The only piece on my Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival swing this year that I’ve performed before is Robert Schumann’s gorgeous Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47. I think that it’s at least the equal of his famous Piano Quintet (also in E-flat major). Schumann had a chamber music banner year in 1842, when he wrote his three string quartets, his Piano Quintet, and the Piano Quartet. All are masterpieces, and a great challenge to bring off in performance. Schumann doesn’t make things easy for his performers. He tends to change moods very quickly, often mid-phrase, and even when you do get to play an entire phrase without interruption, it’s often irregular in its construction. You can’t go on autopilot with Schumann. But his rewards are great. The melodies in the Piano Quartet, in particular in the slow movement, are yearning and aching and gorgeous.
A week from today I’ll be on my way to the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival (July 23 – August 1), which is a wonderful little festival in one of those special out-of-the-way places that really are truly magical. Last year’s festival was cancelled due to the huge wildfires in the area, several of which forced evacuations of much of the valley. This year (fingers crossed) it seems as though Mother Nature is cooperating. I’ll be playing three different chamber works with piano this year: John Harbison’s Piano Quintet, and the Piano Quartets of Dvorak (the E-flat) and Schumann. I’m so looking forward to this!
Stephen Hough, in a recent blog entry, answered an oft-asked question directed towards him: what kind of piano do you play on at home? Here’s what he said:
The truth is that most musicians I know have pretty rough pianos at home (not to mention the hi-fi systems on which they listen to music – and balance their coffee cups). It’s not just a question of the cost of a fine concert grand, although I found it difficult to discover the current price of a nine-foot Steinway on the internet: “if you have to ask, you can’t afford” perhaps? It’s also that I find it hard to work well on a gleaming young beast and I prefer to be hidden away somewhere with a gnarled, weather-beaten old joanna. I also don’t want to own an instrument that makes every concert hall experience a disappointment. In my New York apartment … for a day here and there … I have to confess … this is the piano I work on.
I was actually thinking about this when Stephen Hough was playing his encore the other night after Liszt’s 2nd Concerto. I know that most other instrumentalists buy the best instruments they can (or sometimes cannot) afford. Why not? You carry your instrument with you wherever you go, and you never know the quality of the hall, orchestra, or pianist that you will find yourself playing with. So a great instrument is a blessing.
But what if you are a concert pianist?
Wouldn’t having an incredible instrument at home be a curse? What would happen if you found yourself playing incredibly intricate music that calls for infinite variations of shading and color and dynamics, and you found this awaiting you:
That would not be a pretty picture for our indefatigable piano soloist! So it makes sense that one would have some sort of serviceable upright somewhere outside of one’s main home (I’m presuming that Mr. Hough spends most of his time in the UK, not in New York). Then, you’d find some good examples of grand pianos to do some real quality practicing on, or have a grand piano at one’s home base.