Maria João Pires

I wandered through the countryside of Portugal the other day and happened to pass the farm of famous pianist Maria João Pires. Attracted by the sound of piano music, I slipped in through the back door. Le beau hasard. I could listen and watch while she was giving a master class. As I entered, she was just talking about what should drive a pianist, is it his brain or his body?

A big blond lad is playing a staccato when Maria stops him, saying: ‘What do you feel? Feel it with your body, not  (tapping her forehead) with your head – do not hear what I am saying, I’m not talking to you, I don’t exist, you are, you are feeling now, I’m just helping you to feel something – feel it with all your being’. Then she whispers: ‘go go go’. The student plays. She stops him again and says: ’Who is saying that ? You…? Really?’  The student: ‘My brain, my sense of style when I have to play staccato’. Maria: ‘Not good’. A while later, we hear him say that playing should be about ‘giving space’. Maria: ‘Good! The space is given by time. Time…no time … all the world is mine, I don’t have to do, I just feel’.

The Brazilian pianist Caio Pagano  then quotes Mahler: ‘the score is everything you need to know about the music – except the essential’.

Listen to this most interesting fragment of the great documentary : ‘Imagine… being a concert pianist’ of the BBC:

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Liszt, mind and body


Is memory located in the brain alone? I wonder. I believe that memory is located in all our body cells. One hears, sees, smells messages with one’s body. These messages are transmitted to the central processing centre, the brain, and then returned to the body cells for storage.

The other day I listened for more than two hours to Boris Berezowsky playing Liszt , at the end of which he played the Sonata in B minor. ‘Amazing’, said my wife, ‘no music score, he has all that music in his head.’ I shook mine.

Through listening and watching, I was actually feeling the music. And I was unable to believe that this enormous amount of highly complicated music, this torrent of notes, in all its nuances  and variations in intensity, could be driven directly, in real time, just by the brain of the pianist. There cannot be sufficient time for such refined data traffic, I thought. Liszt’s music was already stored in Berezowsky’s body, arms, legs, hands, fingers and fingertips, legs and feet and erupted in an uninterrupted flow of feeling. Boris put our souls in immediate touch with that of Liszt at the very moment he heard the music in his head and wrote it down. Despite imperfections like Liszt’s musical notation and 150 years of intervening successive piano lessons and interpretations, we were in immediate touch with Liszt. Spell-bound, we were everywhere in time and place. All souls collectively. Liszt not dead anymore, but alive and well.

During the ovational applause, the Russian came back with a small sheet of paper which he put on the grand piano, for an encore. He said: “This little romance I do not yet know by heart, but I am going to play it for you from the heart.’

While studying a sonata, it enters into the brain for processing while one is practicing. An interactive process between brains, feeling, body and fingers. In that way you make the composition your own, as it enters your whole body, your cells, your heart. Finally, it is engraved in your cells.Your soul, your self, that is to say ALL your cells collectively, brain cells included. Think of all the near-death experiences documented so well recently, all over the world, and so convincingly, too. The body takes over while the brain is out of action.

Liszt also composed a sonata called ‘Après une lecture de Dante’ (after a reading of Dante). Sixteen minutes which changed my personal views about neurology. I was present in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw when Arcadi Volodis played this sonata. Also a Russian. In the beginning, we had glimpses of Dante’s Heaven. Then,  his Purgatory and Hell filled the grand hall to its roof in the form of violent thunderstorms. Towards the end  of the sonata the public underwent the heavy weather bodily, with all organs participating. It felt as if all 2000 of us were one mind and body.

Volodos played the same programme in the Musikverein in Vienna. Fortunately, Sony recorded it on CD and DVD. Please take a time-out of 17 minutes and undergo this sonata fantasia. I hope that it will make you think about the location of our memory.

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Clark Terry, a born raconteur

As in literature, the essence of music is a good story. No matter if it is Prokofiev’s “Love for three Oranges’ or a Beethoven sonata or the blues, which invariably starts with something like: ‘early one monday morning, he rang me on the te-le-phone’.

Only a good story reaches your heart. If told well. A top singer in jazz or classical music often looks for one face in the crowd and imagines that he is or she sings for that person only.

Luckily, I am not more than two or three handshakes away from the musical great. On average, that is. It is with Clark Terry that I have been the most intimate. Around 1990, he performed in an old jazz café in Amsterdam. Dressed in white on white in white, as Lou Rawls would say. I had taken along some of his records, just in case. During an interval I saw him disappear into the gents. My luck. I made for the toilets as well. Side by side, we took care of our business against a white tiled wall and talked. We washed our hands and talked. Then he signed my records. Classy autograph, with a small trumpet inside. Then we shook hands. Good for my average.

Look and listen how Clark Terry tells a story. With trumpet or without. Just before the end of the short clip (1:54), the accompaniment stops and Clark carries on.

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Fiona Monbet is a Cat

In the 1960s, Miles Davis said: ‘They stole our music.’ How right he was from his point of view. The advent of the Stones, the Beatles and the like had put most jazz musicians almost out of work. Since then, much has changed. Blues, jazz and all their musical descendants, have conquered the world. Many forms of popular music with afro-american jazz roots have become so widespread across cultures that, I imagine, this has become a source of pride for all Afro-Americans. They should be proud indeed. Their contribution to the world is immense.

One of the grandchildren of jazz and swing is gypsy jazz, Manouche. One of its fathers was Django Reinhardt. It does not pretend to be afro-american jazz, it is a variant of european jazz. It could be looked upon by afro-americans the way a grandfather looks at his beloved grandchild of mixed race: with pride. In France, jazz styles of the past, like dixieland and gypsy jazz still draw crowds of youngsters. Jazz festivals like that of Marciac in France attract the children and grandchildren of those who followed Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Claude Luter and Stéphane Grappelli in the fifties and sixties.

France’s best jazz violinist of the day is Didier Lockwood. In the summer of 2008, during a concert in Marciac, he introduced his 17 years old pupil, Fiona Monbet, a woman of Irish-French descent. Listen and look how she plays a solo and then, after  a rythm chorus, goes into battle with her teacher. Keep Fiona in view, she is a talented cat. She plays Irish music as well.

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Prokofiev’s Toccata: shinkansen or horse and cart?

A Toccata is a short piece of fast music requiring a high level of virtuosity of the player. Most toccatas have been written for piano, organ and violin. Bach, Schumann, Liszt , Prokofiev and others wrote toccata’s. Most pianists have some toccata’s on their repertoire, if only to show off. But not all. Sviatoslav Richter, for example, liked to play very difficult sonatas, like those by Prokofiev, but he never played anyone’s toccata’s. Not even Prokofiev’s, a real showpiece for some.  It was one of Sergei’s first compositions, Opus 11, dating from 1912 when he was 21 years old.

Nowadays, young pianists consider its interpretations by Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989) and Martha Argerich (1941) as the standard. Hurtling express trains. Martha had listened carefully to Vladimir’s version when she recorded the piece at the age of 19. The two renditions are very similar and both clock 4 minutes and 41 seconds.

Prokofiev himself recorded his toccata  around 1919, on pianoroll. Surprise. No hurtling train, but a horse and carriage on a sandy lane. Holes, bumps, ho, shoo, easy. By the end, the carriage rattles down a gentle slope and comes to a standstill with a jolt. What an exciting and adventurous rendition! Some critics say that Prokofiev was not a top pianist. Poppycock. He toured Europe and the U.S.A with his own piano concertos with great success. Others assert that the pianoroll recording is not perfect. I do not think so. Piano rolls and pianola’s were precision instruments.

It is therefore interesting to note that one of the greatest pianists of the past has played this toccata more like Prokofiev. That pianist was Emil Gilels.

Listen to Proko’s Toccata now. First by Horowitz en Argerich, the one followed by the other.

Then by Prokofiev on pianoroll.

Then by Gilels, and compare them all.

As an extra, I add ‘Sergei Sergeyvich plays Sergei Vasilievich’, on pianoroll, 1919. It is Prokofiev’s rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-minor. Watch the pianola and pianoroll as the Prelude is being played. Amazing.

PS Jazz pianists have their toccata’s, too. Like the A-train by Duke Ellington. To be found on You-Tube, by Michel Petrucciani ( shinkansen ) and by Duke Ellington himself ( horse and carriage ). Great composers have nothing to prove. Not a bad word about Michel, though. I am one of his fervent admirers.

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