It’s a day for favorites: My favorite composer, Richard Strauss, my favorite song, “Ständchen”, and my favorite singer, Kathleen Battle. As soon as I declare a favorite, my mind immediately thinks of a dozen other “favorites,” but I don’t intend to be dishonest! You music lovers know what I mean. There are always many favorites.
But this song…. my goodness, this song makes me dizzy in the best way. I love the liveliness of the piano, shimmering like moonlight on leaves or a love-stricken heart, flowing radiantly underneath a buoyant and lyrical vocal line. Kathleen Battle is, in my mind, the ultimate interpreter. Her light and youthful sound, breathtakingly beautiful as it soars through Strauss’s expert writing, captures the innocence and excitement of this secret meeting of lovers. Yes, I am using many superlatives, because this piece deserves it.
Please give way to rapture and let the music carry all your worries away… after all, that is what we need most from music sometimes.
I’m going to have to make an admission that I’m positive will get me in a lot of trouble: I don’t really like Schubert. I know he’s meant to be brilliant and the father/king of traditional Art Song but I just don’t get it!! I find his songs often quite boring, musically and dramatically dull, and the texts often bore me to tears (and the few exceptions – for example Erlkönig – are horribly overdone). But last fall Jillian Zack (a wonderful pianist) and I were invited to go to compete in the Wigmore Hall final rounds in London and as part of our programming we had to include in each round some amount of Schubert Lieder. So I grudgingly began a long search to go through pages and pages of music to find Schubert songs that both fit in our program and also didn’t put me to sleep.
In my search I did happen to find one song which very few people know (a YouTube search garners only a few results, for example) but I find it to be absolutely gorgeous, captivating, and original. The song is “An Emma” and it’s a beautiful example of how even a short song can take you on a journey, explore a dizzying array of ideas and thoughts, and leave you both satisfied and wanting more.
Since we’re looking at the art of “the collaborative pianist” I think it’s time to hear from Sir Gerald Moore, perhaps my favorite singers’ pianist. He played with all the greatest singers of his day and really knew his craft. Gerald Moore was the one who when asked at rehearsal at the Wigmore Hall in London whether he wanted to have the lid of the piano opened, replied in his clipped British accent “Oh no, just a very, very short stick”. He arrived at the concert, and taking the stage, there indeed was a very short and very inadequate spinnet piano with the name of it’s company emblazoned on the fallboard: STECK. Still one of my favorite stories.
If you can listen to him through this to the end you will be rewarded. I also recommend his “Am I Too Loud?” He’s dry, funny and brilliant. No one ever replaced Sir Gerald, alas.
Thank God for the record.
I once was criticised as having “played like a conductor”. Or so I thought. The critic said later “Oh no, I thought it was wonderful. Colorful, orchestral sounds, structurally solid, and not careful the way some accompanists are.” Wow, I thought. That really was a compliment. The best conductors, when they take time to practice, really can be marvelous music partners. Here’s an extraordinary Brahms recital by Christa Ludwig with Leonard Bernstein at the piano. He doesn’t hold back, but notice how he moves under the voice, taking advantage of Ludwig’s fabulous breath, but also getting her through those loooong phrases with ease. I am especially fond of “Ruhe Sussliebe” at 7:21. It must have been recorded after the recital. Christa turns to Bernstein and sings the entire thing to him, just like the best kind of rehearsal. This is what we pianists hope for. Our singers singing to us, for us, with full trust and gratitude. This is such beautiful music making. Enjoy!
It’s January 1996 at the 92nd Street Y in NYC. The great German baritone Hermann Prey is rehearsing a recital devoted entirely to songs by Carl Loewe (just weeks before The Schubertiade, the celebrated 10-year examination of Schubert’s works, which Prey had masterminded since 1987). I’m a young music publicist at the Y and completely enthralled by the animated 6-foot tall Prey and his voice, which could go from ferocity to gentle and vulnerable—and back again. (Prey’s voice was so unique—I’ve never heard anything like it since).
Prey loved to talk about Carl Loewe, a neglected German composer who was born just a few months before Schubert, and who Prey championed with all his might. He certainly convinced me of Loewe’s brilliance, and I fell in love with the songs (which was easy, given Prey’s gifts—he was a born storyteller, an incredible communicator of words, and he did it all with that voice and his eyes).
But one song stood out among all the others: Erlkönig, based on the poem by Goethe. Schubert’s version of Erlkönig was much more famous, but after Prey’s interpretation of Loewe’s setting, with the pianist Michael Endres creating the galloping horses, I was swept away. He brought to life the characters of the poem in a way that was enthralling and even frightening.
Anthony Tommasini reviewed the recital for the NYT, and he agreed: “The performances, with the superb pianist Michael Endres, were revelatory. Loewe’s neglect never seemed more inexplicable.” Tommasini went on: “In Mr. Prey’s vivid performance, Loewe’s ‘Erlkonig’ seemed as musically imaginative as Schubert’s astonishing version of Goethe’s famous poem, the tale of a frantic father on horseback rushing his son, terrified by the voice of an erl-king, through a dark, wind-chilled forest. Whereas Schubert evokes the frantic ride in obsessively repeated piano octaves, Loewe conjures the scene in eerie, shimmering piano tremolos. He also makes greater musical distinctions between the characters: the stolid reassurances of the father, the wispy, seductive melodies of the erl-king, the pitiable cries of the boy.”
Have a listen. Here is a 1995 recording of Prey singing Erlkönig in Germany, just months before that Y recital, with Endres at the piano:
For an even more intense version, here is a recording from 1962, with a much younger Prey:
And if you’re interested, check out the poem by Goethe below (not for the faint of heart).
I was so sad to hear that Prey died just 2 years after that 92Y recital. I am forever grateful to him for introducing me to a composer I probably never would have encountered, certainly not in such a revelatory way.
Erlkönig by Goethe
Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.
“My son, why do you hide your face in fear?”
“Father, do you not see the Elf-king?
The Elf-king with crown and cape?”
“My son, it’s a streak of fog.”
“You dear child, come, go with me!
(Very) beautiful games I play with you;
many a colorful flower is on the beach,
My mother has many a golden robe.”
“My father, my father, and hearest you not,
What the Elf-king quietly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
Through scrawny leaves the wind is sighing.”
“Do you, fine boy, want to go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing to bring you in.”
“My father, my father, and don’t you see there
The Elf-king’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey.”
“I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you’re not willing, then I will use force.”
“My father, my father, he’s touching me now!
The Elf-king has done me harm!”
It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with great difficulty;
In his arms, the child was dead.
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