Paul Cantrell’s music blog & podcast
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Posts tagged “Recordings”

As long as I’m on this Chopin prelude kick….

Prelude Op 28 No 20 (in C minor)
Paul Cantrell, piano

This piece is easy to sink one’s teeth into, I think, very dramatic and engaging on the first listen. But subsequent digging reveals a lot of subtlety in the way the different voices move, the modulation and chromaticism, the emotional shape. It has a fascinatingly unusual structure: many piece start softly and work to a crescendo, but this one starts loud and fades to a whisper. Many pieces in binary form have an initial section that’s repeated twice (AAB) — like this or this or both the first and second larger sections of this taken individually — but this prelude repeats only the second part (ABB). What fascinating fellow Chopin was.

But enough with the analytical rambling. What a fine piece.

After next Tuesday’s recording, I’ll be switching to a once-a-week-Tuesday schedule, at least for a while. I want to focus on composition for a while, and I’m behind on some of my other projects. Fear not! Updates will keep coming; “Paul gets a job” armageddon is not yet upon us.

We live in a time of superhuman performers. The stars of the classical piano world do things that hardly seem humanly possible — certainly that are far beyond me — and people love it, demand it. It’s a mixed blessing: on the one hand, it’s amazing to hear the most difficult works performed with such ability; on the other hand, the emphasis on the performer, the great cult of the virtuoso, can make us forget about the music itself. Should hearing a piece of music be like watching somebody juggle 9 bowling balls on a tightrope, or like embracing an old friend?

It is often true of the composers dearest to me, Chopin first among them, that much of their finest work is their least virtuosic, and thus their most neglected. How many virtuosic pianists just gloss over a little piece like this one? (Yes, Martha Argerich, I’m talking to you.) But it is a masterpiece, not simplistic but simple, yet as wonderful as any music we pianists have the chance to explore — and painted in so few strokes, with such subtlety…. The world of music could learn from the world of math a reverence for the simple and elegant. Genius shows itself in simplicity.

So here, brave listeners, take a moment to forget about virtuosity and performers and Grammies and all that nonsense, and listen to the music itself as if it matters.

Prelude Op 28 No 6 (in B minor)
Paul Cantrell, piano

An old favorite, brought from the past to the present for your listening enjoyment.

Prelude Op 28 No 9 (in E major)
Paul Cantrell, piano

I love the steady outpouring of energy, the unbrokenness of the flow as it goes through such a dramatic series of changes, the perfect balance of the different sections, the tremendous sense of scope of this mere 95 seconds, a single printed page of music. Chopin is totally my hero.

Esoteric Musicological Aside

There’s an interesting controversy about this piece: in certain places, Chopin notated the melody as dotted eighth + sixteenth on top of three triplets. For those of you who don’t know music notation, that’s corresponds to the fractions 3/4 + 1/4 = 1 beat on the top, and 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3 = 1 beat underneath. With me so far?

Now if you work out the math, the sixteenth note (that 1/4 of a beat) should come slightly after the last of the three triplets — but in the autograph Chopin very clearly and consistently notated it directly above that last triplet, implying that they should come at the same time. So his math and his visual language contradict each other; which do we take?

Composers did sometimes write dotted-eight + sixteenth as a shorthand for (quarter + eight) triplet — that is, the rhythm that would make them line up. That was a sort of outdated practice in Chopin’s time, but it’s still quite possible he would have done it. His obvious visual positioning, which really is quite consistent in the autograph, suggests that’s what he was doing. And at other points, he used a double-dotted rhythm to show very clearly that last note of the melody coming after the three triplets (at 1:02, for example), and in those spots, he doesn’t align the notes vertically in the autograph. I really think that “at the same time” is what he meant, and that’s how I play it. (I differ with the venerable Paderewski edition on this question.) For a fun home experiment, compare to your favorite recording!

Today’s improv is a bit of fun with one of my favorite sounds from extended piano technique, made by damping a low string with a finger or two at about the point where the copper winding ends. This sound also makes a prominent appearance in the second movement of The Broken Mirror of Memory.

Paul Cantrell, piano

I have been practicing some new material to record, and I’m getting the piano tuned later this week in anticipation of actually recording it. So stick around — I hope to have a few treats for you in February!

Here’s another piece from the suite of dances I’m working on, the same set which also includes the Entropic Waltz and Cradle Waltz.

The composition, which was tricky, has actually been done for a while … but learning to play it has proved quite a bit of work! Though it may not sound like it, the piece is quite difficult — it has different layers moving in different registers of the keyboard, and so playing it essentially involves using two hands to create the illusion of three or four.

Actually, I’m still just barely able to play it, so this is just a rough performance to give an idea of how it works. The layers don’t have the independence and evenness I’d like, and it’s a bit faltering and probably a hair under tempo. Still, if you use your imagination, I think there’s enough here for you to get the idea.

Dance for Remembering and Forgetting (rough version)
Paul Cantrell, piano

I’ll be working on this piece all week to give a hopefully slightly more polished performance at Keys Please next weekend, along with the Entropic Waltz!

As long as we’re conducting experiments on the familiar C major prelude…

Some years ago, Don and I heard Angela Hewitt play a marvelous concert of Bach and Messiaen. (There’s a combination!) She gave the most unusual performance of the C major prelude I’ve ever heard: very fast, very light, either a bit of pedal or just a superhuman legato (don’t remember which), and certain notes voiced to give the rapid running pattern some shape. It was almost impressionistic.

Now if there’s a right way to play this prelude, this is definitely not it. But it was really quite a marvelous treat to hear something so familiar in such a surprising new guise; if it wasn’t “right,” it sure was good!

Here is an imitation — a rather poor one, I’m afraid — of my memory of that performance:

The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, Prelude 1 (in C major) à la Hewitt
Paul Cantrell, piano

Don and I both immediately ran off to get her recording of it, and were immediately disappointed: she played the piece in a completely ordinary way. It was fine; it just wasn’t at all the daring version we’d heard live. I came up with two theories about this:

  • She came up with the novel interpretation in the few years between the recording and the concert, or
  • afraid of critical reaction, she played it safe on the recording and left the risk-taking for the live performances.

I don’t know if the second theory was true here, but it’s definitely true in general: musicians don’t want to give critics anything to criticize, and thus focus first — particularly on recordings — on having no mistakes, no risks, nothing extreme, nothing wrong. The result of this is the current glut of recordings that are perfect but not very good.

To heck with that! Give me risk-taking! I’d rather hear performances that miss the mark half the time than the bland, play-it-safe perfectionism we usually get.

So here’s the deal with the mystery recording (Ahree got it right):

It is, of course, a familiar Bach prelude. I learned to play the piece backwards — that is, playing the notes in reverse order — recorded it that way, then reversed the recording. Got it? So even though you hear the strange sound of backwards piano, growing instead of decaying, the notes come in the right order. Here’s what I actually played — and here’s the final backward-is-foward result again:

Mystery recording
Paul Cantrell, piano

Jimi Hendrix used to use this same trick, most notably on the masterpiece Castles Made of Sand. Unlike him — he was reportedly able to think the music backwards in his head — I worked out the backwards prelude on paper, a task which Sibelius made much less tedious. I cheated a bit on what music theorists would call the literal “retrograde,” changing where the left hand notes start…er…end in order to make them sound like they’re starting in the right place when listening backwards.

An interesting phenomenon, the one Joel and I were discusssing that lead to this idea, is that the music doesn’t make sense backwards. Listen to what I played, that is, the prelude with all the notes in reverse order. It keeps seeming like it’s about to start making sense, but it never quite does. You might think that this is only because the piece is so familiar, or because the tonality and musical language are so well-established, but that’s not it! Joel and I were discussing Niobrara — just to be silly, I’d asked if the piece played backwards would be “Ararboin,” so Joel actually tried playing it backwards, and found just the same thing: even Niobrara, which is barely tonal, quite unfamiliar (I made it up on the spot!), and rather meandering, keeps sounding like it’s about to make sense but never does.

Is it that piano just doesn’t make sense when you play it backwards, Joel wondered? Having the notes swell up instead of decaying prevents our ears from finding musical sense? No, I claimed — and today’s recording is the evidence. The Hendrix-style prelude definitely sounds weird, but it makes sense. With the piano forward but the notes in backwards order, it doesn’t. QEF.

So what’s the deal? Why don’t the backwards versions make sense? Music has syntax. Even all those funny improvs do. Backwards work doesn’t syntax the, language verbal with as and. It’s hard to pin down exactly how musical syntax works; in fact, I don’t think anybody’s really managed to do a satisfactory job for music in general, just rough ideas for certain specific styles. But even if we can’t express the syntax as a set of rules, we can sure tell when it’s out of whack!

It’s yet further evidence for one of these little speeches I keep giving: the point of music is not understanding the experience — which nobody, nobody really does — but the experience itself. Your experiential mind knows things about music that your reasoning mind does not.

Here’s an amusing little idea Joel and I came up with while talking on the phone. Why did I do this, you ask? Because it’s the internet. Because I can.

Mystery recording
Paul Cantrell, piano

The first one to figure out what’s going on here gets … um, actually I don’t have a prize. Sorry. Still, try to figure it out!

If you want the full surprise effect, play the song without looking at the title.