Wednesday, August 1, 2007

An Excess of Embellishment

How does one win a piano competition? Sandro Russo, who played today's "Musical Lunch Break" concert at St. Patrick's Church in San Francisco, seems to have embraced the strategy of cultivating an ability to execute more embellishing tones per second than any other pianist. This may explain why the London press recently praised his performance of Rachmaninoff's "Variations on a theme of Corelli" for "a complete understanding of the work combined with a flawless technique," since, as was the case with that composer's third piano concerto, "understanding" is very much a matter of apprehending the many layers of embellishment that are applied to a relatively simple background structure. If this is, indeed, Russo's strategy, then it is worth asking whether or not it is possible to prepare a full recital program that is basically "all about embellishment." This was the question behind the "Lunch Break" program; and the answer to the question was almost, but not quite, definitely positive.

The program rested on a foundation of three "schools of thought" about embellishment:

  1. The classical view of Haydn, in which embellishment is a necessary, but secondary, "foreground" to a more substantive "background."
  2. The virtuoso view of Liszt, in which embellishment is necessary to attract and maintain audience attention, regardless of what may be in the background.
  3. The impressionist view of Ravel, who experimented with reducing the "background" to such an absolute minimum that it is more implied by the foreground embellishments than explicitly stated.

From this point of view, Ravel poses the greatest intellectual challenge. With a background that is minimal or absent, the "information content" of the embellishments must be greater than it is in the Rachmaninoff example I previously discussed; and few composers rise to that challenge as effectively as Ravel did in "Une barque sur l'océan," which, interestingly enough, occupied the very middle of Russo's program. It is also interesting that Ravel composed an orchestral version of this work, as well as the solo piano version that Russo performed; and, while Ravel was as much a master of orchestral color as he was of piano technique, the challenge for the keyboard is greater, just because the palette of sound colors is more limited. Consequently, a truly understanding execution of the solo piano version, such as the one Russo provided, is ultimately the far more awesome experience.

On the other hand it would be hard to accuse Liszt's "Rhapsodie Espagnole" of challenging the intellect. Liszt wrote this in 1845 while touring Spain, and it was clearly making a play for local appeal. It is written around two Spanish themes, "La Follia" (which is the theme that Rachmaninoff mistakenly attributed to Corelli, since Corelli had previously written his own variations on it) and the "Jota Aragonesa." Both are relatively simple and are probably about as familiar to today's music lovers as they were to Liszt's audiences in Spain. That kind of familiarity invites an abundance of embellishment, since the ear can still hear the familiar background, however far in the background it may be; and Liszt was never one to stint on embellishments. Indeed, if this piece had been as long as even the shortest movement of the Rachmaninoff third piano concerto, it would have been an equally daunting endurance test; but Russo did not have to worry about budgeting his energy the way Gabriela Martinez did when she took on "Rocky 3." On the other hand I had to wonder whether the piano Russo was playing had been rattling quite as much before he played this piece as it was after he proceeded to the rest of his program.

Liszt was also represented by an arrangement of Saint-Saëns' "Danse Macabre," which was subsequently rearranged (presumably by adding further embellishments) by Vladimir Horowitz. Once again the familiarity of the background allowed excessive embellishment to be the order of the day, and that is precisely what Russo delivered. This was the final piece on the program, and it was certainly a good way to go out with a bang.

Between this and the Ravel, however, was a paraphrase on "The Flight of the Bumblebee" by György Cziffra. I had not previously encountered this composer, who lived between 1921 and 1994; but it did not take me long to figure out what was going on in this particular composition. Basically, Cziffra was doing to Rachmaninoff's arrangement of this familiar chestnut and same sort of thing that Witold Lutosławski had done to Rachmaninoff's treatment of a Paganini caprice, which was to take a far more outrageously excessive approach to embellishing the original. If this is representative of his work, then it is a pity that Cziffra never got out of Europe, since he clearly had the talent to provide soundtracks for the best of the Warner Brothers' cartoons!

I have been putting off writing about the Haydn, because this was definitely the weakest part of the program (meaning that the whole event got off to a poor start). The problem was that, for all his talent in executing all those foreground embellishments, Russo never seemed to figure out where the background was in the Hoboken XVI/46 A flat major sonata that he played. This frustrated me to the point of sending me back to my Wiener Urtext copy of the score, and I have to admit that finding that background is no easy matter. There are plenty of works by Haydn that you cannot just sit down at the piano at start playing from the score without any premeditation, and this is one of them! So, now that Russo has made his reputation with his record-breaking executions of embellishments, I hope that he can now take some time to engage some of his conservatory lessons in analysis. Haydn demands that kind of cogitation, and Russo owe it to his audiences to make more of an effort.

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