This morning I went to hear Daniil Trifonov’s piano recital at the Edinburgh Festival. Normally wild horses wouldn’t drag me to hear all twelve of Liszt’s ‘Transcendental Studies’. With very few exceptions, I’ve always found them musically rather dull, and can never imagine why anyone would feel motivated enough to learn the torrents of arpeggios, double octaves, chromatic thirds, enormous leaps and every other kind of technical challenge with which Liszt spins out his rather slow melodies. It often seems to me that when you’ve heard one such piece, you’ve heard them all. The same tricks are used in piece after piece.
Nevertheless, it was tremendous fun and an unusual treat to hear the 23-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov conquering these pieces in a performance of unbelievable stamina combined with precision and delicacy. The whole second half of the concert was devoted to the twelve Transcendental Studies, played in a single span without more than a few seconds’ break in between the pieces. Trifonov has wonderful hands and superb control, but he also has terrific energy and power, a surprising combination in so slight a figure. It was easy to imagine that Liszt himself must have looked and sounded something like that at the period of his life when he was obsessed by Paganini’s violin playing and resolved to produce something of equivalent technical bravura and theatrical effect on the piano.
I can’t say I found Liszt’s music any deeper than I did before, but my goodness, if these pieces are to be performed live, Trifonov is the man to do it. Even if I could have managed a single one of them I feel sure I would have been red in the face with effort. Trifonov, on the contrary, seemed to look paler and more determined as the concert progressed, and at the end his pallor and composure made him seem quite otherworldly.
This morning I listened to a longish discussion on Radio 4′s ‘Today’ programme about the technique of singing with a microphone. Many singers today use headsets rather than microphones when they perform, because headsets allow them to have their hands free. To my astonishment, the technique of holding a microphone and singing into it was described as ‘a lost art’.
The discussion didn’t even mention the ‘art’ which seems to me much more in danger of being ‘lost’: that of singing without a microphone at all. Everyone seemed to take it for granted that some kind of amplification has to be used. The question was merely whether the microphone should be held in the hand or located on a headset. It was as if the pre-amplification era had already been forgotten.
Of course the use of microphones is relatively recent, compared with the very long period over which singers have worked hard to learn how to project their voices across large auditoriums. There is a big difference between the sound of someone who has trained their voice to project, and the sound of someone who relies entirely on amplification. In fact, when microphones are used, there is often a mismatch between the style of singing and the decibel level of the amplification. To me there is something slightly ridiculous about a singer who is clearly making no effort to project their voice, and yet whose amplified voice is blasting off the walls of the venue. When you see a singer making an effort to produce a large sound, the effect is completely different and much more emotionally convincing. You understand the relationship between effort and result. A large sound with no effort is just a trick.
I understand that a microphone could be used to enhance a singer’s technique, but I must say I rarely see it used in that way. Usually it just seems to be used to supply an illusion of power which the singer themselves cannot supply. This worship of the microphone must be very frustrating for classically-trained singers who have actually spent years of their lives learning to project their voice with the power of their lungs alone.
The other day the Guardian published a front-page article about the startling number of people of all ages who suffer from mental health problems, such as depression, without receiving any treatment. It was suggested that the cost of drug treatments and cognitive therapies, as well as a lack of trained counsellors in certain parts of the country, were factors in why too few sufferers manage to get sufficient help. Even when help is available in the form of medication or talking therapy, some people suffering from depression find that these treatments do not work for them.
The Guardian online letters page has many replies and comments, including one from me reminding people of the power of music, and particularly of music-making, to combat depression.
I wrote recently about the piano duets played every night at piano camp in France – not just two people at one piano, but sometimes three people at one piano, or four people at two pianos. Famous works of music arranged for multiple hands, with one or two piano keyboards being used to their utmost, and players forced into intriguing proximity.
After all this many-players-at-one-instrument music, I had the opposite experience this week, of seeing one person playing two instruments at once. In this case they were a piano and a bandoneon, the South American concertina which accompanies tango music. Normally the bandoneon requires two hands to play, but the delightfully poker-faced Finnish musician Mikko Helenius – playing with Argentinian singer Martin Alvarado at the Edinburgh Fringe – had found a way to sit at the grand piano, wedging the bandoneon against his right knee such that he could play the piano with his left hand and the bandoneon with his right. Helenius played an unusual solo version of Astor Piazzolla’s beautiful slow piece ‘Oblivion’, the melody on the bandoneon and the rippling harmonies on the piano – quite a feat of co-ordination.
Billy Mayerl, the pianist-composer who was hugely popular in the 1920s and 30s, used to do a music-hall ‘turn’ where he played two pianos at once. Before the advent of YouTube clips, I had always imagined that this must be done by placing the two piano keyboards in a V shape with the pianist sitting in the angle of the V, so as to bring the two instruments as close together as possible. But I learned recently from this clip that Billy had made it even more difficult for himself by having the two piano keyboards face one another, forcing himself to play with hands outstretched to each side. He precedes this portion of the performance by saying chirpily, ‘And here’s a glimpse into the future’. I’m still trying to work out what he meant by that!
I’ve spent the past week teaching a piano course in the south of France. Stormy weather accompanied our music-making, and the temperatures were unseasonally low, though we were sometimes grateful that cooler weather made it easier to work.
My class of pianists was a very interesting group to teach. All of them have demanding day jobs, but have managed to keep piano playing as a serious hobby, if ‘hobby’ is not too light a word for an activity which clearly means so much to many of them. Despite being short of time to practise, they all contrive to make time for the piano, and indeed claimed that playing the piano brings essential balance to their lives. They get up early to play, stay up late, and have sometimes managed to have pianos delivered to unusual and far-flung workplaces so that they can continue to play in the lull between meetings or other exciting events. Many of them devote some holiday time to attending piano courses. We had some interesting discussions about the best way to practise if you are ‘time-poor’, as many of them are.
Participants had brought libraries of music for piano duet (four hands at one piano) or piano duo (four hands at two pianos) and even more – six hands, eight hands and so on. These duets were played late into the night. We were reminded that back in the nineteenth century, before the age of recording, transcriptions of orchestral or chamber works for piano duet were a standard way of getting to know this music. Many music-lovers only knew these works as piano duets, as opportunities to hear a live orchestral concert may have been rare in their home town. In fact, I had brought along an old 19th-century edition of some Schumann solo piano music, and when I got it out during the week to practise it for a concert, I noticed for the first time that the title page described it as a work ‘for two hands at the piano’. The fact that a publisher thought it worth stating that only two hands were involved seemed to indicate that it was very common back then to buy piano music for multiple players. These days, no publisher would think it necessary to state that a new piano piece was for two hands.
It is always a pleasure to teach people so highly motivated. They are hungry for information, and they know how to deal with it when they get it. You can see appreciable change during the week. And when things go well for them in performance, their success is greeted with genuine and uncomplicated enthusiasm by the rest of the group. I remarked on this, and was told that I was not the first visiting tutor to comment on how different this is from some professional scenarios.