March 21, 2013

On great works, great pianists, and a great number of things to do! – Interview with Kenneth Hamilton

On great works, great pianists, and a great number of things to do! – Interview with Kenneth Hamilton
It’s slightly over two weeks to the Romantic Masterpieces! Plink, Plonk, Plunk catches up with virtuoso pianist and professor Kenneth Hamilton in an exclusive email interview ahead of his recital on the 7th of April in Singapore. 
Charles Valentin Alkan
(1813 – 1888)

This year we celebrate the bicentenary of Alkan, a contemporary and close friend of Liszt and Chopin. Alkan was known to be a recluse and eccentric, yet was admired by many, including Busoni, who said his pieces were “the greatest achievement in piano music after Liszt”. Yet the music of Chopin and Liszt remain more popular than Alkan’s. Why do you think this is so?  

I think there are three main reasons.

Firstly, Alkan’s best music tends to be his most difficult and challenging—almost inordinately difficult in some cases, such as the op.39 studies. Many fine pieces are therefore completely inaccessible to amateurs, and relatively rarely played even by professionals. The amount of effort needed to learn works like the concerto or symphony for solo piano completely dwarfs that required for most “normal” concertos or sonatas.

Secondly, Alkan rarely composes big “Romantic” melodies, although he does write extremely powerful music. His original tunes tend to be quirky rather than captivating. There isn’t an Alkan equivalent of the Chopin op.9 no.2 nocturne, for example, or the Liszt 3rd Liebestraum, even if there are several charming shorter pieces.

And finally, although a supposedly a superb pianist himself, Alkan never pushed his own music very much during his lifetime, nor did he have a string of successful students—as Liszt did– who would popularize his music with succeeding generations. So, all in all, a rather unfortunate set of circumstances!

Liszt had greatly influenced musical life – inventing the piano recital, masterclasses and concert habits – with his dazzling pianistic acrobatics. What is it that draws you to Liszt, the virtuoso, the composer or the paradoxical life he led?  

Liszt,  the most Byronic, dynamic, charming
figure in music at that time. 

It’s the paradoxes that are the most fascinating elements. Liszt’s compositions might at times be histrionic or uneven, but they are virtually never dull. His music is fascinating even when it doesn’t quite work, or when you wish he really hadn’t written a certain bar or two. Wagner had it entirely right when he said that Liszt’s music was “all interesting, even when it’s not important”. And this variety was obviously part of his personality too. He was a man of unusually extreme contradictions, a mixture of serial adulterer and would-be priest, for instance. But then, contradictions are interesting, whereas uniformity is predictable—and therefore boring.

Which are his greatest works for you and which do you enjoy performing? 

The Sonata in B minor is certainly his single finest work, and I never tire of playing that piece. Overall, Liszt knew very well what his best “original” pieces were, and accordingly included them in prestige collections like the three “Years of Pilgrimage”. But in fact, the Hungarian Rhapsodies and opera fantasies are also works of genius in their own way, for Liszt was, without a doubt, the greatest “arranger” in the history of music. As Schumann wrote—when arrangement gets this good, it’s indistinguishable from original composition. And we can play our way through virtually the entire history of 19th century music in Liszt’s arrangements. That’s one of the most fascinating things for me—Liszt’s role as a “tour guide” through the century. The transcriptions are, quite simply, wonderful pieces to play.

How about Chopin’s?

Almost every piece Chopin published is a “great” work. His quality control was more exacting than any other Romantic piano composer– Liszt, Schumann, Alkan and all the rest not excluded. He didn’t spread himself anything like as widely as Liszt or Schumann—there are obviously no symphonies, nor oratorios, nor anything else for a wider stage– but he did achieve perfection within his chosen domain. I personally find works like the Ballades the most intriguing of all. In structural terms they’re utterly new, but unfold so convincingly that you hardly even notice. Mendelssohn also had this instinct for the “completely right”, but rarely had Chopin’s daring, or indeed his passion, except in one or two instances, like the glorious Hebrides Overture.

Schnabel taught that transcriptions are of value in their own right, and believed that the performer should not try to imitate the tone colours of the original instruments; but be more concerned with preserving the identity of the piece in its new dress. Do you take a more pianistic approach towards transcriptions or would you rather think that you’re in control of a huge symphonic orchestra? 

I agree that transcriptions are of value in their own right, but disagree with the second part of the statement. One needs to think orchestrally, and also of singing– that spurs the imagination to create a greater variety of tone colours, and ironically to get the most out of the piano itself. Even in music originally written for the piano, I’m always thinking “What instrument would play this passage if it were given to the orchestra? What would the scoring be? How would the melody be sung?”. That’s my attitude, for what it’s worth.

You’ve learnt from Lawrence Glover and Ronald Stevenson (therefore tracing your teaching lineage back to Liszt and Busoni!), what type of influence did they have on your playing? 

Lawrence taught me self-control—or at least tried very hard to teach me self-control!–while Ronald taught, by example, many of the nuances of late 19th and early 20th century pianism. Both were superb players in their own right—Ronald, of course, still is— and their best teaching was undertaken during their own performances. The student simply had to listen.

I especially remember Lawrence’s splendid performance of the Liszt Venezia e Napoli, with burnished Autmnal tone-colours and a virtuosity that was always kept short of the hyperbolic; and a genuinely amazing performance by Ronald of his own Passacaglia on DSCH. That really did sound like Liszt revived. You couldn’t help learning from such things.

How do you juggle being a performer and academic, having to practice, memorize music, teach classes and write? 

With difficulty. I try not to think about it too much—otherwise I’ll realize that I really can’t do it!

What do you think of the term “serious” used to describe classical music and concerts nowadays?  

Well, I suppose the term has its uses in creating certain expectations, but too often “serious” simply means “not entertaining”. Basically, there’s good music and bad music; interesting music and dull music. The genre is irrelevant. Schubert and Schumann, Cole Porter and Ivor Novello are all great song composers—it doesn’t really matter whether you’re riding with the “Erlkönig” or “gathering lilacs“. What ultimately matters is whether the composer has something to say.

Do you think concerts have the same importance today as they had before the invention of recordings and radio? 

No—they can’t possibly have. Before the middle of the 20th century—that is, before the invention of editable recording technology and the long-playing record—most music was live music. It couldn’t be anything else. The piano in the parlour was the CD player of the 19th century. Nowadays, most people listen to music through various recorded (and edited) media. We can’t turn back the clock here (King Canute couldn’t stop the waves), but we can simply embrace the consequences, among which is the fact that live concerts are now more “special” than they ever were before. As performers, we have to treat them as such, and ask ourselves what we’re giving the audience that they couldn’t get from a recording: whether that’s spontaneity, a “direct” contact with the music, artistic interaction between performer and audience or whatever. After all, rarity can in itself be a valuable commodity…

Here’s a video of Professor Kenneth Hamilton playing Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, S.178, which he performed at Cardiff University earlier this month:

Don’t miss this concert of Romantic Masterpieces, happening at the Esplanade Recital Studio at 1930hrs on the 7th of April! Tickets are priced at $32 and available from Sistic. Concessions available at $22 for students.

This concert is presented by Cardiff University.

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