Genius, actually

My favourite portrait of Beethoven, by Josef Stieler, in a private collection

No-one is absolutely certain of his date of birth. It was in 1770, and the first record of his existence was his baptism in Bonn. That was on 17th December, and all we know is that he was born before that, possibly the day before. Given general piety and infant mortality, there was none of that 21st century hanging around before getting baptised. It was a practical business, more than a social event.

So this year is Beethoven’s 250th birthday year – cue an explosion of commercial activity, which if it brings new listeners to the great man’s portfolio, all well and good.

It was Robert Schumann, a great composer, who in a review (his other job) of Chopin’s (another great composer) Variation’s on Mozart’s (another great composer) La Ci Darem La Mano, declared ”Hats off, gentlemen, a genius”. Well, probably. In fact all three deserve to be called a genius perhaps. But none of them compare to Beethoven.

Everyone knows at least a bit of Beethoven, starting with the opening of the 5th Symphony of course, but what would constitute the archetypal, unmistakable Beethoven? The thorny, melodic, delicate, brutal, assured, architectural, emotional and thrillingly original master.

Well, again, quite a few pieces. There are no duds. However, I’ll go ultimately with Op 106, the Hammerklavier. I wrote about this seven years ago, and I still think it reads well enough. My reason for tackling the Hammerklavier is in that piece – I was intrigued by the reference to it in Colin Wilson’s The Outsider:

There is a premonition of such a faculty in Van Gogh’s Green Cornfield and Road with Cypresses; there is a premonition in the last movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, as well as certain canvasses of Gaugin, and page after page of Also Sprach Zarathustra. The Outsider believes that he can establish such a way of seeing permanently in himself. But how?

Indeed. What on earth was in that last movement? Beethoven was pretty much deaf by 1814. He would live another thirteen years. The Hammerklavier was published in 1818. He was totally deaf when he wrote it. When you listen it seems unbelievable that this was the case. How did he perceive it? The long slow movement, the best metaphor for which is an icy lake at night, feels like it reflects his isolation and likely despair. That’s always been my impression, but how to summarise the entirety of this initially impenetrable, gigantic and forbidding creation?

Well my efforts are somewhat puny. I pass you over to someone who would have a plausible claim to the title that used to crop up in the Sunday supplements, The Cleverest Man in London, were he not so modest. Polymath Jonathan Gaisman is a QC with a remarkable range of interests, and a regular contributor to the now changed Standpoint magazine. Here is his truly essential piece from 2018 on the Hammerklavier:

My first recording of it was by Emil Gilels, followed swiftly by the Chilean master, Claudio Arrau. Gilels had the measure of it, but I felt rebuffed by his long austere adagio, Arrau was more humane. The sonata arouses such feelings all the time. One thing is for sure – you have to be technically brilliant, there are no hiding places. The final fugue must sound almost impossible, without compromising pace and vitality. Here is the reliable Jed Distler’s review of your options from the most recent Gramophone magazine. It’s a terrific discussion:

Interesting conclusions. I have Bax on my list now. I already have 40 odd recordings on CD and LP. Pollini was my preferred choice for a long time, but it changes.

Beethoven however is not just found in works like this, which is just as well. In this year there will be mountains of articles added to the already enormous literature on the man, and in the non-technical category, I can do no better than to point you to fellow pianist Damian Thompson’s most recent Spectator piece:

Finally, YouTube has a huge library of classical music now. Slightly to my surprise, I was highly impressed by Valentina Lisitsa’s beautifully filmed and recorded version of this piece. Watch as well as listen, and you’ll see what a superhuman feat it was to write – and play.

We live in an era where the word ‘genius’ has been so trashed by applying it to any old hack that we have almost lost the comprehension of its true expression. Well let the great man recalibrate us all in his anniversary year…

”Hats off, gentlemen, a genius”



Katsaris ~Cziffra redux!


This is one is for classical piano geeks, and hopefully others too. If that conjures up an image of wimpy aesthetes, think again. As a veteran of the punk era and most other genres in music, including the extremes of free jazz, let me assure you that the classical piano literature has some of the most exciting, edgy, gripping and downright pleasurable musical experiences known to man.

But… of the problems is that such is the level of virtuosity and technical accomplishment with certain musicians, for example the legendary and still prolific Marc-Andre Hamelin, it’s not unusual to paradoxically lose the sense of struggle and tension that should make the experience so compelling. In a related genre, compare Nathan Milstein’s extraordinary take on JS Bach’s peerless Chaconne for solo violin, with that of the routinely lauded Itzhak Perlman:  Milstein runs the entire gamut of emotions, Perlman verges on elevator music. Both are technically perfect, but one leaves me almost cold. With Hamelin, his Schumann Symphonic Etudes are great, wonderful if that’s your first exposure. But compared to Pollini? It’s not even close. Same with his Albeniz Iberia – the horrendously difficult made almost glib. Close, but no cigar.

All of which is a roundabout way of coming to the point that some artists never seem to suffer from this problem of incipient blandness**. Vladimir Horowitz, Denis Matsuev **** and Glenn Gould spring to mind among the big names, and so does the remarkable Cyprien Katsaris.

Katsaris is an all round talent, with an international career, and a polyglot French- Greek Cypriot heritage. I’ve never heard a dull recording from him. His repertoire is vast, exploring some of the most arcane nooks and crannies – though curiously very little Beethoven, on record at least. His piano transcription recordings are sensational, and he’s a composer/improviser to boot.

Which brings me to a bit of a revelation. Most modern composers and new piano pieces are what you’d politely call an acquired taste. I quite like Michael Finnissy for example, or a Pollini take on Webern, perhaps. But I have to sample in smallish doses, more like musical palate cleansing. That said, there is a steady trickle, every few years I’d say, of truly great new piano pieces, of a more tonal/classical kind. I wrote here about the obscure yet brilliant Hatikvah Variations by an amateur pianist (and jeweller), James Raphael. There are now quite a few versions of Rzewski‘s sensational variations piece The People United Will Never be Defeated!, in which Hamelin, as it happens, is stellar. The Japanese have an interesting sideline in the modern transcription for piano, that works amazingly well – try the wonderful Yui Morishita here in Die Gewehrbrecher Fantasie, quite magnificent. Liszt would be delighted.

Variation form is timeless and pretty much always works, so does one of my other favourites – the often derided piano transcription. Liszt and the routinely underrated Thalberg were the giants of the form, then along comes Katsaris. Like the other two, he takes catchy but perhaps banal tunes from someone else, and transforms them. The 19th century paradigm was a chunk of someone’s opera. Liszt’s amazing Reminiscences de Norma, as a classic example. Katsaris does it with film music, basically an update on the same practice, and in his case, it’s Zorba the Greek. Yes, that Zorba the Greek.

Actually, film composition is probably what a lot of the great composers of yore would be doing now, I’m pretty sure, and Zorba’s soundtrack is by a remarkable musician, the Paris Conservatoire trained political activist, Mikis Theodorakis. Quite a life story, and still with us at 94. He is a friend of Katsaris, and with a background in both classical pieces and songwriting, has a remarkable gift for an original melody. The ‘hooks’ one associates with the great composers, sadly absent through neglect or lack of inspiration in much of the 20th century canon, seem to come easily to Theodorakis***.

The upshot of all this is that with the original composer’s blessing, Katsaris has written, performed and thankfully recorded (in 2017) a massive (53 minutes) epic fantaisie/transcription entitled Grande Fantaisie sur Zorba – une Rhapsodie Grecque. If like me, you see a title like that and have high hopes that it will be up there with pieces like Thalberg’s La Sonnambula, Liszt’s Danse Macabre, or even (given its length) Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano, you can breathe easy.

It is.

It begins like Busoni, and has the same overarching ‘diamond’ shape of the Liszt Sonata. In between it has everything, and the furious middle section reminiscent of a tarantella gone free jazz is simply stunning. Utterly brilliant. It teems with those hooks, with pathos, drama and pure musicality, and Katsaris’ extraordinary technique is rock solid. In particular his rhythmic precision is sublimely thrilling when it gets angry.

Why it isn’t better known yet is a mystery. It is a huge achievement, a serious contribution to the usually arid desert that is the modern classical piano literature. I’ve not seen it reviewed in Gramophone, yet I’d be amazed if their go to guy in this area, Jeremy Nicholas, wasn’t as awed and thrilled by it as I am. In fact, as of right now, I can’t find a single independent review of it online, including Amazon.

Here is Katsaris, le Cziffra de nos jours talking about the piece, with his customary charm (and it’s no surprise that he cites the legendary Hungarian as his idol). And the following video is the whole work. The sound on YouTube is OK, but is a shadow of the magnificence of the CD – it needs to be played loud (the download is OK too). If you want a flavour of what I mean, try from about 27m30s, but I really don’t want to detract from the brilliance of the whole work. It is stunning. Hamelin and the others really should all try their hand at it, but the composer has set a very high bar indeed. In years to come this will be regarded as a true classic, and rightly so.

Σας ευχαριστώ ο μαέστρος Κατσαρής!!


**you don’t have to be a big name to meet this exalted standard. Try Harout Senekeramian’s brilliant version of, by coincidence, Hamelin’s Etude no 4, d’apres Alkan.

***there’s a taste of Theodorakis’ original piano pieces on the rest of Katsaris’ CD. It is superb.

**** it’s no surprise that Horowitz, Cziffra,  Matsuev and Katsaris have an affinity for jazz as well

Random Lists (4): possibly underappreciated piano concertos

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…it’s got out of hand

When I first heard Beethoven’s 5th (Emperor) piano concerto, I was completely bowled over. I played it umpteen times. That was a radio recording of Julius Katchen with Pierino Gamba conducting a Swiss orchestra. It was awesome rhythmically, the timing, the joie de vivre in the big tunes, the interplay etc etc. Pretty much perfect, it seemed.

Now I can hear it straight through without noticing any of that, whoever is playing. I would love to rediscover that feeling, but I’ve heard it too often. Not many pieces can survive that sort of exposure (though Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano and Gene Clark’s No Other, as well as a few more, do it for me).

But the piano concerto is a unique invention, there is no better orchestra/solo construct, and there are lots of them about. The usual lists (1, 2) contain the usual suspects though (though here’s an alternative), so here are some that may not have grabbed your attention. They should

1. Mozart no 23 (K488)

It might seem a bit of a cheat for this list, but numbers 20, 21, 27 all get more publicity, and yet this piece is just about perfect. I particularly commend the two DG recordings from Pollini and Horowitz. Just wonderful. And I think that a lot of Mozart is just excessively sweet elevator music that rots your teeth.

2. Busoni

This sat unplayed on my shelves for years, then I tried John Ogdon’s typically human recording in the car, and I was hooked. The famed Alex Ross summarises it perfectly, and also offers the ne plus ultra of this stuff, Marc-Andre Hamelin, giving his views on it. The All’Italia theme keeps cropping up with Busoni, and it is fantastic in the concerto, both the piano part and the wild orchestra (from 46 to 57 minutes in the film below). If you want a genuine bargain, try this, but the best all rounder – as Alex Ross says – is probably staid-looking firebrand Peter Donohoe and Mark Elder, live (though it’s hard to get).

3. Beethoven no 1 

Actually, I now find Beethoven’s first three piano concertos more appealing to listen to than the last two, which is the inverse of most opinions. There are lots of CD’s about with numbers 1 and 2 paired up, and they are just beautiful. They are both very linear, relatively simple and very catchy – particularly in the finales. They’re still genre-busters though, this is nothing like Haydn. My ‘go to’ recording is, no surprise, Pollini with Abbado, but Ashkenazy conducting and playing with the Cleveland Orchestra is just as good really. I hate the overuse of the word genius, but Beethoven was one. No tooth decay here.


Short list though. They don’t all have to be 5, 10 whatever. Probably should’ve added Medtner no 2


Beethoven at the Guggenheim

Boccioni at MoMA: Dynamism of a Soccer Player (the painting), and Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (the bronze). Both 1913. These Futurists…

When visiting the splendid museums and galleries of New York, it becomes pretty obvious that we much of what has been casually labelled ‘modern’ art – such as in the hugely popular MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, of course) and the Whitney – is in fact not very modern at all. Iconic he may be, but the somewhat limited Warhol’s screenprints have the air of musty history about them. Edward Hopper is great, but he’s redolent of the era when my dad was still at school. Picasso too, even the wackily named Futurists, much as I like them, are from more than 100 years ago. There are lots of similar examples.

Go to the Guggenheim, and if you’re unlucky, you’ll find that the best thing on display is the enduring brilliance of the building itself, given the vagaries of contemporary art. Getting an exhibition in the Guggenheim is a meal ticket for any artist, but perhaps only 50% on a good day is actually any good (I know it’s subjective, and that’s my take on it). What it is though, is modern. Even the crap stuff usually has a freshness that has its own beguilement.

Which brings me to Beethoven.

Stravinsky – referring to a specific piece, the Grosse Fugue for string quartet, op 133 – famously described his work as ‘contemporary forever’. That work was described by an 1826 critic as “incomprehensible, like Chinese” and “a confusion of Babel”, and I would add that it is indeed an ear splitting gem of furious dissonance and angst – which sounds rather 21st century as a description , I suppose.  It was written in 1825. If you’re a piano geek, you may know that the biggest, most brutal, most intense and most impenetrable of all the 32 piano sonatas is the Hammerklavier, from 1818. It has a lot in common with the quartet 7 years later. The Hammerklavier is opus 106. I have heard probably 30 or more different versions of it over the last three decades, and I still haven’t fully fathomed it. Far from it (this marvellous review is very insightful). Like the Grosse Fuge, it is absolutely, resolutely contemporary. It knocks modern classical piano compositions out of the park. It is more far reaching or ‘daring’ than any 20th or 21st century piece.

Which is why I was intrigued to find opus 107, an obvious next step that I’d never really considered before. It couldn’t have a more twee 19th century title: Ten National Airs with Variations for Flute and Piano, the national airs being folk songs from Scotland, Ukraine, Austria, Ireland and Wales. Beethoven sanctioned a piano solo version, sacrificing the flute. My copy is played by the slightly maverick Finn, Olli Mustonen. He always seems to apply great dexterity and precision, but with a slightly spiky quality. You can hear the spaces between the notes. A lot of the critics don’t like this applied to Beethoven, but given the points I’ve made about Beethoven being anything but trapped in the 19th century style, I reckon it works. The spaces around the musical line remind me a bit of the Second Viennese School, though Beethoven is reliably tonal. In any event, hear how he takes likeable jaunty folk tunes and turns them inside out. It’s far from the Hammerklavier (though it’s nearly the same length at 41 minutes) and the Grosse Fuge, but it’s still, well, contemporary. See what you think.

Alkan – Concerto for Solo Piano, the best recording


Reader advisory note: This one is for piano geeks, strictly speaking, and possibly only a select, but highly discerning group of them.

There used to be only two or three easily available recordings of this, the most gargantuan, brilliant and extraordinary piece in the Romantic piano literature. These days, relatively speaking, there are lots of them. The piece is so hard to get right though, that a number of them might be fairly described as feats of technical endurance, rather than providing the listener with the rare reward of a performance loaded with the essential brio, speed, rhythmic accuracy, and Alkanian elan.

Back in 2007, the magazine International Piano used its regular ‘best recording’  feature to focus on Alkan’s Concerto, in a piece by John Kersey. Kersey is an unusual fellow. Not only is he a genuinely accomplished pianist (with a pretty good disc of Alkan rarities under his belt), he also has another life as “eighth elected Prince-Abbot of the religious and chivalric foundation of San Luigi, the sixth Mukungu of San Luigi in the Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara, and Primate of the Apostolic Episcopal Church”, which is as far as I can determine, an eccentric offshoot of Anglicanism. In addition he’s President, Director of Academic Affairs and David Hume Interdisciplinary Professor at European-American University (EAU). Normally I would be a bit suspicious of this collection of unusual titles, but the fact is, Kersey is a knowledgeable and discriminating musician who writes beautifully and with a hard focus on what matters in performance.

So here are the scans of Kersey’s piece, just click on them to expand, they can be saved as images.


Since then there have been new recordings from Vincenzo Maltempo, a second version from Stephanie McCallum, Stefan Lindgren, and various pieces on YouTube. All worthy, but none of them usurping the recordings summarised in the 2007 review. What I like about Kersey, is that while he pays the traditional and appropriate homage to Marc-Andre Hamelin (whose earlier version is his best, in my view), he very shrewdly identifies the qualities in Mark Latimer‘s raging and highwire performance which most other reviewers hopelessly failed on, for example the normally admirable Jed Distler. Latimer is a fascinating musician. He plays jazz, pretty well on record, brilliantly live, and he’s involved in all sorts of other artistic ventures. He’s a very modest and engaging man, but in a tragic twist his pianism has been badly affected by Dupuytren’s disease – no laughing matter.

Hamelin is Canadian, but Latimer aside, the two other finest performances are also by Brits, Jack Gibbons and John Ogdon (friend and mentor to Latimer). Ronald Smith, a quintessential Englishman, may not be particularly competitive in this company, but he gets the credit for repopularising Alkan, and also writing the highly readable and definitive book on our hero. Strange how the avowedly Parisian recluse Alkan has no French champions of note. A final point, even if you don’t read music as such, buy the (bargain) score and follow it with basic pattern recognition, it’s genuinely revelatory.

 If you’re already an afficionado, I hope you enjoy the review. If not, get the Gibbons CD and marvel.


From Beethoven to Gunbuster

A few posts ago I followed up a theme of Damian Thompson’s, namely where is the good or great modern classical music? I don’t subscribe to the cliche that it’s all atonal rubbish or syrupy choral stuff, but there’s still a lot of both. We are not in an era comparable with Beethoven et al, fair enough, but nor are we in an era comparable with Rachmaninov and other 20th century greats. We’re not even close.

Anyway, my nomination was a piece called The Hatikvah Variations (we’re talking about piano here), by James Raphael, which is magnificent, and right up there with other great Romantic piano masterpieces. Then to my surprise, along comes another.

Japanese culture, where it meets Western styles, is remarkably open minded. They loved atonal screeching experimental period John Coltrane when nearly everyone else hated it, they made 70’s British hard rock bands very rich, they even lap up rockabilly. However, some of the homegrown stuff is a little outre. Violent manga and anime are par for the course, and the 21st century curse of electronic lifestyles is producing some pretty odd results with hikkomori.

Anime is massive in the Far East, and to a degree over here. The plots are a bit childish at first glance, but one of the older ones, Gunbuster, is hugely popular (a sort of outer space Top Gun, with evil space monsters), and regarded as fairly tear jerking, surprisingly, with a memorable soundtrack.

So, East meets West. Here is Yui Morishita playing what seems to be a technically demanding Romantic era piano sonata-fantasy replete with big tunes. If it wasn’t called in its endearingly naive way, The Gunbuster Fantasy, but rather, if you chose German, Die Gewehrbrecher Fantasie, it could easily be a concert standard. I think it’s superb.

..and Morishita is a terrific pianist, with a great gift for a Knife obsession, Alkan. He doesn’t appear to have made any CD’s (that I’ve found), but he has the true virtuoso spirit. Here he is aceing Alkan’s rarely heard and extremely demanding Scherzo Focoso. Bravo.

James Raphael and the Hatikvah Variations

I suppose you could have too many Beethoven sonata sets. Possibly
I suppose you could have too many Beethoven sonata sets. Possibly

Classical piano fans, a group which includes myself, have loads of favourites, prejudices, quirky tastes and so forth. For example, I can’t be bothered with critics’ darlings like Paul Lewis, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Richard Goode and others. I love Glenn Gould (reviled in numerous editions of the Penguin guide), I like Lang Lang and the way he upsets the self-appointed cognoscenti, I find the mighty Maurizio Pollini anything but cold, hard and austere. We can probably all agree on one thing – Sviatoslav Richter was a genius.

The trouble is that both in the music industry as a whole, and in our prized CD (and record) collections, much of it revolves around different artists performing the same repertoire. Really brilliant new works are rare as anything, and most recent works require you to have a distant relationship with melody, and a taste for atonality and chromaticism. This has been going on for the best part of the last 70 years.

So along comes the occasionally acerbic and highly knowledgeable Damian Thompson with a surprising recommendation: Michael Finnissy’s ‘History of Photography in Sound’, a recentish British composition, all five and a half hours of it. Finnissy is indeed a difficult listen, but worth a try – see also his Concerti for Piano Solo.

Thompson’s piece is well worth reading, and raises the question: what is there coming up, outwith the usual diet of Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Schumann etc – all wonderful, but even with Beethoven you sometimes need a break. The Knife is a bit of an Alkan obsessive, but even though he’s regarded as a little bit left field, it was all written well over a hundred years ago, and there’s been an upsurge in new recordings, he’s no longer hard to find. So what else is new?

Well, a couple of years ago in Edinburgh I was browsing the bargain bin in one of the few remaining classical CD shops, McAlister Matheson, and came across a piano CD with a cheesy cover by a guy called James Raphael. The immediate attraction was that he’d recorded stuff by Nino Rota, based on the Godfather theme no less, and excellent it is. The eye opener though was a magnificent piece by Raphael himself, a theme and variations on the Israeli national anthem, Ha-Tikva (‘The Hope’). If you appreciate piano variations, from the Goldbergs to Rzewski via the Festin d’Aesop, then this is definitely the business.

Raphael is something of a maverick. A wealthy jeweller, he competed in the Van Cliburn competition, and performed for Golda Meir, at the Vatican and similar prestigious stuff, whilst remaining an amateur. This posting tells you all you need to know about the work, and about Raphael. The problem is getting to hear it. There’s some Raphael on YouTube from the Cliburn competition, but Hatikvah isn’t there, though it’s usually somewhere on Amazon.

So, to promote a terrific pianist, and as it turns out, composer, with something new, brilliant and tonal, here, via SoundCloud, are James Raphael’s Hatikvah Variations.