Dear La Folia 4.

[Another friendly letter from Russell Lichter.]

Russell Lichter

[November 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:1.]

Dear La Folia,

So, how’s it going? [It goes swimmingly, Russell. Thanks for asking. Ed.] We had an earthquake in the neighborhood a couple or three weeks ago, five point something. Having been through a number of these (and worse) in downtown LA, in a brick building held together with prehistoric mortar and grime, I was glad to be in the oak strewn hills of Black Point. Like riding in a Cadillac. Not that all’s well around here: a variety of Phythophthora, as in “Irish Potato Famine,” is killing live oaks. Heartbreaking to see whole sections of hills gone brown (death follows within weeks of infection), but thus far Black Point is untouched. There is no known preventative or cure.

As kind of follow up to my documented experience with Gould’s Appassionata, I have been listening to Richter playing Beethoven. There’s a two CD set (Great Pianists of the 20th Century, Sviatoslav Richter II, Philips 456 949-2 (series sponsored also by EMI Classics, Deutsche Grammophon, BMG and Steinway & Sons) which includes the last three sonatas. And there’s a live concert from Prague that includes the Hammerklavier. These final piano sonatas are perhaps the most strange and difficult to grasp, and I find that having multiple versions, by Jenö Jandó, Wilhelm Kempff, Glenn Gould, and Svjatoslav Richter, is not a luxury but an education. (At the risk of being inconsistent, I must say that Gould’s Gouldian performances are fascinating.)

I thought to begin this letter with the sentence, “The hairs on my forearms are on end: I have just listened to Richter playing the Hammerklavier fugue” (Praga PR 254 022). But where would I go from there? What kind of a recommendation is it that consists of a single exclamation? But there’s not a great deal more I can think to say. For Richter’s playing, the usual adjectives are pale. I have experienced this level of musicianship only rarely, listening to such as David Sapperton, Ernst Levy and Wanda Landowska. This is the realm of giants, greathearted spirits, traveling beyond the usual demarcations.

Never has the Hammerklavier made more sense, and that fugue! More than ever does it put me in mind of the Grosse Fuge, and demonstrate how Beethoven took a mere flourish, the trill, and turned it into something transcendent.

It is true: the power of creative imagination is greater than the boundaries of our quotidian minds, greater even than death.

For weeks I have been listening to a recording of J.S. Bach Organ Preludes and Fugues, transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt, played by Michel Block. A Google search on ’Carlton Classics Hallmark 350652’ turned up nada. I expect it really is out of print, but since it is of British manufacture, it may be available overseas. Obtaining a copy would be worth a good deal of trouble, and a good deal of expense.

I know what you’re probably thinking: “Organ music transcribed by Liszt, full of bombast, flourishes and fortissimos, impossible.” Well, as for the transcriptions, they’re absolutely straightforward Johann Sebastian Bach, sans flourishes and bombast. As for the dynamics, the rendering on a mere fortepiano of a piece intended for pipe organ, we’re talking Michel Block here. A lesser pianist might attempt to play loudly, Block plays precisely, and his handling of dynamics and tone, his ability to reveal the inner soul of the music, is truly awesome. What emerges is pure magic. Fortissimo is actually pretty rare, but Block nonetheless creates an experience every bit as thrilling as hearing this music played on a pipe organ.

I know, you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I have gotten to know these preludes and fugues better than I ever had listening to organ versions.

More to come.