his or her letters, autobiographies, biographies and secondary musicological sources. It’s also important to listen other recordings (especially from the past!) and learn everything the composer has written – not just for the piano. To be an authentic artist one must do all of that homework and more. This kind of work never ends. An individual must first earn one’s knightly spurs in order to transcend the objective in a responsible subjectivity. An artist who needs a lot of sleep should consider another profession!

Which other interpreters of this repertoire do you most admire, and why?

I very much admire Cortot, Lipatti, Argerich, Ashkenazy and Rubinstein for Chopin’s Second Concerto and Richter for his Liszt concertos.

Arthur Rubinstein had a beautiful sound of a passionate intensity that worked within the structure of both the Chopin concertos. He commanded an authority for the terrain without a false sense of sentimentality in his timing and phrasing. In his various recordings of the Chopin concertos and solo works, he was not afraid to take risks. These were always taken in the heat of the moment. He knew, like Rachmaninov, how to build a climactic point to bring audiences to their feet in fever-pitch excitement. And if he struck a wrong note here and there it did not matter in the least. He was a human being and not a machine! I miss him very much as do many people who had the great joy and privilege to hear him. He was a great and gracious personality.

Sviatoslav Richter’s live recordings of the Liszt concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra under Kirill Kondrashin were beautifully conceived performances filled with magic and breathtaking risks. His tonal colours were variegated and punctuated with remarkable agogic accentuations. He was truly a titan of the instrument. Richter was also a great performer of Chopin’s works. He had his own spellbinding charisma at the piano and could hypnotise a discerning audience into realms of both ecstasy and dread. I have always believed that Richter’s playing may very well be the closest we have to how Liszt projected himself at the keyboard.

Martha Argerich plays Chopin’s Second Concerto with emotional intensity and spirited impulsiveness. In the lyrical sections she allows her phrases to breathe comfortably and seek out their natural, latent punctuation. Some pianists who play this piece sound like they are obeying Chopin’s accents, which gives the music a stilted quality. Argerich anticipates the accents by preparing them so they are naturally and seamlessly interwoven into the music without unpleasant hiccups. She can accomplish this because she does not contrive her phrases artificially but spontaneously anticipates and prepares them during the performance.

You also hold the post of professor at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, where your research interests include the philosophy of music aesthetics. To what extent has your work as a philosopher and educator informed your piano playing?

My work as a philosopher, teacher and performer are a synergy of collaborative activity. Being a reclusive pianist for most of my professional life has given me time to explore the issue of objectivity and subjectivity in music performance. My favourite philosopher, Kierkegaard, has strongly influenced my approach to performance and the art of interpretation.

Without becoming unnecessarily technical I will say that Kierkegaard’s philosophy lends itself to an understanding of a music score as a visible and concrete document, a kind of frozen architectural blueprint that can be actualised in performance. This is the ‘what’ of the matter that represents the idea of objectivity. Thus, the score is not an icon for fundamentalist worship but rather an objective entity that requires interpretation to make it real.

Objectivity and subjectivity are not just opposites but also, paradoxically, two sides of a coin. Before one can fly and soar in a mode of subjectivity one must do the objective homework to learn everything in the score. My book The Artist in Crisis and various other publications of mine offer fuller analysis of this insight. The key point is that subjectivity according to Kierkegaard is worthless without its concomitant element of objectivity. In other words, a musical performance is not an authentic one without both an objective and a responsible subjective element.

Before an authentic subjectivity can take place in a performance, the artist must know the score and all of its intricate parts in order to embark on the ‘how’ of its interpretation subjectively. Not doing this can only result in an irresponsible and inauthentic subjectivity. On the other hand a performance that does not transcend the score in a mode of responsible subjectivity will result in a frigid and limited performance, which too is inauthentic. The balance between these opposites is precarious but must be actualised before an authentic performance takes place. It really is a responsible and courageous leap into the Kierkegaardian abyss. For that reason there are very few performers who can take such a plunge. An extreme cautiousness or even a paranoid fear of wrong notes can paralyse performers, prompting them to obsesses over technical accuracy as an end in itself. Such insecurities and others related to false notions of perfection are arguably the ethos of our times.

This is the sixth album you have released over the past two decades. What other recording plans do you have in the pipeline?

Now that I have reduced my teaching to three months a year at Simon Fraser University, I look forward to accepting more recording opportunities. This December, I will return to Prague to record three concertos with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Oliver von Dohnányi: Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 plus the world premiere recording of Canadian composer Donald Cochrane’s Piano Concerto No 10, which is dedicated to me.

I also plan to record Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto and the First Concerto by eminent Canadian composer Larysa Kuzmenko, both with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Grzegorz Nowak. Further recordings in the pipeline include the two Brahms concertos, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. And If Covid allows, I hope to record my recital at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall on 14 October 2021, featuring the B minor sonatas by Chopin and Liszt along with a Bach-Siloti transcription of the Prelude in B minor and Kuzmenko’s In Memoriam to the Victims of Chornobyl.

Yaroslav Senyshyn’s new album features Chopin Piano Concerto No 2 and Liszt Piano Concerto No 2 with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver von Dohnányi (Albany Records TROY1777). albanyrecords.com

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