For the love of singing: the “magic machine”, an infinite palette of colours, and the piano that can sing in so many different ways


During the intermission and in the post-concert reactions to the first piano recital we hosted in the UK, at Trinity College Cambridge’s chapel on the evening of 6th November – where we celebrated the song-inspired piano music of Schubert, Liszt and Bartók – we were impressed upon by a series of comments about how the piano is really a special musical instrument.  

They reminded us of how the piano is like a “magic machine” that can do almost anything: it can be the violin, or it can be the viola, it can be the harp, or it can be the trombone.  It conjures up at its command scenes of a mountain valley, tranquil pastures, a bellowing storm, or the murmurs of the waters of a fountain on a lake.  It can paint so many shades it’s like a water colourist; it sighs, it declares, it beseeches, it bellows, it yearns, it admonishes, it reminisces, it’s just like the human voice but without resorting to words! 

This made us want to revisit 2 of the pieces on the concert’s programme, Bartók’s piano version of 3 folk songs from the Csik region, and Liszt’s beautifully lyrical hymn to his love for a woman (I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi = “I saw angelic virtue on earth”) (Sonetto 123).  Here’s a clip of Sylvia trying to recreate Liszt’s poetry about “angelic virtue” during practice followed by Bartók’s piano variations on 3 beautiful songs (“little dove” included) from the Csik region that have lyrics that translate into “when my little dove weeps” and “there’s no sunshine on the meadows of Csíkjenőfalva”, here played by our brilliant invited pianist.

Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (“Years of Pilgrimage”) is a collection of 3 sets of piano pieces inspired by some of the places Liszt visited in the 1830s and 1840s and capture his personal reflections from scenes he witnessed (and with many of the pieces also having clear references to literary texts of Byron, Petrarch and the like).  It is one of Liszt’s most important piano works and is also his homage to Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre [Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship], from 1795).  The Sonetto 123 is from Book 2 (“Italy”) .  (In turn, it is to Book 1 (“Switzerland”) of the same series that Le mal du pays (“homesickness”) (here rendered by Lazar Berman), as famously mentioned in Murakami’s novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage), belongs, itself an indirect homage to Goethe.  In the introduction to the Années, Liszt wrote: 

Having recently travelled to many new countries, through different settings and places consecrated by history and poetry; having felt that the phenomena of nature and their attendant sights did not pass before my eyes as pointless images but stirred deep emotions in my soul, and that between us a vague but immediate relationship had established itself, an undefined but real rapport, an inexplicable but undeniable communication, I have tried to portray in music a few of my strongest sensations and most lively impressions. 

We can hear in these 2 clips how Liszt built his pianism around the aria-like style of the singing lines, while Bartók delighted in using the piano to “sing” and recreate folk song idiom (the song was first transcribed for the recorder). 

The piano is like a “magic machine” that can reveal so many colours – great pianists can conjure magic from just one note, making it sound so differently depending on how you play that note.  Technically speaking, it is the “timbre” that underpins “tone colour” and in physics terms, the timbre come from a different combination of harmonics; but we are also reminded of the pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim explaining the conundrum in Beethoven’s piano sonata number 23 (“Appassionata”) where Beethoven asked the pianist to create a crescendo in between 2 notes (at the 15’ 54” minute mark; this is a gem of a master-class, and amongst the many interesting comments on this same sonata are two that reflects the importance of mathematical thinking, at around 18’ 00” and 23’ 15” minutes).  

Bring on the magic!

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