Dear La Folia 3.

Dear La Folia 3.

Russell Lichter

[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:4.]

Dear La Folia,

Here’s another CD with which I’ve been keeping company. I’ve a certain ambivalence about Schumann’s music, finding it sometimes engaging, sometimes strangely not. It can be gentle and beautiful, tempestuous and brilliant, sometimes sparkling with real genius. But what I cannot do is pin down what sort of bloke the composer actually was. One may be dead wrong, but one has a distinct view of Beethoven, and Brahms, and Rachmaninoff, and Scriabin, and Ravel. But I have yet to form a view of Robert Schumann. I promise faithfully that I shall do some biographical research, if only to find out if Clara Wieck looked anything like Katherine Hepburn. Howbeit, for someone who has a liking for this composer, this CD is a must.

Schumann, Novelletten, Michel Block, piano (ProPiano PPR224514)

Michel Block studied piano at Juilliard. In 1960, in what was to become an historic event, he competed at the Chopin International Competition in Warsaw. When Mr Block was not awarded the prize, Arthur Rubinstein, who was one of the jurists, was so dissatisfied with the verdict that he proclaimed the Arthur Rubinstein Prize, which he personally awarded to Block. Two years later Michel Block won the Levintritt Award in New York. What circumstances and events have since conspired to prevent his wide recognition are beyond me. He is an absolutely wonderful pianist with superb tonal control, an uncanny sense of rhythm, an authentic, heart-felt portrayal. One feels in Block’s playing that he has given his all to the music and arrived at a profound understanding of the composer. He has been called a great poet. Yet another case of a unique and superb musician practicing his art in relative obscurity, recognized by a small international group of devotees. The history of music, of art in general, is peppered with these anomalies. And thereupon, naturally, follows a dearth of recordings; and of those few, many out of print. Perhaps the greatest of these tragic absences is his recording of Albeniz’ Iberia, the master tapes of which are, last I heard, being held incommunicado by Pathé Marconi. And tapes, over time, do deteriorate. Such deterioration is actually evident in a few parts of the Novelletten. Not transferring analog tape to a more stable medium is archival madness. It is a formula for cultural catastrophe when such treasures are held by men who know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. Fortunately, this service of preservation has been performed by ProPiano for Michel Block’s recording of Schumann’s Novelletten.

Meanwhile, for years Michel Block has been teaching piano at Indiana University.

Some years back he was introduced to Ricard de La Rosa of ProPiano. This was a stroke of incredible good fortune for those of us who love piano music. ProPiano has since published several of Mr Block’s rare live performances recorded on campus, as well as new material. Among the former, Schumann’s Novelletten and Granados’ Goyescas, one of the undisputed masterpieces of Spanish piano literature. In fact, I was introduced to Michel Block as a foremost interpreter of Spanish piano music by a friend (who was also Juilliard piano student) and at his behest bought the Connoisseur LPs of Iberia. The music and the playing continue to astonish me almost twenty-five years later. Or to put it another way, I invested over $1200 in a Rega/Benz Glider in order to play these two discs. (Yes, I own other LPs, but they virtually never get played.) One enters Albeniz’ world, a world of beauty transcendent and human at the same time, elaborately wrought, passionate, a world of perfumed and shadowed streets, warm white walls and fragrant curtained doorways. This recording ought to be aboard Voyager on a gold disc, heading for Alpha Centauri. It is a manifestation of humanity at its greatest.

I am a newcomer to Schumann. It began a few years ago with the appearance of a most unlikely CD in the cheap racks at Tower. Abbey Simon playing Schumann’s Carnival and Fantasy in C (Vox/Allegretto). I bought the CD, not because I was interested in Schumann’s music, but because Mr Simon is a favorite of mine. I intended to give it to my brother. The musical gods were with me that day: he did not want it. I was stuck with it. And I have since gotten to know a good deal more of Schumann’s piano works, none, so far, more impressive than the Novelletten. Grand, energetic, brilliant stuff.

To say it again, Schumann is something of a mystery to me. For example, listening to a Beethoven sonata I get to know the composer. He is literally there, magically living within lines and dots on a musical staff. (Great art is like that, it has content which, against reason, is as real as it gets. However, you don’t want to get me started, particularly on my favorite example, Vermeer.) Schumann’s music, often brilliant, seems to run in two streams, almost as if there are two distinct composers. I don’t know if this can be, or even if it makes any sense to you. The Novelletten are wonderful pieces, written for Clara Wieck, whom the composer was courting. They are among the best Schumann piano music I’ve heard, and, I understand rarely recorded. If you like Schumann, this CD is a real treasure. But, though it may only reflect my personal limitations, I somehow cannot find Schumann in the Novelletten the way I can find him in, say, Block’s out-of-print CD of little pieces (Romanza, Kleine Morgenwanderer, Entritt am Walde and such like; there are thirty five of them). This seems the work of quite different man. For the most part this is music of simple beauty, very much from the heart and self-revealing.

Scarlatti, Sonatas, Sergei Babayan, Piano (ProPiano PPR224506)

Is there a soul that could hear Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas without delight? That’s a rhetorical question. I am sure there are such people. Howbeit. I am pretty familiar with Horowitz’s deservedly famous recording of personally selected Scarlatti sonatas. He must have dearly loved this music. Horowitz’s technique, always a bit mind boggling, is elevated in these performances to a level of extraordinary musicianship. And when Horowitz is good he is very, very good indeed. Frankly it’s taken several auditions to appreciate Sergei Babayan’s performances of eighteen Scarlatti sonatas, which, with three exceptions, constitute a different set than those chosen by Horowitz. (If memory serves, Scarlatti began knocking out these masterpieces around the age of fifty, and produced more than five hundred before joining the choir invisible. Which means that both sets combined constitute less than eight percent of the total.) I knew Mr Babayan’s playing from another ProPiano CD of piano music, Messiaen, Vine, Respighi and Ligeti (the latter being, as they say, a stunning tour de force of pianistic precision and control). Babayan’s playing is alternately thoughtful, improvisational, poetic. His playing is very physical, as if not mere fingers and wrists, but his whole body is involved. A less refined but more exuberant power than that conveyed by the older pianist, in part perhaps a consequence of the age difference.

This disc is a Pianist’s Perspective Recording, an approach taken by Pro Piano on non-archival material, that to my mind has tremendous validity. I very much like sitting in the catbird seat, hearing the music as the performer hears it. There may be justification for recording a live performance at a distance (though many such recordings are a hash of multi-miking), but even the most conscientious of pianists cannot really know what the audience is hearing. And a studio recording is a different affair, a totally personal and intimate expression flowing directly from the pianist to the CD purchaser. Under those circumstances one might wish to hear exactly what the pianist hears, and this is precisely what ProPiano provides.

As always with ProPiano recordings, the sound quality is excellent. (ProPiano is not primarily a CD label, but a piano rental outfit with stores in New York and San Francisco. Their business is all about love of the piano, and it shows in their relatively few CD releases.)

I found myself thinking about the emotional and stylistic range of Scarlatti’s music (and the wonderful Spanish influence), and the fact I knew mere dozens of sonatas out of hundreds. And it seemed to me that this was music that one might live with exclusively and never feel the want for something more. No doubt an exaggeration. No doubt I’d eventually want to hear Beethoven. And Debussy. And Ravel. And Schumann. And Bach. And Rachmaninoff. But consider how few composers elicit a sensibility of almost limitless richness and delight. And there is nothing comparable to Scarlatti’s amazing fecundity. In our language we have an inadequate number of words for snow, for taste, for intelligence, and for beauty.