Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Classics chronicles: Remembering Charles Rosen (1927-2012)


Charles Rosen -- not only a pianist but perhaps
the most illuminating writer on music in our time

He was a lot of fun in snark mode, but it made me think about separating the desire for truth from the need to be right. The most beautiful element of Charles, for me, was after all this learning and accumulation, the smile with which he would play some beloved modulation, or demonstrate some trick of pedalling: suddenly again a child, innocence meeting knowledge at the end of the road. When I played Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze for him, he showed me how releasing the pedal in the middle of a held chord actually creates a crescendo in the bass -- in the middle of a sustained note eerily an unnoticed voice comes alive. When I got the effect he wanted, he beamed with real pleasure, aesthetic pleasure, and the pleasure of having communicated something precious -- the kind of pleasure that life should be all about.
-- pianist Jeremy Denk, in a December 18
"Culture Desk" post,
"Postscript: Charles Rosen"
by Ken

I won't try to calculate how many hours I spent preparing Friday night's archives preview post, only afterward stopping to think that it contained a grand total of less than four minutes. It occurred to me that one thing I might have done simply enough was to provide some context for the new clips I made of Charles Rosen playing the two pairs of pieces from Robert Schumann's great piano suite Carnaval by replaying the versions we heard in the September 2012 post "Taking a closer look at Schumann's Carnaval."

Here, for example, is the pair of musical caricatures of the commedia dell'arte Pierrot and Harlequin -- with, again, Charles's comments from his Nonesuch booklet notes, and now with the additional performances.

After all, I never met the man. But I know so many people who did know him, and who always refer to him that way, that I have difficulty reverting to "Rosen."

SCHUMANN: Carnaval, Op. 9:
2. Pierrot: Moderato (2/4)
3. Arlequin: Vivo (3/4)
2. "Pierrot" (Moderato) is a revolutionary work of pure instrumental music in its use of the grotesque. It is a character piece: relentless, deliberately monotonous, but with sudden jerky movements like the personage of the commedia dell'arte; it makes no pretensions to beauty or charm. The drama arises from the cumulative crescendo towards the end with a final and very original pedal effect, as the penultimate chord gradually frees itself of all the heavy pedal sonority.
3. "Arlequin" (Vivo) is also a grotestque character piece, with sudden changes of dynamics, and with a dancing charm.

Charles Rosen, piano. Nonesuch, recorded in the Netherlands, c1981

Nelson Freire, piano. Decca, recorded in Lugano, Dec. 18-22, 2002

Yevgeny Kissin, piano. BMG, recorded in Freiburg, 2001


Greg Waldmann gives a nice retelling on Open Letters Monthly of the famous story of how Charles's writing career was launched.

Writing came to Rosen by accident. He was disgusted with the sleeve notes to an early Chopin recording, which described one of the nocturnes as "staggering drunken with the odour of flowers." "I had many thoughts about the piece," he told an interviewer for the Guardian. "That was not one of them. So I started writing the sleeve notes myself. People liked them and after a while a publisher took me to lunch. Before he even offered me a drink he said he would publish whatever I’d like to write." His literary debut was The Classical Style, a brilliant study which won a National Book Award and is still the most popular book on the subject.
If anything, I think this understates the case for The Classical Style. It's probably the best single book about music I've encountered. (In 1998 Charles produced an "expanded edition.")

His writing was by no means limited to music. His passion for the visual arts triggered a voluminous output. But the periodic arrival of a new piece on music in the New York Review of Books was always a special occasion for me. For example, there was a November 2011 piece on Ravel ("The Brilliant Music of Ravel"; available online free only to subscribers), taking off from the new book on the life and music by Roger Nichols, which I've had in mind ever since as a possible post inspiration -- to try to excerpt it, illustrating with appropriate audio examples. Like this passage:
Ravel . . . was considered -- correctly but somewhat to his dismay -- as a follower of the slightly older Claude Debussy, and he soon objected publicly that he had developed a new and original way of writing for the piano before Debussy had attacked the problem. . . .

His early set of piano pieces, Miroirs, have a virtuoso display of sound effects that Debussy rarely attained, above all in the pieces entitled Noctuelles (Moths) and the Alborado del Gracioso (Morning Song of the Joker). The latter, still heard often today in recitals, has guitar effects of very rapidly repeated notes and several flashy double glissandi [CR footnote: In a glissando, one slides the fingernails over the white keys of the piano (or over the black keys, which is more painful for the fingers] in fourths and thirds (the last one of these rarely performed with the exceedingly difficult indication directed by Ravel that it is to be played relatively slowly with a diminuendo -- sliding the fingernails over the keys is easier at a fast tempo than in controlled slow motion).

The Alborado is a brilliant specimen of an important French specialty: a work in a foreign ethnic folksy style. . . .
Now after reading this, wouldn't you like to hear Alborada? I don't have Charles playing it, but here are three great pianists, of decidedly different sorts.

RAVEL: Miroirs: No. 4, Alborada del gracioso

Marcelle Meyer, piano. Discophiles Français-EMI, recorded in Paris, March 5-8, 1954

Walter Gieseking, piano. EMI, recorded in London, December 1954

Sviatoslav Richter, piano. Chant du Monde, Czech Radio broadcast performance, Sept. 2, 1965


And in it, Charles had this to say about the other pair of pieces we heard again Friday night:
In Schumann, the effect of destabilizing the expectations of his listeners is idiosyncratic and very personal. How deliberately personal his aesthetic outlook was may be seen in his double self-portrait in Carnaval, "Eusebius" and "Florestan," respectively the names of the introvert and extrovert sides of his personality. Neither piece ends conventionally with the tonic key note in the bass. Indeed, "Florestan" does not properly end at all, but explodes in exasperation with a repeated and violently hammered dissonance, left hanging in the air, and after a pause we just go on to the next piece.
So why don't we do the same thing, and listen again to Charles playing "Eusebius" and "Arlequin," followed by Nelson Freire and Yevgeny Kissin.

SCHUMANN: Carnaval, Op. 9:
5. Eusebius: Adagio; Più lento molto teneramente (2/4)
6. Florestan: Passionato (3/4)
5. "Eusebius" (Adagio) is the first half of a double self-portrait. Schumann directs the pianist to play the beginning and end absolutely without pedal; the middle section not only is marked to be played with pedal, but it must swim in pedal in order to sustain the long rolling chords. "Eusebius" is the introverted side of Schumann, and the repressed emotion breaks out freely in the middle only to be pushed back once more.
6. "Florestan" (Passionato) is the passionate extrovert side of Schumann, capricious, moody, and unpredictable. A half-remembered echo of an earlier work keeps breaking in and interrupting the waltz, which finishes -- or, better, cannot finish at all -- in a paroxysm of rage.

["Florestan" at 1:28] Charles Rosen, piano. Nonesuch, recorded in the Netherlands, c1981

Nelson Freire, piano. Decca, recorded in Lugano, Dec. 18-22, 2002

Yevgeny Kissin, piano. BMG, recorded in Freiburg, 2001

Let me note too that in September we went on to hear the first six and last six numbers of Carnaval as played by Claudio Arrau and Alicia de Larrocha, before proceeding to Charles's recording (his second) of the complete Carnaval.


And just to have some sort of frame of reference, and since there's a digital transfer readily available, I thought we'd also hear something completely different: the recording by the great pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

SCHUMANN: Carnaval, Op. 9

1. Préambule: Quasi maestoso; Più moto; Animato; Presto (3/4)
2. Pierrot: Moderato (2/4)
3. Arlequin: Vivo (3/4)
4. Valse noble: Un poco maestoso (3/4)
5. Eusebius: Adagio; Più lento molto teneramente (2/4)
6. Florestan: Passionato (3/4)
7. Coquette: Vivo (3/4)
8. Réplique: L'istesso tempo (3/4)
9. Papillons: Prestissimo (2/4)
10. A.S.C.H. -- S.C.H.A. (Lettres dansantes) (Dancing Letters): Presto (3/4)
11. Chiarina: Passionato (3/4)
12. Chopin: Agitato (6/4)
13. Estrella: Con affetto; Più presto molto espressivo; Tempo I (3/4)
14. Reconnaissance: Animato (2/4)
15. Pantalon et Colombine: Presto (2/4)
16. Valse allemande (German Waltz): Molto vivace (3/4)
17. Intermezzo: Paganini Presto (2/4)
(with reprise of Valse allemande: Tempo I ma più vivo)
18. Aveu (Confession): Passionato (2/4)
19. Promenade: Con moto (3/4)
20. Pause: Vivo, precipitandosi (3/4)
21. Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins (March of the League of David Against the Philistines): Non allegro (3/4)

Charles Rosen, piano. Nonesuch, recorded in the Netherlands, c1981

Sergei Rachmaninoff, piano. Victor, recorded Apr. 12, 1929, transferred from an RCA LCT-series LP reissue by Bob Varney


I'm still in the (incredibly laborious) process of porting the Sunday Classics archives to the stand-alone blog at At the moment it still goes back only as far as June 2012, but that still means that there are 58 posts there from 2012, along with all of 2013 to date. (For technical reasons there are several points on the march back to 2008 where the going becomes incrementally more onerous -- and I haven't even reached the first of those points!)

Since Sunday Classics is still officially on hiatus, we haven't gone into the question of how to proceed, and so far I've been cross-posting each new post to both blogs. There's no reason why this can't continue, but another option might be a quick "highlight" teaser at DWT with the full post only as SCWK. That's just a thought. I'm open to suggestion.

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