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Prokofiev: Sixth Piano Sonata, Opus 82
Debussy: Reflections in the Water
Stravinsky: Sonata (1924)
Schoenberg: Six Little Piano Pieces, Opus 19
Ravel: Sonatina

Pianist James Boyk's program notes for his album
(Performance Recordings® pr8cd)

 
[NB: References in curly brackets identify places on the compact disc. Thus {13; 1:45} means the place at 1 minute, 45 seconds of track 13. {1, 2, 3} means tracks 1, 2, and 3.]

 
Notes on the Prokofiev (revised from Performance Recordings® pr3)

One of the things I love about playing a piece over many years is that after I've grown into it, it grows with me.

Many people think of musicians' work as endless mechanical repetition. In reality, mechanical work is fatal to music-making. We learn what we do, not what we think or hope we're doing, nor what we intend to do later. If we play with no emotion, we learn to play with no emotion. Calling some of the playing "practice" and some "performance" doesn't change the fact.

The exact emotional tone and progression of a piece take time and thought to work out. All the contributing elements -- notes, dynamics, tempos, rhythms, articulation, sonority -- have implications. Is a contract between connected and disconnected notes important to the meaning, as in the second movement of this sonata? {2; contrast 0:01 with 0:31.} Then one must honor the contrast wherever it occurs. One may connect notes by finger-action or by using the pedal; but the pedal also changes the sonority. If the pedaled sonority goes against one's sense of the piece, then one must use finger-connections. But what if that's not possible in a particular case?

Or take dynamics. The short musical idea at the opening of the sonata {1; 0:01 to 0:02} is marked "very loud" (fortissimo). At its return late in the movement {1; 6:08}, it is just "loud" (forte), but a few bars later {1; 6:23}, "very loud" again. It reappears in the middle of the fourth movement with a stunningly different emotion, a reflective flavor realized partly through a "medium-loud" (mezzoforte) dynamic {4; 2:24}. And when the same musical idea, slightly elaborated, ends the entire sonata {4; 6:34}, it's "ultra-loud" (fortississimo). Much thought and work is needed to scale these dynamic relations accurately over a 26-minute span while still subordinating them to a fluent and convincing flow of feeling.

Tempo relations must be scaled, too. The middle section of the third movement {3; 2:19} is marked to be faster than the opening of the movement, but if this middle section is hurried, it misses a certain luxuriating quality which I think it should have. Of course it's easy enough just to play the opening {3; 0:02} slower yet, and indeed Prokofiev calls for the beginning to be at "slowest waltz tempo". But the waltz must live and breathe, not slouch like the end of a dance marathon!

All the various elements of a performance -- dynamics, tempi, articulation, sonority, and more -- must relate to each other and to the emotion which is the goal. The inter-relationships are so complicated that, in the great works, analysis can only begin the working-out process. I think this is what the great pianist Artur Schnabel referred to when he said that he was interested only in playing "those works which could never be played well enough."

Conscious analysis can help begin the interpretive work, but to continue it, I try to hear with the composer's ears, to feel what he felt. I dream the piece intentionally; and I experiment, too, imposing my passing moods on it. I play it when I'm happy, sad, angry, depressed, tense, relaxed, joyous, despairing, sentimental, impatient, loving or hating, superficial or intense. I put my feeling of the moment into every note. Mostly, this teaches me what does not work, but sometimes there is a place where the feeling fits. Then I've learned something forever.

Even such total mobilization of myself is not enough, though. After a point, to hear with fresh ears and to experience the work as emotional communication, I must perform for an audience. After many performances and two or three re-learnings of the piece, it's mine; I have grown into it.

Then it starts growing with me. Where the initial learning is dominated by the conscious, this process is a settling-in that only the unconscious can do, quietly and by itself. Sometimes I think that the whole point of the first problem-solving attack on a work is simply to draw the attention of one's unconscious to the important issues.

The growing-with process is difficult to detail, just as it's hard to remember the steps by which you came to know someone intimately, or by which a book read ten times came to seem straightforward, when at first it appeared complex.

Growing-with benefits from one's general musical maturing, too. In the ten years since I first performed this piece, my playing has changed, and the sonata with it. My normal tone of voice at the keyboard is softer than it was; my touch, less percussive. Dynamic range is wider, and shading more flexible.

Hearing Prokofiev's own playing for the first time recently, on a record of some of his other works, started me thinking, too, about what really creates convincing playing. Prokofiev plays as though he not only wrote the music but invented the piano, which he will now take apart and re-assemble for your amazement and edification. He makes almost all mere pianists sound like cliché-mongers.

The slow, wonderful growing-with process is familiar to me now from many pieces over many years. So I was startled, when I began practicing the Prokofiev for this concert, to find that it had changed radically in the eight months since I last performed it. It came outof my hands more fluent, mnore emotional, more subtle; and with a "going" quality I've been trying to achieve for a long time. All this happened without my being aware of any particular growth in myself or my playing.

Is something developing without my knowing it? Did the impact of Prokofiev's playing make the difference? Or is it that I intentionally did not re-study the work from the ground up, but took for granted and enjoyed my command of it?

Whatever the cause, this sudden change after ten years of living with the sonata is a new experience. It feels like an important message from deep inside.

 
Notes on the Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Ravel (revised from Performance Recordings® pr4)

In deciding on a program, I am guided by a pleasure principle: I play what I feel like playing. So when I chose the works for this concert, I had in mind no intellectual idea.

After the fact, though, I realized that these four pieces could be heard as varied reactions to late Romanticism's self-absorption and lush sound. Despite differences, the works share a delicacy of which modest size is one aspect. This is most striking in the Stravinsky and Ravel, three-movement works on a scale reminiscent of Mozart rather than, say, Brahms. The Stravinsky recalls Mozart also in its transparent texture.

The Ravel is richer yet still not heavy, its lightness coming from using higher registers and avoiding thick chords.

Both these pieces turn back toward a more classical, arm's-length expression of emotion, as involving as the Romantics but with the self occupying less of the picture. The Schoenberg pieces, by contrast, carry personal feeling to breaking point. Hyper-Romantic, one might call them. But however emotionally full, they are austere in their silences and rigorous condensing of gesture. To the ear as well as the eye, they resemble certain modern poetry: irregular phrases dense with expression, broken up by lots of space.

The Schoenberg set is technically radical in being atonal, but the esthetically radical work is the Debussy, for it has no protagonist. It is not about a person's hopes or struggles or triumphs, nor about a relation with God. It is a picture, simply, of Nature. No human is present except as observer.

Nor is any human time sense present. Perhaps this is why playing the Debussy takes me out of myself and seems to quiet and refresh the audience. It is a wonderful base from which to move on to the objective time of the Stravinsky; the internal, asymmetrical heartbeat of the Schoenberg pieces -- with time extinguished in the last of them, an elegy; and finally the sociable ebb and flow of the Ravel.

The listener to this recording could try all possible orders for these pieces, and would like some better than others. Every artist, too, has individual goals and preferences. The program is as charactistic of the artist, in its way, as the interpretations. You could almost say it's part of the interpretations. My own taste is for programs with coherent emotional line and "high profile," in which a striking placement or grouping enhances the experience of each work.

My programs are shaped too by my own reactions when I am a member of an audience. Often I enjoy the second half a concert more than the first. I'm more settled, more attentive and responsive. (Sometimes I wish concerts began after intermission.) So I try, in my own concerts, to involve the listener immediately, with music of a certain inward quality. The Debussy is a perfect example.

I would not begin with the Schoenberg pieces. With no rapport established in the concert hall, their intense and idiosyncratic emotion might affect the listener like being accosted by a weird and insistent stranger: a desire to edge away might preclude attention to what is being said.

The Ravel or Stravinsky could open, but length would be a problem. Seating latecomers after the entire work would penalize them too much; seating them after just one movement would disturb those already in the hall.

At the end of a concert, when I am in the audience, I like to applaud, to release pent-up energy and to assert my importance, as a listener, in the exchange with the performer. Applause comes easier after a piece with rhythmic drive and energetic dynamics. The only one of the group which ends like this is the Ravel.

The Stravinsky could close the program, but a different flavor would result from its understated wit: a ripple of laughter rather than a stomp of excitement. Less satisfying, perhaps. Besides, if the Stravinsky came last, the Ravel would have to come second, to avoid having two 3-movement works in a row. Then we'd have Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Stravinsky; and the splashy Ravel might make the Schoenberg sound sketchy instead of intense.

So the program falls into place. The healing effect of the Ravel's opening, after the trauma of the Schoenberg, confirms this as the right order, at least for the way I feel about these pieces now. Emotionally the sequence makes sense, and the juxtapositions heighten the character of each piece. The Debussy appears invitingly out of the silence preceding, and the Ravel joins naturally to the applause following. (And on this CD, I have felt that the entire program works well after the Prokofiev.)

This work of program-building, like interpretation -- like writing programs notes, for that matter -- is at bottom just a way of attending more deeply to the art of the master composers, expressing our regard for them and becoming ever more intimate with their work. Seen in the proper light, all of these activities are, as everything in music should be, elaborations of love.

—James Boyk

 

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