an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

Inimitable

Mozart: Sonatas for Piano Four Hands KV521 & 497

It is my privilege to partner a new Myrios Classics CD: Mozart’s two most important four-hand piano sonatas, importantly performed by Kirill Gerstein and Ferenc Rados.

Gerstein customizes his Myrios recordings in exceptional ways. Three years ago, he invited me to contextualize his Gershwin CD via The Gershwin Moment.” His new Mozart CD comes with a 40-page booklet illustrated with unforgettable photographs (by Kaupo Kikkas) of his inimitable duet partner, Ferenc Rados. 

Gerstein also commissioned an eloquent tribute to Rados by Stephen Isserlis. And I contributed as follows: 

“A Most Intimate Communion”

About Ferenc Rados and Kirill Gerstein

In the shrinking world of classical music, Ferenc Rados is not a household name. But for certain chamber musicians and pianists, it conjures a singular personality and mentor, born in Budapest and living there still. At the Liszt Academy, a generation of prominent Hungarians — the pianists Zoltan Kocsis, Dezso Ranki, and Andras Schiff, the original members of the Takacs String Quartet – studied with him. 

If he were to discover himself called “legendary,” Rados would doubtless feast on so tired an appellation; it would become a choice object of wicked dissection. His droll, affectless manner; his curious way of peering upward while dipping his chin; the slight play of mirth on his compressed lips – all this projects a mixture of teasing intellect and fatalistic marginality still to be found in Eastern Europe. The mixture is combustible: at any moment, he may submit to gusts of laughter which shut his eyes, jerk his head back, and yank open his jaw. His shuffling walk and careless attire are also deeply characteristic. Born in 1934, he is old enough to remember the Nazi occupation and much else. 

In conversation, Rados is clever and reflective, inimitable and characteristic. His speech is grave and gentle. He is unhurried. “As my time is worthless,” he explains, “I can afford to spend it in this fashion.”

Rados’s copious collection of turn-of-the-century musical postcards is telling. Here are paintings of “innocent” ladies and “inspired” gentlemen, playing or listening, miming “feeling” with  skyward glances directed at angels with harps. Rados has collected more than half a dozen renderings of “Chopin’s Last Chords”; the haggard composer, slumped in a cushioned chair, fingers the keyboard with thin infirm fingers. “Now do you understand Chopin?” Rados asks. He is a connoisseur of clichés.

Kirill Gerstein met Ferenc Rados in 2004, having previously studied in Russia, Boston, New York City, and Madrid. He calls Rados “the single most influential person in my musical life and the one with whom I have studied the longest.” He regularly shares with Rados his concert recordings. He continues to play for him whenever possible. 

The following conversation took place days after Gerstein had finished editing the two Mozart performances on this CD. 

KG:

I first met Rados in 2004 at Prussia Cove, the chamber music festival that Steven Isserlis directs in Cornwall. Steven had found a way to get him there. Rados would drop into different rooms and offer musical advice. Steven suggested that I “play something for Rados.” It turned out to be the second Beethoven violin sonata – in a room packed with musicians. Afterward, as Rados subsequently put it, he felt “bloodthirsty.” My playing irritated him so much that these three hours seemed like a public dismemberment. He pointed out many musical clichés in my interpretation. He said: “Why do you play so quickly? Because it says ‘Allegro vivace’? That is like saying ‘Long live Soviet-Chinese friendship.’ It is something that does not exist.” 

The whole experience, lasting several hours, was wonderfully deflating. Here was a brilliant mind with information and ideas I could barely begin to grasp. So I asked to play for him again – the first Schubert impromptu, in C minor.

JH:

You just sent me a link to a Ferenc Rados performance of the same piece. He makes it a veritable Winterreise. An arduous life-narrative.

KG:

The Schubert consumed several hours. Then we worked on the Dvorak E-flat Piano Quartet. This time I was able to catch my breath and attempt to implement what he was getting at. He said: “This is perhaps somewhat understandable. Perhaps this is more believable.” Emboldened, I asked: “May I play for you in Budapest?” He said: “Perhaps it is not impossible.”

After that, I made countless trips to play for him three days at a time, about eight hours a day. 

I would return home and to concertizing, and try to process new insights in some order. Sometimes it felt like flying an airplane while rebuilding it. Gradually, I tried to shed as much vanity as I could and ask him about everything, no matter how rudimentary. It was possible because Rados possesses an incredible warmth behind all the sarcasm and gloom. I played for him old pieces, new pieces. 

Our Mozart recording began with a public performance, at the Salzburg Mozarteum in 2016. Two weeks before the concert, we were rehearsing and he spun into a dark black hole and said good-bye. He seemed to have foreclosed the project. I sent him a cajoling email a few days later. As it happened, the concert went so well that he uncustomarily received people backstage; he almost managed to smile. The next day he departed for the train station in good spirits with his wife Rita. Rita later told me that when their train was delayed for five minutes, he said: “See, I told you I hate travelling.”

Some time later, I proposed: Why don’t we record the two Mozart sonatas we performed in Salzburg? Quite aside from the pleasure of making music with him, I wanted Rados’s playing captured in exemplary studio sound, and on an excellent instrument. We wound up rehearsing for four days in Berlin, then recording for three days. He was relentlessly self-critical. I cannot count the number of times he said “It is best that you take me to the airport now.” Only in retrospect is that hilarious. 

JH:

Let’s talk about the two Mozart four-hand sonatas you recorded. We don’t normally think of Mozart as an innovator of musical genres. We think of Haydn doing that, or Liszt or Wagner. But there are two genres of Hausmusik – of domestic music-making – that Mozart revolutionized. Before Mozart, wind serenades were garden-music for the open air. And Mozart’s first wind divertimentos sit incongruously in the concert hall; they were never intended for concentrated listening. Then Mozart shattered that convention with three wind ensembles – two serenades and the Gran Partita – in which the players are not servants but princes, each allotted a substantial and characteristic role. 

And he did the same thing with the piano duet – in particular, with the F major Sonata on your recording. You should not be surprised that I had never envisioned a performance of that piece so big, weighty, and eventful, so crammed with nuance and rubato and interpolated ornamention. Your reading is more distant from the parlor than I had thought possible.

As for the C major Sonata – I would call it the apex of the piano duet as Hausmusik. It’s a big work, but full of intimate repartee. And humor. In fact, your performance of the slow movement is amazingly droll. I can see Rados’s evil glint. 

KG:

The F major Sonata would be a masterpiece in whatever genre. Its scope and complexity are symphonic. Rados, you know, lives outside the world of stylistic fashions – outside the bubble of Classical or Romantic or period-performance. For him, interpretation is based on foundational elements of musical substance – structural and metric stresses, harmonic relationships, motivic declamations. And I agree that the C major Sonata is the apex of Hausmusik for piano duet. 

JH:

Do you want to comment on your interpolated ornaments? 

KG: 

Rados played primo [i.e., the top part] in the F major Sonata, and I played primo in the C major Sonata – so those ornaments in the rondo are my fault. My experiences with jazz and improvisation perhaps played a role there. I spontaneously added them and Rados seemed amenable and amused.

JH: 

Would you say that you found more humor in this piece as a result of playing it alongside Rados?

GK:

For sure. “Entertaining” and “amusing” are words Rados uses very often. They mean something more to him than in today’s somewhat cheapened usage. They register high expectations.

JH:

I find the finale of the C major Sonata sublime in the way certain finales in Schubert are sublime – the finales of his D major and G major Piano Sonatas. The child in paradise. And paradise is infused with folk music, with the vernacular. This isn’t a typical Mozart world, I would say.

KG:

I also find that movement very Schubertian. This kind of Central European village flavor, translated into something so polished – it’s rusticity elevated to heaven. The long, expansive melodic constructions of the F major Sonata occupy another kind of paradise. I can imagine Rados making fun of trying to turn the slow movement of the C major Sonata into something big and operatic. 

Rados once said to me that the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is more “neurotic” and “nervous” than that of the so-called Romantics. The phrases are shorter, more declamatory, or comprise conjoined smaller elements. If you look at the action of older pianos, of “fortepianos,” the key depth is shallower, the mechanism is lighter, more quicksilver.

JH:

I hear a rare degree of give-and-take in your Mozart performances with Rados. Wouldn’t you say that the piano duet, as a genre, requires a greater degree of mutual intimacy than, say, a violin sonata or cello sonata or piano trio? Look at the famous trio of Pablo Casals, Jacques Thibaud, and Alfred Cortot – completely different musical personalities. You can’t do something like that with a piano duet.

KG:

Yes, it’s a unique kind of chamber music. Your own instrument is being played by your partner. Even two-piano music is less unforgiving and merciless in this respect. Even the smallest differences in timing and attack are glaring. And the piano duet demands a togetherness of attitude. It very seldom works. It’s a most intimate communion.

Parts of this essay are adapted from my 1990 book “The Ivory Trade.”

Comments

  1. Kathleen Hulser says

    I love this thoughtful discussion of hausmusik. Mozart’s 4 hand work has hardly received the attention it deserves, and the wave of professionalism that seized the arts through the 20th and 21st century has downgraded the status of “good-enough” home playing. Mozart and Schubert, among others made the joy of music accessible to many, something often forgotten in our times. Even music with a touch of immortality, can survive a touch of domesticity.

an ArtsJournal blog