From the Sleevenotes: Romantic Piano Encores

Pianist and author Kenneth Hamilton’s sleeve notes from his new album Romantic Piano Encores (PFCD160):

“Two hundred years ago, an “encore” was exactly what the name implies: a spontaneous repeat, in response to overwhelming audience enthusiasm, of the piece just played. Franz Liszt was even willing to dispense with the enthusiasm: he sometimes gave an encore out of sheer exasperation, because he was unhappy with his playing the first time around. Alternatively, he might offer an improvised, varied version instead of a straight repeat, “bristling with newly added difficulties”, as the critic Eduard Hanslick remarked. Audiences in his day were accustomed to demanding a repeat – with cries of “encore”, “again” or “bravo” – not just of whole pieces, but also of individual passages. And spontaneity eventually evolved into custom. By the end of the 19th century, it was, for example, so common for the slow variation in Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata to be encored that players were somewhat embarrassed when not asked to do so. Around the same time, the eccentric virtuoso Vladimir de Pachmann added a comic twist to the tradition. He would occasionally stop in the middle of a piece after an especially difficult passage, stare at his own hands in wonder, cry out “Bravo, Pachmann, Bravo!” and then repeat the passage with a gracious smile to the public, as if he were generously granting their demands. Pachmann was not just his own greatest fan, but pianist and audience in one.

It was only with the gradual emergence, in the second half of the 19th century, of a standard repertoire of masterpieces, appearing in recitals with tedious regularity, that the encore assumed its present role as a novelty – a catchy, touching or dazzling piece played after the concert is supposedly over, offering both extra excitement and value for money. Inevitably, a quasi-repertoire of encores also developed, but a more personal, varied and capricious one than the Bach fugues and Beethoven Sonatas that could constitute the main part of the printed programme. Part of the pleasure was the surprise created from the audience not knowing what encore they might be offered. This aspect also accounts for the picture chosen for the cover of this CD: John William Waterhouse’s Pandora (in the current context, she is to be imagined as lifting the lid of a box of encores, rather than of all the evils of the world!).

Accordingly, from the middle of the 19th century, concerts began to be constructed, as they frequently are today, along a trajectory of decreasing seriousness and increasing fun: weighty fare in the first half, slightly lighter music in the second, and encores for a good tune. It was Artur Schnabel’s dogged refusal to conform to this tradition that led him to joke that his programmes were unique because they were “boring even in the second half”.

Some pianists were so prolific in providing encores that they more or less created a “third half” of a concert programme. Paderewski could play up to seven of them. Moreover, many listeners thought that this was the finest part of his concerts – not because the pieces themselves were so much more attractive, but because Paderewski’s playing immediately became more relaxed and spacious, knowing as he did that the pressure was now off. His encores were usually shorter pieces in a lighter style, but some pianists, as ever, adopted the opposite approach. One of Hans von Bülow’s encores for his Herculean programme of the last five Beethoven piano sonatas (already regarded by contemporary audiences as almost unbearably long) was the Appassionata Sonata. For von Bülow, enough was never as good as a feast.

Of course, the choice of an encore should ideally take into account the music already played, either by continuing the established mood, or shattering it in a fruitful fashion. The present CD therefore represents something of a paradox: a series of encores without a preceding programme; the converse to a collection of preludes: artistic icing without the cake. The tracks here were nevertheless recorded as “encores” in a certain sense, for they were set down towards the end of recording sessions mostly devoted to other albums. And they simply comprise music I’ve long loved to play, as successful encores should.

Although most of the tracks are, as one would expect, of moderate length, three of them (Mendelssohn’s “Last Rose of Summer”, Grainger’s Rosenkavalier Ramble, and Ignaz Friedman’s version of “Voices of Spring”) are fairly substantial, and act as anchor points in the programme. The final track (Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on the “Artist’s Life” Waltz) is even more substantial. It’s far too long, I freely admit, for an encore in a public concert, but it makes a magnificent close for a CD. I have in practice played the Artist’s Life in public as an encore, but only with extensive cuts (some of them indicated by Godowsky himself in the score). For this recording, on the other hand, everything is present and (I hope) correct, apart from the omission of two short repeats that are a little too much of a good thing even for me.

So, the programme of the album falls into distinct groups punctuated by longer pieces. The first few tracks might be described as “antiquarian”, and present Romantic arrangements of early music. They begin with an utterly captivating version of a Bach Prelude by the Russian pianist-composer Alexander Siloti (1863-1945), one of Liszt’s most talented pupils, and cousin of Sergei Rachmaninov. Intimate and contemplative as it is, this is the polar opposite of the the Godowsky piece that ends the album, but no less of a “metamorphosis” rather than a straight transcription.

Siloti transposed Bach’s original (BWV855a) from e minor to b minor (for reasons of keyboard tessitura and texture) and turned the music upside down (in other words, Bach’s semiquaver bass figuration becomes Siloti’s treble figuration). Thus relocated, the semiquavers float over the bass as if forming a saintly halo. Siloti then fashioned a new “tenor” tune from Bach’s bare chords, following the example of the famous Gounod Ave Maria based on Bach’s C major Prelude, but in less flamboyant style. As the b minor Prelude consists only of one fairly short section with repeat, it was Siloti’s custom to give special emphasis to this new melody on the second playing, with more extensive arpeggiation of the left-hand chords, an approach I also adopt. I am, however, less of an admirer of the extremely slow tempi sometimes taken by pianists searching for the ultimate in hypnotic tranquility for this piece. Siloti’s own metronome mark is fairly brisk, and while I prefer the figuration to flow a little more languorously than he evidently did, I have tried to avoid the meditative quasi-stasis that can occasionally be indistinguishable from boredom.

Charles Valentin Alkan’s (1813-88) arrangement of the gently lilting Siciliano movement of Bach’s Sonata BWV1031 for flute and keyboard maintains a strict fidelity foreign to Siloti’s adulterous adaptation. Alkan confines himself to fitting the flute part to the accompaniment in a manner easily performable by a lone pianist. His own more acerbic compositional style briefly raises its head in the fourth bar of the piece, where he takes no steps to smooth over a passing dissonance between flute and piano parts – scarcely noticeable with the original performance forces (owing to the difference in tone colour between the instruments) but more prominent when played on one instrument alone. For its freewheeling era (1870), this is an extremely Puritanical arrangement. But Bach’s gorgeous melody really doesn’t need any extra lipstick.

Percy Grainger’s (1882-1961) treatment of John Dowland’s mesmeric and moving Elizabethan lute song “Now, O now, I needs must part” combines the aesthetic approach of Alkan and Siloti. The first verse is unadorned, the second utterly transformed with an intricate late Romantic harmonization redolent with nostalgia and regret. The lyrics are of anonymous authorship, but may well be Dowland’s own:

Now, O now, I needs must part, Parting though I absent mourn. Absence can no joy impart:
Joy once fled cannot return.

While I live I needs must love, Love lives not when Hope is gone. Now at last Despair doth prove, Love divided loveth none.

Grainger himself was fond of singing and playing the piece in his house in White Plains, New York, before he went to bed at night. For me, it has taken on a more personal meaning that I have discussed in more detail in a recent BBC radio broadcast:

The Fantasy on the Irish Air “The Last Rose of Summer” had an equally personal significance for Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Mendelssohn once told Robert Schumann that he “never composed fantasies on popular melodies”, yet the piece we are dealing with here is exactly that. It probably originated around 1827 as an improvisation, and was much revised (Mendelssohn was an almost pathological perfectionist) before its eventual publication in the early 1830s. The tune itself was written by the Irish composer Sir John Stevenson (1761-1833) to a text by his compatriot, Thomas Moore (1779-1852):

Tis the last rose of summer
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone.

Unlike most fantasias on popular tunes of the era, Mendelssohn’s piece quite deliberately eschews virtuoso glitter. It instead presents the Last Rose melody as a slow introduction, followed by a Presto agitato organized in a loose sonata form. A recitative based on fragments of the Last Rose takes the place of a development section, but the tune is largely ignored during the faster music, only briefly to reappear before the long Andante con moto coda. And during the coda itself Mendelssohn seems to have forgotten the tune completely.

But there is more borrowed musical material in the Fantasy. The presto agitato sections are heavily dependent on the first movement of Beethoven’s sonata op. 109. Even the instrumental recitative at the heart of the piece recalls the recitatives from Beethoven’s op. 110 sonata, and a subsequent cadence point harks back to his Fantasy op. 77. Mendelssohn’s coda additionally alludes to Beethoven’s song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved). In fact, the Beethovenian reminiscences are so pervasive that Mendelssohn may well have considered the Fantasy to be a personal tribute to Beethoven, who died (or was “faded and gone”, in the words of the song) in exactly the year – 1827 – that he started work on the piece. This is not just a fantasy on a popular melody, but an undercover musical obituary.

In stark contrast to the Mendelssohn, Percy Grainger’s arrangement of the exquisite “Irish Tune from County Derry” (1911) is exactly what it says on the tin: a fine arrangement of a memorable melody. Later attempts to fit a text to the tune, whether concerning the distant lure of the pipes for “Danny Boy” or the lamentable burial of a now forgotten “Earl Fitzgerald” are not much more than a disappointing distraction. Grainger’s source was the Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (1855). He changed one note to enhance the modal flavour, and then embedded the tune in intensely expressive chords in the style of a chorale. This piece can, as a harmonization, match even the great Bach chorales in its trenchant profundity, although I’m probably not supposed to say this.

Tonally, the Eb major of the Irish Tune links perfectly into the Ab major of Robert Schumann’s (1810-56) song Widmung (Dedication) in the extrovert arrangement by Franz Liszt (1811-86). The romantic relationship between Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck was the catalyst for the composition of the song, which was intended as a wedding present for Clara. The words, by Friedrich Rückert, are exactly what one might expect in the context (“You are my soul, you are my heart!”), the melody is one of the catchiest tunes of the 19th century. Clara herself made a delicately restrained transcription of the song for piano solo. Liszt, unsurprisingly, was less restrained. He was fond of claiming that “a transcription ought to have a certain conjugal fidelity to the original”, but he just as often appeared to follow St Augustine’s famous motto: “O Lord, grant me chastity – but not yet!”.

Accordingly, he couldn’t quite resist adding a second verse in a lower register to Widmung, turning it effectively into a quasi-duet (first verse “soprano”; second verse “tenor”), and composing a new close that transforms the originally wistful ending (with its final allusion to Schubert’s Ave Maria) into an expansively grand peroration. Clara hated Liszt’s version, believing that it tastelessly vulgarised the original. Liszt was completely unrepentant. “Such a melody”, he declared to his students, “has to resound around the concert-hall!” On the principle of “in for a penny, in for a pound”, I’ve extended the closing chords in my performance to produce a slightly more expansive conclusion.

The avalanche of Ab major arpeggios in the Schumann-Liszt Widmung reappear with even greater generosity in Percy Grainger’s “Ramble”, completed in 1922, on the Love-Duet from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Here Grainger produced one of his most detailed and subtle piano scores, featuring extensive use of the middle (sostenuto) pedal, meticulously complex voicing of chords, copious performance-indications, and a preposterous profusion of metronome marks, which almost needless to say are not exactly observed in his own recording. Devoid of the standard Italian annotations (lento, presto, etc.), Grainger’s scores abound in breezily eccentric English directions like “louden lots” (his version of “crescendo”), “lessen lots” and – my personal favourite – “it doesn’t really matter what note you end this passage on”. The delicately ornate Rosenkavalier Ramble was painstakingly worked out over a ten-year period, although its feathery keyboard textures often, ironically, produce the impression of improvisation. To paraphrase Dolly Parton’s celebrated “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap”: it takes a lot of effort to sound so spontaneous.

This type of keyboard writing can also be heard in the second part of Grainger’s Colonial Song (1914), although the first section is clearly indebted to the “Irish Tune from County Derry”, and a few bars even fleetingly allude to Grainger’s popular Handel in the StrandColonial Song is a tribute to Australia, a piece in which Grainger “wished to express feelings aroused by the thoughts of the scenery and people of his native land”. Both the melody and its initial setting are reminiscent not just of folk music, but of the homely style of Stephen Foster’s American songs. Grainger was a great admirer of Foster, and he hoped with Colonial Song to create “a melody as typical of the Australian countryside as Stephen Foster’s exquisite songs are typical of rural America”. There are, however, no lyrics to Grainger’s piece. In an alternative version for voices and instruments, the singers are simply instructed to vocalise on whatever syllables they find convenient – rather like Frank Sinatra’s “doobee-doobee-do” strategy for Strangers in the Night.

I’ve noticed a polarised reception on playing Colonial Song in public. Some love its fervent melodic vigour (as I do), others seem to think it’s atrocious, like a garrulous cocktail-bar improvisation. The latter viewpoint was most amusingly expressed by Sir Thomas Beecham, who wrote to the composer saying, “My dear Grainger, you have achieved the almost impossible! You have written the worst piece of modern times.” I did, as a student, earn much- needed cash by improvising in cocktail bars, so the style remains close to my heart.

Equally over-the-top, although restrained in relation to the Godowsky Metamorphosis that closes the album, is Ignaz Friedman’s setting of Johann Strauß’s Frühlingstimmen (Voices of Spring) Waltz. Like the Godowsky, it can reasonably be considered to be an original work—Strauß himself might have scarcely recognized its more extravagant passages. Friedman (1882-1948), like his fellow Pole Paderewski, was a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest pianists of his era, and not to be underestimated as a creative artist, even if his playing ultimately made more of an impact than his composing. He was also a prolific and imaginative transcriber. Voices of Spring is one of three Strauß Waltz arrangements (the others are O Lovely May and the Treasure Waltz) dedicated respectively to his fellow “famous pianists” Wilhelm Backhaus, Vladimir Horowitz and Benno Moisewitsch. With such a roster of technically gifted dedicatees, Friedman proceeded to rework these waltzes with no virtuoso holds barred. Voices of Spring, however, is not just difficult, but also amusing and witty. Its pianistic prestidigitations raise smiles of enjoyment as much as astonishment. Friedman clearly loved these tunes, and I hope this track is as much of a pleasure to listen to as it was to play.

The following four pieces are of a gentler, more intimate character. Although Elgar is rightly regarded as the greatest British Romantic composer, his own output placed little emphasis on the piano, even if he often composed at the instrument. He nevertheless produced a handful of piano miniatures, none more beguiling than In Smyrna. Originally subtitled “In the Mosque”, it was sketched in 1905 during a cruise around the Aegean, when Elgar did indeed visit Smyrna (modern Izmir) in Turkey. From the evidence of his half-enthusiastic, half-hypochondriac diary, Elgar was intrigued by the colourful life of the town, its bustlingly chaotic marketplace, tiled mosques and mystic dervishes. The languorous sound of the Muezzhin’s call to prayer was transformed into the chromatic central section of In Smyrna, framed by ruminative passages that are no more exotic than the Malvern Hills. The main tune is also more Western than Eastern: very similar to a theme from the Overture In the South, completed the previous year.

The tune is initially played faintly, like a hesitantly remembered idea, under an open-fifth accompaniment of extreme simplicity – suggesting that it may have been first improvised on the ship’s ramshackle piano when less insomniac passengers had retired for the evening. An improvisatory element also appears towards the end of the piece in a passage marked ad lib., which I’ve accordingly extended and adapted a little. Elgar was later to pillage and orchestrate the more exotic measures of In Smyrna for his evocative incidental music to the Crown of India masque. Here, wedded to a text of pitifully patriotic stupidity, they served as a shorthand illustration of “the jewel of the empire”. For Elgar, the musical language of Eastern exoticism was general-purpose. As in Rudyard Kipling’s well-known Barrack-Room Ballad “Mandalay”, it was all just

“Somewhere East of Suez, where the best is like the worse,
Where there aren’t no ten commandments, and a man can raise a thirst.”

The celebrated Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) has both the same key as, and a similar melodic contour to, In Smyrna. I play it here in an elegant and pellucid arrangement by one of my teachers, the late Lawrence Glover. As far as I’m aware, the score has never been published, nor has it previously been recorded on disc, although BBC radio did once, decades ago, broadcast Lawrence’s own performance of the piece. The transparent simplicity of this arrangement is a far cry from Godowsky’s better-known version, in which a host of newly confected chromatics slither around the tune – either intriguingly or irritatingly, according to your taste. Lawrence’s own playing was always sincere, lyrical and dignified. I gratefully dedicate this premiere recording to the memory of a fine musician and much-valued teacher.

Like Ignaz Friedman, Ignaz Paderewski (1860-1941) is now remembered more as a pianist than a composer, although his creative ambitions were wide-ranging (including a once admired opera, Manru). His impact extended both into politics (as a statesman of international renown, and Prime Minister of Poland) and into popular culture. His very name became synonymous with pianistic talent, but was most often used to indicate its absence, as in the well- worn phrase “he’s no Paderewski” (an expression wittily turned against him by Moriz Rosenthal, who when asked what he thought of Paderewski’s playing, would reply “he’s pretty good, but he’s no Paderewski”). The Nocturne is a fairly early (1892) piece of great charm and concision, played frequently by the composer himself during his concert tours, and also recorded by him. Paderewski’s pianism represented the extreme end of the Romantic arpeggiated, asynchronous rubato style (as indeed did the piano playing of his friend Edward Elgar, heard on Five Improvisations set down on disc in 1929). My performances of both composers’ music take this into account.

The pianism of Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was notably more restrained than Paderewski’s, but no less moving. His intensely eloquent transcription of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s (1840-93) Lullaby (originally from a set of six Romances for voice and piano) is his last published composition. Tchaikovsky made his own solo piano arrangement of the piece, but Rachmaninov’s version is deeply imbued with his personal creative identity. There is, despite this, no aesthetic dissonance, clearly because Rachmaninov’s own style was so strongly influenced by Tchaikovsky in the first place.

The opposite is true for Leopold Godowsky’s (1870-1938) Symphonic Metamorphosis on Johann Strauss’s Artist’s Life (Künstlerleben) Waltz, which is unlikely to be mistaken by anybody for unadulterated Strauß. The over-the-top tendencies of Friedman’s Voices of Spring are taken to their ne plus ultra here. Strauß’s simple waltz themes are given elaborate new harmonisations, twisted, turned and combined in textures of bewildering contrapuntal complexity (“symphonic” both in ambition, and in the sense of “played together”). Hyperbole is here raised to an artistic creed. From some perspectives, no doubt, it may be somewhat tasteless, but it’s undeniably a lot of fun. Prepare to be both shaken and stirred.”
Notes by Kenneth Hamilton