As a student, pianist Renée Reznek probably never dreamt that, some day, composers would be writing music specifically for her to play in concert. And yet that’s exactly what happened: a series of fortunate events propelled her on a voyage of discovery that has proven endlessly fascinating both for herself and the many music lovers with whom she generously shares her insights through her acclaimed recitals.
Q: You’re someone who performs mostly music of the 20th/21st centuries, but I’m guessing that your first exposure to music would have been more “traditional.”
R: The first piano music I remember hearing was 19th century, mostly Grieg, Schumann, and Brahms, played by my aunt who was taking care of my brother and me while my parents were away in Europe. I was four years old. I was very affected by one piece which years later I realized was Schumann’s Arabesque, op. 18. There is a middle minor section which made me weep! My aunt was so taken aback that she offered to teach me to play. From that time on, music became a refuge and a pleasure.
Q: Were your parents involved with music themselves?
R: My parents were very cultured people but neither played an instrument. They both loved music, however, and encouraged my interest. Both my siblings also learned to play piano but my sister became an actress in South Africa with her own company and my brother is a professor of psychiatry in Toronto.
My father, “Koffie,” was a doctor who made amateur 8mm films which won awards at international film festivals. One such film was The Dividing Stream, an allegorical story about the history of South Africa, apartheid, and the necessity of living side by side as equals, which obviously was not how things were politically. No one would screen the film until the censors had passed it but luckily they failed to understand it and asked only that scenes of traditional tribal dancing with dancers naked to the waist be removed! My mother, Rose, was an amateur actress who wrote a thesis on Jean Paul Sartre for a master’s degree when I was a teenager.
Q: Did you study any other instruments when you were starting out?
R: I began to study violin at Cape Town University but when the violin professor told me that first I needed lessons in carrying the violin case without looking self-conscious, I knew the exercise was doomed!
Q: At least you don’t have to worry about carrying a piano around
R: No, for which I’m grateful! [laughs]
Q: Your career as an exponent of contemporary music has brought you into close contact with many composers. Have you ever been tempted to write music?
R: I have no gift for composition and no urge to compose so I suppose I am one of a peculiarly modern group, a solely interpretative musician. Perhaps this is why I feel a responsibility to creative musicians. However, I took two years of composition class as part of my bachelor’s of music, and the lessons in techniques of development and creating structure were invaluable when I began to play new music.
Q: Which teachers would you say have been most influential in shaping both your pianism and your ideas about musical interpretation?
R: I was privileged to study with some great musicians. I am deeply indebted to Adolf Hallis, Gyorgy Sándor, Carlo Zecchi, and Susan Bradshaw. My first influential teacher was Adolf Hallis, who was a pupil of Tobias Matthay. He showed me how important it is to look at the score in detail. I was 10 years old when I began studying with him and had no idea that there were decisions to be made about phrasing, articulation, and dynamics. He introduced the use of a flexible wrist and arm; there are certain hand movements derived from his studies with Matthay which I use and teach to this day; for instance dropping the hand and wrist for the first note of a couplet and lifting it to “catch” the second note. Arm weight and the use of the arm in producing “singing” tone were new concepts. To facilitate a rich forte chord he used a tennis analogy, which remains with me. He called it “follow through.” A tennis player prepares for his shot with a swing of his arm. Long after the ball has left the racket, his swing continues through the shot and up. It does not cease abruptly even though the ball is gone because control depends on the one fluid movement. So it is with the piano: The approach to the chord is low with a good degree of arm weight and if we wish to control the speed of the hammer, the follow-through motion must continue up and towards the lid even though the sound has already been created. Hallis taught me that speed of key depression affects the dynamic: The slower the key is depressed (less weight), the softer the result; the faster it is depressed (more weight), the louder.
Q: I know that you went on to study with György Sándor, a musician for whom I have great respect.
R: I am immensely grateful to Sándor. However, I almost turned down the opportunity to study with him and learned a big lesson: Always walk through an open door! I had a piano scholarship to study at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor but decided to sign up for a master’s degree in music history with a minor in piano performance. After I was recommended to audition for Sándor, fellow students filled my head with terrifying stories (all true) about the pace of work; Sándor required a new work to be learned each week, perfected the second, and memorized the third. This filled me with trepidation; I had never worked at this level before. I made up my mind to tell Sándor that I was not capable! He listened impassively then courteously gestured to the piano stool so that I had no option but to play. I was then informed that I was accepted but only on the condition that I register for a joint master’s in piano performance as well as in music history. I was too dazed to argue! The accelerated learning process was demanding and difficult but it served me well when later on composers finished pieces uncomfortably close to the concert deadline!
I studied with Sándor for two years. He was a pragmatic teacher, always calm and courteous. He never made me feel like a “small fish in a big pond” and thereby ensured that I achieved my best. He encouraged a workmanlike attitude, which I was grateful for.
The most valuable help was technical: leaning the hand in the direction you have to go, keeping the arm relaxed and loose so that the muscle power which goes all the way up the back and arm through a flexible wrist will not be blocked. In this way the weight of the arm and the position of the hand aid the fingers, which nevertheless must also move independently. So arm weight, flexible wrist, plus independence of finger: A pianist does not need much more! In this way, Sándor’s teaching perfectly complemented those very early lessons with Hallis.
Debussy urged performers of his piano music to “make me believe that the piano has no hammers.” He knew that the piano is capable of imitating other sounds whether of two clarinets (the opening theme of Poissons d’or), the gamelan (Pagodes), bells (Cloches á travers le feuilles), or even rain (Jardins sous la Pluie). Both Sándor and Susan Bradshaw (with whom I studied in London later on) constantly reminded one of this facility. With French music it is always essential because the reliance on tone color and variety of sound is intrinsic to the structure of the piece. But all piano music benefits from using the imagination. With Beethoven we must think of the orchestra; with Chopin the long vocal lines of Bellini opera.
Q: As I’m sure you know, Sándor was the first to record Bartók’s complete piano music, a role he was ideally suited for, as he was Bartók’s pupil. Did he transmit any of his knowledge of how to play Bartók to you?
R: Sándor was such a marvelous exponent of Bartók’s music and knowing of his connection with the composer instilled great confidence; it was such a privilege to have this experience. He told me that Bartók was never dogmatic; a very sensitive individual, he was always receptive to suggestions about his music if they made sense to him. In Bartók’s music, changes of tempo are an important part of the structure. Sándor taught me that it is not the exact tempi which are important, but their relationship with each other. With a constantly varying tempo, the basic unit, whether quaver or semiquaver, must be very solid and even or the whole lacks coherence. The plentiful dynamics and accentual markings are also contextual. If a piece is mostly piano or pianissimo, a sudden forte marking does not have to be too loud to register. He disliked harsh sounds. Both Susan Bradshaw and Sándor pointed out that it is not necessary to leap on a forte passage or even a fortissimo with “guns blazing.” I ask my pupils to play forte “as if it is a louder kind of soft,” in other words without assuming that forte has an intrinsic “meaning,” i.e., angry or over-dramatic. They initially look at me quizzically but it works every time!
Q: How did you come to study with Carlo Zecchi?
R: I met Carlo Zecchi in Cape Town when I played for his master class: He arranged for a scholarship for two consecutive summers to his class at the Mozarteum Summer School in Salzburg. It was not a long time but the whole experience was a rich one: being in Mozart’s city (albeit one where he was badly treated during his lifetime!!) during Festival time.
The Mozarteum students were housed in old mansions, which had been featured in The Sound of Music; the stables had been transformed into practice rooms where occasionally pianists such as Sviatoslav Richter dropped in to practice. The students were from all over the world but by far the largest group came from Japan, all young women, demure in class but ferocious in front of the piano, performing big pieces such as Chopin’s and Liszt’s B-Minor sonatas. Few spoke any European language or any English. Perhaps because I was small with dark hair like the Japanese students, Zecchi decided I could speak Japanese and I became his unofficial “translator” whenever communication broke down. “Reznek”— in tragic tones —“please explain.” The class watched, hiding their smiles as I waved my hands about and pointed, but somehow my pantomiming was successful.
Zecchi had been a prize-winning pianist whose career was terminated by a car accident which damaged his legs. He made a new career as a conductor. He showed me scores originally owned by Toscanini with all sorts of additions inserted to make the music more “exciting.” I am not sure that he disapproved too much! His undimmed passion for music coupled with a sense for musical structure was inspiring.
Q: Can you pinpoint when your love of contemporary music took hold?
R: It all began with Schoenberg though there were a series of related events. When I was a student in Cape Town, my harmony and counterpoint lecturer, James May, now professor emeritus, asked me to play the Schoenberg Suite, op. 25, and the Webern Variations, op. 27, in a recital. In South Africa then and still today (although there are marvelous composers working at the universities) very little 20th/21st century music was played and I myself had never heard these pieces either in concert or recordings. However, out of respect for James and from curiosity, I agreed to play and went home over the vacation to learn the music. When I opened the scores given me, I was perfectly horrified! I could not make head or tail of this completely strange music! However, I had given my word, and so I persevered.
I have a story to tell even though I know it will be grist for the mill of the Schoenberg skeptic! It also illustrates the rather farcical distance between these highly developed European pieces and my African surroundings as well as the distance I traveled to “own” this music. At home in Natal, I practiced in a room with French windows opening onto a terrace overhung with a grape vine. Wild monkeys from the forest below our garden would sneak up to eat the grapes. I tried an experiment: I played Bach and Mozart; the monkeys were unperturbed. I tried Beethoven; they startled but continued to feed. But Schoenberg sent them shrieking back to their forest! I worried that my audience would do the same, but the sophisticated, educated Cape Town audience was intrigued and open-minded! Perhaps because I play mostly in university environments in South Africa (especially during the apartheid years when mixed racial audiences were only possible in universities), I have always found South African audiences thirsty for something new, though of course the general musical climate is conservative.
But to get back to my struggles with Schoenberg; gradually, especially in his Dance Suite (thank goodness for the choice of form!), I began to uncover strains of a Menuett, steps of a Gavotte...it felt exactly like an excavation! Beneath the unfamiliarity of the serial language and dense counterpoint, I sensed recognizable phrasing and I was hooked! The experience taught me that it is possible with patience, time, and motivation to unravel the most challenging of languages. A whole world opened for me after that.
I had hoped to study this music in America but Sándor’s taste did not extend to Schoenberg, et al. After graduating from the University of Michigan I completed a two-year doctoral residence at Oxford, taking piano lessons with Susan Bradshaw in London. She had been a pupil of Boulez and I was already familiar with her lucid essays on 20th century music. She at last unlocked the mysteries of performing this and more contemporary repertoire so much so that I made my London debut in the Park Lane Group’s series, “Young Artists and 20th century Music.” Because this was the start of a performing career, I never wrote up my doctoral thesis on tonality in the music of the Second Viennese School.
I cannot overstate the debt I owe Susan who became both friend and mentor. She had an incisive intelligence and independence of mind which enabled her to cut through unnecessary dross. Her lessons were a revelation. She showed me how to articulate phrasing in unfamiliar contexts.
With new music particularly it is a challenge to grasp that notes on either end of the keyboard and separated by rests belong together, such as in the opening phrase of the Boulez First Sonata. In my teaching I suggest practicing widely spaced notes legato within a single octave in order to facilitate understanding of the line. But first one has to ask the question, “What belongs together?” and that applies to any sort of music. Both György Sándor and Susan Bradshaw spoke about the necessity of allowing phrases to breathe: The first instrument is the voice. This is true for all music…the same attitude bears fruit in Chopin as in Schoenberg! Phrases should be as long as possible with a minimum of “events” within them. Susan Bradshaw, especially, favored clarity and she was particularly concerned with dynamic and rhythmic accuracy. In 20th- and 21st-century music where there is often an absence of a clear tonality, other aspects of a piece assume structural importance. Even in Debussy, where there is invariably a key signature but not the conventional grammar of functional tonality, dynamics are structural and were conceived by Debussy as such. How he complained when they were not minutely observed and for this reason!
In the Berg Sonata, op. 1, for instance, dynamic changes are part of the form; if observed they help recognition of a returning theme, or a new section, so inattention to all these details prevents the structure from being clearly communicated. Likewise, accents and staccato indications aid the shaping and defining of phrases in a complex tonal environment. In Berg’s sonata awareness that the tritone is the unifying interval is also important; the more we understand, the more we may convey. As for rhythmic accuracy, it is essential that we hear the difference between the triplet figures and the dotted eighth-16th-note figures. Lack of accuracy removes a central part of Berg’s structure, as does failure to observe the changing tempo markings. Ritardandos aid cadences in all of the Second Viennese School music and much of what follows.
Q: You may have had to put your thesis about tonality in the Second Viennese School aside, but that hasn’t stopped you from playing the music.
R: I have performed the entire solo piano repertoire of the Second Viennese School, excluding the Schoenberg piano concerto. I once played all these pieces from memory in London’s Wigmore Hall in a recital which Music and Opera Review cited as one of the best in the London concert calendar. I have received this accolade twice (the second time in the London Financial Times) and am very proud of having my name in the same paragraph as Pollini, a first and last time! This repertoire was my initiation into the more challenging works of the 20th century and also became the gateway through which I approached new music. Because I worked so hard initially to understand and perform these pieces, and because I felt so rewarded by that journey in terms of stimulation and enjoyment, these works will always have a special place in my heart. I am aware that of all these pieces, the Berg sonata, with its lush harmonies, is the most accessible of them all, but Schoenberg’s opp. 11 and 19, as well as the Webern variations, op. 27, are now accepted 20th-century classics.
Q: Although you play a great deal of contemporary music, you haven’t discarded what’s often referred to as the core repertoire. Do you find that analyzing and performing modern works brings increased understanding to “the classics”?
R: Because it is so vital in unfamiliar music to be precise about everything in order to communicate with the audience, I find my attitude refreshed on returning to the standard repertoire. I am more inclined to look at the music from the “inside out.” In other words, to treat familiar music as if it were new and as if neither I, nor my audience, have heard it before. I try to begin with the notation, not allowing myself to listen to recordings until I am satisfied I have understood everything for myself. Difficult as it is to ignore performances one has already heard, I am nevertheless insistent on this approach for my students whose first recourse would otherwise be YouTube!! This is not to dismiss the fact that notation cannot always be taken at literal or face value. Most often the composer is able to express the idea in his/her head with accuracy but sometimes (and I have always been fascinated by these instances) it is difficult to put on paper exactly what is required to elicit the desired performance. In these cases an imaginative leap is required from the performer. An extra effort is needed to convey the essence of a new work to the audience hearing it for the first time; there is a necessity to be very clear in one’s mind about everything, even the gestures one makes in performance; I call this the “theater” of performance. Economy of gesture is useful in performance of all types of music.
There is something else though…playing new music is a salutary reminder that these great works were composed by real people, not mythical beings! I have a theory that in a secular age, the ritual of attending a concert has, for some, replaced religious observance. We have our sacred Ürtexts, our priests of the piano (or whatever instrument). We listen in reverential silence, disturbed by any deviations from the score or sometimes from our favorite recordings! Errors alarm us…perhaps the “gods” will not come down amongst us if the work is not executed well! Being involved with living composers helps to put the inherited tradition into perspective.
Q: How have your programs changed over the years?
R: When we are young, it is so easy to be carried away by passionate enthusiasm! I am no less enthusiastic or passionate now but I feel more open to 20th-century and contemporary music of all kinds. For a while I bought into the attitude that Alex Ross describes as part of the Schoenbergian inheritance in his wonderful book about 20th-century music, The Rest is Noise. I was more judgmental, requiring the music I played to be “cutting edge” or radical for its time. When I look back on past concert programs I am astounded at the demands I made on my audiences! Perhaps my attitude altered when I took a break from performing after our children were born, which allowed for reflection, though I continued to teach.
There has never been a period in which it was so difficult to be a composer, to find a “voice.” I am not talking about earning a living; that is perennially challenging! We are bombarded on all sides by music from every century and from across the globe. There has also never been a time before the 20th century when music from the past dominated music-making at home or in concert halls. For the contemporary composer these are challenging times. He/she may get a first performance but second performances especially of big pieces are even rarer so audiences do not hear the works enough to understand them.
I am no longer inclined to be critical about choice of style or language as long as there is structural coherence and emotional truth. In fact in recent years I have played many tonal pieces which I would have ignored in the past. I have found great joy in discovering marvelous composers whose works have been readily understood and enjoyed by my audiences. I still love the challenge of a good piece that may be less accessible at a first hearing, but I hope I have learned to create programs that allow my audience a more varied listening experience.
Q: I realize that this is a question that’s potentially encyclopedic in scope, but could you give us an overview of what 20th-century piano music most appeals to you?
R: I am inspired by the diversity and inventiveness of 20th and 21st century music. I relish the relationship with my own time and the stimulation of unraveling disparate languages. The music of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg) and especially Schoenberg’s suite, op. 25, has a special place in my heart because this was my introduction to more challenging 20th-century repertoire. I worked so hard to understand the suite; I really know it inside out and it is impossible for me to hear it objectively. To enjoy this music or indeed any music, you must like the sounds and I do. I relish the intricate counterpoint and those falling, sighing phrases so typical of Schoenberg’s style. I like that almost Brahmsian combination of classical rigor and romantic expressiveness (The Intermezzo particularly reminds me of Brahms). I find Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstucke, op. 11, and Sechs Kleine Klavierstucke, op. 19, very compelling. The latter presages Webern’s variations; both are delicate and precise though the Schoenberg has more expressive weight. The tight construction of the three pieces of op. 11 underpins their rich emotional content; melodies of anguished darkness startlingly juxtaposed with rapid passagework. The Berg sonata is an amazing opus 1; it is understandably the most accessible and most often performed piece from this period.
I think that one of the most exciting periods in music history is the very end of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th when so many different idioms were being developed. I would like to time travel to the period described by Roger Shattuck in his book The Banquet Years: 1885-World War I. In Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris, the main character does just that though he chooses not to stay for want of antibiotics!
French music from this time is alluring: Satie, Debussy, Ravel, and later Messiaen. The beautiful sounds, textures, and imaginative juxtapositions show the influence of the East. In some of the works of Debussy and Messiaen, the lush harmonies induce a sense of suspension, which at times feels spiritual. One may find the same oriental meditative spaces in Satie’s music but in a sparer language. Satie’s music is almost static but there is often, as with Debussy, humor and mimicry. In Messiaen’s music the religious expression is passionate and overt. He regarded birds as mystical symbols and filled his music with birdsong. In my Cape Town recital last year, a small brown sparrow flew in through an open window to settle beside me on the stage while I introduced several pieces from Messiaen’s vast opus, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant–Jésus (some of which are on the CD). As soon as I had finished speaking it flew away. I have to tell you that I felt blessed!
With Debussy, everything is implied or suggested. Take a piece such as Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, from Images Book 2. The rich chords, liberated from the conventional grammar of functional tonality, induce a meditative calm. Having spent time recently in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, wandering around ancient pagodas and temple ruins, I feel he captures the atmosphere to perfection. Debussy was inspired by Javanese gamelan music, by Indian and Japanese music; his interest in art, music, and literature from across the globe enriched his own composition.
Another composer with ears open to all sorts of music was Bartók. He went as far as collecting and recording folk song from many different countries. What a rich seam to mine! Bartók’s rhythmic vitality and muscularity contrasts with more soulful moments, which arise from traditional melodies, sounding timeless and true. Even the simpler folk-song settings like the Six Romanian Folk Dances are imaginative. In a piece like the Improvisations, op. 20, the writing is inventive and solidly rooted in the folk music he cared so much about, because the harmonic language derives from the intervals prevalent in the melodies. As with Debussy I enjoy the balance of form. There is evidence that both composers were aware of golden section principles and structured their pieces accordingly.
Janácek’s works are idiosyncratic but very beautiful. Because of the constant repetition of very small motives and his obsession with speech melody (he even notated his daughter Olga’s dying words in musical form!) there is an intensity which is compelling. The strange atmospheres often appear dreamlike. Janácek’s On an Overgrown Path includes The Barn owl has not flown away! which I recorded for my CD, Piano Recital. The repeated falling third motive sounds to me like an anguished calling of Olga’s name; the owl is the omen of her death. Again, the influence of traditional melodies as well as Czech intonations colors this music.
In Ann Arbor I fulfilled a dream: to play Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata. It nearly killed me but I did it! The rhythmic drive alternates with humor and episodes of what I call “graveyard” music, eerie and evocative. Visions fugitives epitomizes these contrasts. Shostakovich wrote fine piano music, but Prokofiev with his quirky, idiosyncratic turns of phrase is the composer I return to.
I think of Stravinsky as the Picasso of 20th-century music. His compositions span so many different idioms and styles but always with an ironic distance. I particularly love the ballets; my idea of heaven is to watch recreations of the great ballets of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. I have been lucky enough to see a recreation of the original staging of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, amongst others. The acerbic wit of Tango (also on the CD) is teasingly ironic. The Sonata is a brilliant contemporary evocation of a work I love, J. S. Bach’s Italian Concerto. It is evidence of why so many musicians who enjoy 20th-century music also love the Baroque: fantastic counterpoint!
The American composers from this period: Gershwin, Copland, Barber, and Bernstein bring a different music to the table mostly because of the influence of jazz and popular song. You can learn so much about tonality in the 20th century from playing Gershwin’s song arrangements! The Barber Sonata is one of the great works of 20th-century piano repertoire. Barber found a way of combining serial technique with an accessible tonal structure. The sonata is a masterpiece of scholarly composition which lives and breathes. Excursions is the American answer to Bartók and Janácek.
Spanish music is such a rich amalgam with origins in Moorish music, Gypsy traditions, church music, and regional folk melodies; the music is addictive: Granados, Albéniz, Falla, and Mompou. I must not forget Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos, and Ginastera who come from related traditions. Again it is the influence of local music which colors and defines their music. It is obvious that in forging new pathways, composers in the 20th century turned to their own traditional musical inheritance for inspiration, a journey which, of course, began in the 19th century.
Of the English “classics,” I play several Tippett sonatas, which I enjoy and also pieces by Gerald Finzi, Lennox Berkeley, Richard Rodney Bennett, and Jonathan Harvey: The last two sadly passed away in December 2012. Because I live in the U.K., I perform a lot of new British music. I have played works by Robert Saxton, George Nicholson (both wrote hugely difficult but rewarding sonatas for me), Hugh Wood, Giles Swayne, John Tavener, Michael Finnissy, Oliver Knussen, Malcolm Pointon, Brian Elias, Howard Skempton, Morgan Hayes, and Graham Lynch, to name a few.
I have often performed the Boulez First Sonata but I confess that I have not come to love it. I prefer the music of, say, the Ligeti Etudes. The brilliance of the pianism and the extraordinary inventiveness cannot be overstated. Here again is a composer who drew from many sources to create a rich language of his own. I play Berio but not Stockhausen. Just as an Italian serialist like Dallapiccola cannot help but write musically and melodically, so it is with Berio.
Q: The musicians I know who specialize in new music enjoy the interaction with the composers along with the satisfaction of performing works of our time. May I assume that you feel the same way?
R: I really enjoy this interaction and also the feeling that I am part of something new. This is the closest I can get. I am fascinated by notation; what it can and cannot express and it is stimulating to discover for myself how to make the piece work. Of course, I often come across new music by someone I do not know but which I long to play. Such a piece is Carl Vine’s Five Bagatelles which is sitting on top of the piano right now!
Playing the music of one’s own time enables a musician to participate in creating a tradition, to exercise a critical intelligence in sifting the wheat from the chaff where as yet there is no judgment of history. Until the 20th century, audiences were accustomed to listening to the music of their own time and to playing it. The situation which exists today whereby our musical lives are dominated by works from the past, is unprecedented.
Many composers whose works occupy central stage in our concert programs struggled to be heard or to make a living during their lifetimes. Knowing this how can I not play new music? Read Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective; you will come across the same scathing criticisms that were directed at Beethoven, Chopin, or Liszt: Only the composer’s names have changed. Besides, contemporary music offers a completely different experience in the same way that an art exhibition of paintings by David Hockney is different from one by Turner. To illustrate what I mean, I would like to recount a personal experience: I gave the first London performance of Three Bagatelles from Book 1 by the renowned British composer Giles Swayne. He devises modes of his own for each bagatelle; his pieces either fizz with energy and humor or present calm, meditative spaces. I went to hear his Stabat Mater for unaccompanied choir, performed in London by the Dmitri Ensemble. In this piece Giles intersperses the Latin poem Stabat mater dolorosa, a meditation on the death of Jesus, with the words of the Hebrew Kaddish (using the original Aramaic) and the Arabic words of the Muslim burial service. At the end, all three religious cultures are united in a prayer for peace in Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. This beautiful piece affected me deeply. Here is a powerful work by a living composer which is relevant to a painful, intractable situation in the Middle East which exists right now. Of course this is not to deny that great works of art or music from the past may have contemporary relevance; they speak to us beyond their own time but not necessarily in such a specific way nor in an idiom which is of our own time.
For all sorts of reasons, some historical, some intrinsic to music, there are many styles and idioms to choose from in the 20th and 21st centuries, something for everyone! This diversity has its own challenge; I understand that there are those who do not have the time, energy, or desire to familiarize themselves with every new language. However, if you are daunted by music without tonality, there are many composers who write unique works with tonal links. For example, David Earl, a longstanding friend who was born in South Africa but now lives in the U.K., writes melodic, highly chromatic tonal music. In 2008 I commissioned him to write a piece in memory of my parents, Rose and Joel “Koffie” Reznek, whom he knew. I was confident that he would compose music which they would have enjoyed. I wanted a piece which would reflect my parents’ love for each other and my nostalgia for a childhood spent playing in a lush tropical garden in Natal. Old Roses was named not only for my mother but for her favorite flowers.
I gave the first performance in London and recorded it for my CD, Piano Recital. This work is proof for me that it is still possible to use keys, triadic chords, and the underlying functions of tonality in a fresh, evocative way. Last year I toured South Africa; one of the concerts was in my hometown in front of many people who remembered our family. During the rehearsal the previous day I felt inconsolable; the concert promoter probably wondered at this red-eyed pianist emerging after practice with a big wad of tissues! But though I dreaded losing control of my emotions in front of friends, in the event I felt a wonderful calm through which I could sense the presence of my parents. David Earl also wrote Chios Rhapsody for me and it was premiered in 2010: It was commissioned by the London Hellenic Centre and is a demanding but striking work based on melodies from Chios transcribed by Paul Le Flem.
Jorge Grundman, the renowned Spanish composer, writes neo-tonal music as well; I gave the world premiere of his new piece written for me in 2012 in London. For so many pianists, 2012 has been dominated by Debussy in celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth. In this recital I included the haunting Homenaje Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy written by Falla in memory of Debussy, originally for guitar and later transcribed for piano. I decided to look for a piece by a contemporary Spanish composer to complement the Homenaje and by happy chance I was introduced to the works of Jorge Grundman. I realized immediately that his music possessed the meditative and expressive qualities I was looking for.
Grundman offered to compose a piece and responded with extraordinary generosity of spirit when I mentioned connecting his work with the Falla. The result is In the Still of the Night (2012), which seeks to reflect Falla’s thoughts as he attempts to come to terms with Debussy’s death; they were great friends. There are links with the tonality of Falla’s piece. The Homenaje relies on a melancholy melody consisting of an alternating semitone, used here to express mourning (though Falla used it elsewhere to completely different effect!). Grundman’s piece also incorporates an alternating semitone figure throughout, though in his work it is not melodic but an ever-present motive expressive of abiding grief. Above or below this figure he has composed melodies of great beauty. The context is tonal but not chromatic; harmonies are simple and textures are less dense than in Earl’s piece. Many members of the audience were deeply affected by these works, especially Grundman’s piece; even strangers wrote to me afterwards to express their feelings.
Q: What are some of the other works you’ve premiered?
R: In 2008 I gave the first London performance of Hendrik Hofmeyr’s Partita Africana. Hofmeyr is a South African composer teaching at the University of Cape Town who went into self-imposed exile during the apartheid years. He based his Partita on various African idioms. The Praeludium, for instance, uses fragments of San music; the piece evokes the vast spaces of Africa. Umsindo has great rhythmic vitality; the harmonic basis consists of two notes a whole tone apart, common in Xhosa and Zulu music. The combination of the irregular meter, the modal inflections, and repetitive melodic figures, makes me long for Africa!
I have already mentioned the Bagatelles by Giles Swayne. He plans to compose 100 such pieces, all based on modes of his own invention. While these pieces are uniquely modal, not tonal, their tight construction and brevity ensures a unity of sound. Each bagatelle is full of character hinted at by Swayne’s often-mischievous titles. I have been looking through the Bagatelles Book 2: Pieces range from It tolls for thee, a meditation on death, to Passing wind, which has nothing to do with outside elements! Perhaps this is the place to make the confession that I love short pieces; I love to play works which are finely honed and succinct without any “padding.” I prefer shorter recitals to lengthy marathons!
I gave the first London performance of three bagatelles from Book 1 (2007): Aerobic Invention (fast and energetic with intricate contrapuntal passagework alternating with dramatic chords), Free and Easy (slow and meditative with pellucid figuration), and Sweet and Sour (off beat chords and staccato notes all over the keyboard contrasting with legato phrases). I argued with Giles over the latter! He marks the piece senza pedale, which results in some very difficult legato chord passages with complicated fingering. I wanted pedal to aid a smoother line but Giles was adamant. He preferred a particular sound, without use of dampers. “If I see your little foot moving anywhere near the pedal, I shall swoop down and remove it,” he threatened. Giles is over six foot tall. I am at least a foot shorter. I kept my foot off the pedal! Even when I played the Bagatelles in South Africa or elsewhere in the U.K., his terrifying injunction rang in my ears!
RENÉE REZNEK PIANO RECITAL • Renée Reznek (pn) • RREZ 01 (56:59)
JANÁCEK On an Overgrown Path: Book I. DEBUSSY Preludes: Brouillards; Feuilles mortes; La puerta del Vino; “General Lavine” -eccentric; Hommage ŕ S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. MESSIAEN Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus: Regard du Pčre; Regard de l’etoile; Regard de la Vierge. EARL Old Roses. STRAVINSKY Tango
Available from this website, at CDBaby, CD Universe, and Amazon as audio CD or download.
Pianist Renée Reznek’s affinity for her chosen repertoire, maturity of conception, and superb technical command can be heard in every note of this highly polished, yet intimate, recital. “Recital,” a word that I believe was first used in a musical context by Liszt to compare his concerts to histrionic performances, is a most apposite term for Reznek’s way with these scores. Every subtlety of line and dynamic is exquisitely weighed, balanced, and declaimed so as to artfully play its part in the “drama.” These pieces don’t seek to overwhelm the listener with overt virtuosity, but rather to charm either through uninhibited sentiment (David Earl’s Old Roses), atmosphere alternating with wit (Debussy), religious contemplation of the infinite (Messiaen), or by stimulating reassessment of a familiar form through juxtaposition with a “modern” sensibility (Stravinsky). Reznek’s Janácek is tender and lovingly redolent of the distinctive Czech ambiance. At the same time, she delineates the sophisticated touches that set these pieces apart from folk music. She is a colorist of “the first water:” listen to Brouillards for as close a musical evocation of fog as can be imagined or to the “starry” sounds in Messiaen’s Regard de l’étoile —but she wisely applies her brush with restraint. She’s receptive to Debussy’s humor (“General Lavine”-eccentric; Hommage ŕ S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.) while endowing La puerta del Vino with perfumed sensuousness. In other hands, Messiaen’s minimalist Regard du Pčre might lose definition, but Reznek’s concentration doesn’t waver. I’ve heard Stravinsky’s Tango attacked with more immediate sarcasm, but Reznek’s initially gentler approach doesn’t stint on that particularly 20th-century emotion as the piece unfolds. In short, this is a most welcome introduction to an excellent pianist whose playing is sure to bring further pleasure and insight with each new hearing.
Copyright © 2013 Fanfare Inc.