Piano Recital: Hando Nahkur
Busoni-Bach / Liszt-Schumann / Tüür / Liszt / Liszt-Verdi
Zurich Area, 2016-11-13
This was another private recital. In the same place (in a loft apartment near Zurich) I already witnessed recitals by the Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva (2008 and 2010), as well as in January 2016 the Kazakh pianist Oxana Shevchenko. This recital featured a somewhat smaller audience of around 35. In this concert, the pianist at the Steinway B-211 grand was the Estonian Hando Nahkur, born 1982 in Tallinn.
Hando Nahkur received his first musical education in Estonia. There, he studied piano, percussion and conducting at the Tallinn Music High School, and at the Estonian Academy of Music & Theatre with Ülle Sisa, Erna Saar, his father Toivo Nahkur, Aleksandra Juozapenaite-Eesmaa, Kristjan Mäeots, Olav Ehala, and Ants Sööt. Soon after 2000, Hando Nahkur moved to the USA, where he studied at various universities, such as Yale University School of Music, New England Conservatory of Music, Texas Christian University School of Music and SMU Meadows School of the Arts. Currently he is working on his Doctorate degree at the University of North Texas.
Hando Nahkur has successfully launched a career as soloist and recording artist. He also arranges classic pop tunes for solo piano and performs them in his concerts. Nahkur also is the Director of Music at Christ Lutheran Church in Dallas. There, he performs as a pianist/organist, conducts multiple choirs and supervises CLC’s entire music program.
This information is taken from the biography at Hando Nahkur’s Web site.
For reasons outlined below, I’m partly grouping my comments on Hando Nahkur’s performance. The comments to the composers and compositions are in parts translations from the German comment leaflet that I wrote for distribution at this recital.
John Coolidge Adams (*1947): China Gates (1977)
The prolific American composer John Coolidge Adams (born 1947) is now living in California. He has create a broad range of compositions, from 8 operas so far to orchestral works, chamber music, solo works and film music. For more details on Adams’ biography and oeuvre see also Wikipedia.
Many of Adams’ compositions show the composer as exponent of minimalism. Minimal Music is a style that was first created / pioneered by composers such as La Monte Thornton Young (*1935), Terry (Terrence Mitchell) Riley (*1935), Steve (Stephen Michael) Reich (*1936), and Philip Morris Glass (*1937). My personal, first encounter with Minimalism was through Steve Reich’s composition “Drumming“. That’s a work of 55 – 85 minutes duration, consisting of seemingly endless repetitions of the same rhythmic pattern. These pattern undergo very slight / gradual and momentarily unnoticeable changes—meditative music of sorts. Adams’ composition “China Gates”is a good example for this style:
China Gates (1977)
Albeit not quite as extreme as Steve Reich’s “Drumming” and similar compositions, John Adams also confronts the listener with seemingly constant, repetitive pattern / motifs, which are subjected to gradual changes. Different from Reich’s “Drumming” , which primarily works with gradual rhythmic / time shifts, Adams’ composition (which was creates as a companion work for a longer composition, “Phrygian Gates“) is more about shifts in tonalities. “China Gates” is in three parts—all play with tonalities, or rather: with modes, i.e., the ancient Greek tonoi and harmoniai, of which the modern modes minor and major are just a sub-set:
- The first part plays with changes between mixolydian and aeolian modes. The mixolydian mode can be thought as a major scale that starts on the fifth tone, i.e., it lacks the lead tone. The aeolian mode is the equivalent of the modern natural minor scale (a major scale, but starting on the sixth tone).
- The third part plays with the lydian and locrian modes. The lydian mode is essentially a major scale with up-lifted fourth tone (or a major scale, starting on the fourth tone). The locrian mode did not exist in Greek times or old church music—it was added in modern times, in order to complete the set of modes. Locrian can be thought as a major scale, starting on the seventh tone.
- In the middle part, all these four modes are used / mixed.
On can summarize the description of music as a reduction to the absolute minimum, to the essence. With this, it should be accessible to a large range of listeners. There are no formal structures that one needs to understand / contemplate: one can just listen into the music, let one’s mind float in the gradual progression of sound—a special kind of meditative music, in a way!
Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924): 2 Transcriptions of Chorale-Preludes by Bach
Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924) was one of the pre-eminent piano virtuosi of his time. Besides pursuing a soloist’s career, Busoni also was a composer, starting of with late romantic style works, later moving into the direction of atonality. His compositorial oeuvre obviously features many piano works, but also includes chamber music and orchestral works, concertos (a violin concerto and a monumental, if not monstrous piano concerto in C major, op.39, with choral finale, BV 247), also four operas (one of them incomplete).
Busoni has arranged numerous works by other composers for the piano, among them works by Beethoven, Liszt, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, but primarily works by Johann Sebastian Bach. Busoni’s arrangements are anything but note-by-note transcriptions for two hands on the piano. He largely kept the melodic lines and the harmonies of the original, but he expanded the dynamics, created a denser texture. Among Busoni’s transcriptions, there are several of organ works by Bach; two of those were played in this recital. Here, he often tried imitating the power and the glory of the organ pedal by adding octaves in the bass.
Hando Nahkur played Busoni’s transcription of two chorale preludes by Bach:
Busoni transcribed this Chorale-Prelude 1898 (in Busoni’s list of works, this is BV B 27/5). The Prelude “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (I call on Thee, Lord Jesus Christ), BWV 639, is from a series of 10 Chorale-Preludes that Bach wrote 1708 – 1717. These are part of the famous “Orgelbüchlein“, BWV 599 – 644. The text of the chorale is by Johann Agricola (1494 – 1566). Bach used this chorale in his Cantata BWV 180, “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele” (Adorn yourself, O dear soul).
Also the second transcription is based on a chorale prelude by Bach:
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): “Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland” BWV 659
Busoni’s transcription of this Chorale-Prelude (also from 1898) is listed as BV B 27/3. Bach’s Chorale-Prelude “Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland” (Now comes the Gentiles’ Savior), BWV 659 belongs to a series of 18 Chorale-Preludes that Bach wrote during the last 10 years of his life. However, the material stems from works that Bach wrote during his time in Weimar, 1713 – 1717. Actually, the words and the melody of the chorale are by Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) — and Luther’s text is based on a hymn “Veni redemptor gentium” by Ambrose (Aurelius Ambrosius, Sant’Ambrogio, Saint Ambrose, ca. 340 – 397).
Performance Notes, I:
When Hando Nahkur started playing, my first reaction was—surprise, puzzlement and irritation: this wasn’t John Adams’ “China Gates”, and definitely not minimal music, but Hando Nahkur’s arrangement of some popular song. In the aftermath, for his two encores (see below), he explained that he likes arranging pieces. Now—this is not “my” style of music; it may be—and certainly was—well-written, and the playing was flawless, but for me this sounded like “bar music”, or music for an elevated salon-style music; it might just as well have been (well-)improvised. I don’t really mean to criticize this music, but it definitely was not what I expected: such an extreme contrast between Adams’ (in a way) highly artificial Minimal Art and—popular, overly harmonious, comparatively trivial (in terms of “artificiality”) music…as mentioned, I was irritated, to say the least.
Adams — China gates
If an artist so chooses to start a recital, so be it: I have to accept that, of course. However, what caused upsetting rather than irritation was the fact that after a little over a minute, Nahkur seamlessly moved on to “China Gates”. To me, this was completely against the nature of Adams’ composition. Further, it actually blurred the transition: people in the audience who had never heard Adams’ piece must have remained clueless about which was which. It even made it impossible for the listener to perceive Adams’ piece as such, and to perceive the nature of that composition and its structure (as minimal as that may be). Hando Nahkur may view his transition to be “clever”—but however brilliant that transition may have been: in my view it was detrimental to the perception of Adams’ music.
The playing in “China Gates” was OK; Nahkur tended to add little hesitations prior to harmonic changes / switches. I’m not sure this is needed or even desirable: isn’t it the idea of Minimal Art that transitions are minimized / seamless, if not even hidden / unnoticeable?
Busoni / Bach — “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ”
Hando Nahkur waited for the final chord of “China Gates” to fade away (sustain pedal)—then again continued without interruption with Busoni’s first transcription. Even though that transcription is beautiful music, I still / again think it is not a good fit for the preceding piece, and neither Adams’ piece nor transcription profited in any way from combining the two.
As for the transcription: I found Hando Nahkur’s interpretation to be relatively static. He nicely highlighted the melody / chorale line and formed a single, big, dynamic arch—but to me, it lacked agogics, emotional depth at a small-scale, i.e., I missed some “Klangrede” within short phrases.
Busoni / Bach — “Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland”
Same game again: Hando Nahkur attached the second transition to the first one. And even though both chorales are slow, solemn in nature, the second one starts at a different tonality, so I could not even claim that the transition was a good fit. The artist used a little more agogics here than in the first transcription—but that was almost natural, as this chorale line isn’t just a uniformly stepping melody as “Ich ruf’ zu dir”. To me, the final phrase seemed a little exaggerated, both dynamically and in the strong ritardando.
Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)
Franz Liszt was maybe the key figure for the art of piano playing in the 19th century—not just as traveling virtuoso, but equally as composer. His early piano compositions are highly virtuosic, extroverted, obviously written into the composer’s own hands and fingers. In his later years, however, he gradually moved over to the area of religious, if not even esoteric music.
One of Liszt’s specialties were transcriptions. With these, he didn’t primarily mean or intend to present his own virtuosity. Rather, he wanted to enable “elevated” households to have access to and enjoy highlights of the concert and opera repertoire in the private salon / living room. One such example are Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s nine symphonies for the piano.
Around 1840, Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) wrote his famous Lied “Widmung” (Dedication) as first Lied in the cycle “Myrthen“, op.25. “Widmung” is one of the true highlights in Schumann’s Lied oeuvre—maybe not even just Schumann’s. That’s not just because of its marvelous melodic invention, but primarily because of the congenial music to that famous poem by Friedrich Rückert (1788 – 1866):
I found a translation of that poem (© George Bird and Richard Stokes — not an ideal translation in all parts, in terms of rhythmic structure):
To me, the first part of the poem forms a sort of descriptive exposition, laying out the depth and the width of the lover’s feelings towards his (or her) partner, while the second part (to me) contains the actual dedication. In musical terms, the exposition / the first verse (to me) is building up, the second verse altogether is the climax (in Schumann’s original Lied—I’m thinking of / listening to an excellent interpretation by Bryn Terfel and Malcolm Martineau).
Performance Notes, II:
It is not easy to differentiate between “Liszt’s doing” and Hando Nahkur’s contribution to the result—but it is certainly not wrong to state that Franz Liszt did an excellent “job” at combining the vocal line and the accompaniment into what two hands can do on a single keyboard. And Hando Nahkur used careful, “speaking, vocal” agogics and dynamic highlighting to make the vocal line clear and obvious at all times. I really liked the “Klangrede” in his playing—though one might argue that maybe the melody voice was standing out too much?
The melody line was certainly expressive. However, in the first verse, the “overall emotionality” remained relatively flat. Only the second verse (after the tonality change) confronted the listener with big emotions and strong expression (and big volume, too). From the text I see no reason to hold back emotions during the first half. There are maybe points where one wants to take back the volume—but one could make the same claim about the second verse. Within that, I only see the place for letting the emotions flow freely at the very end. In general, I see the second verse as being more intimate, more introspective than the first one, whereas the first verse expresses the “big feelings”!
I should say, though, that I haven’t checked how much of this discrepancy between how I see the Lied and between Hando Nahkur’s interpretation is rooted in Franz Liszt’s view of that Lied and/or poem.
Erkki-Sven Tüür (*1959): Piano Sonata (1985)
The Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür was born 1959 on the island of Hiiumaa, located between the Gulf of Riga and the Baltic Sea. From his education, Tüür is flutist and percussionist—but he also studied composition. Between 1979 and 1984 he was leading the Estonian rock band In Spe, but thereafter, he turned towards composing. Since then, he has created a large oeuvre, spanning from opera to symphonies and other orchestral works, concerts, vocal music, chamber music, and solo works—among them the Piano Sonata from 1985:
Piano Sonata (1985)
Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Piano Sonata from 1985 (also) carries characteristics of Minimal Music. It is strongly rhythmical, and over wide stretches if consists of repetitive motifs. However, different from works by composers such as John Adams or Steve Reich, the harmonies are progressing constantly, almost with every bar, covering a wide spectrum. There are also sudden changes in atmosphere. At its core, the focus is not on gradual changes, but rather the harmonic evolution / progression. The Sonata features three movements:
- Allegro con moto
In the second movement, Erkki-Sven Tüür is playing with the fading of archaic melodies and harmonies. The contrasting middle part features some impressive, towering stacks of sound. Especially the outer movements are in parts very virtuosic and demanding on the artist. One should note that Tüür composed this sonata while Estonia was still part of the USSR (the nation became independent 6 years after that composition). As Hando Nahkur explained, Tüür’s Piano Sonata to him is a link back into his home country, after having been in the States for 13 years. To him, the sonata not only reflects the Estonian atmosphere (wind, weather, snow), but also in a way the darkness, the spirit of Estonia while still part of the USSR.
Performance Notes, III:
This was clearly the highlight of Hando Nahkur’s recital—a piece in the forefront of his repertoire, which he also has recorded on CD. The first movement started with the full sound of repetitive broken chords, alluding to rapid free preluding (almost a baroque reminiscence), heritage from Minimal Art. The harmonies of course move far beyond the classic or baroque scope. As interesting as the preluding progression, the harmonies, are the pauses in-between forte passages: pauses in which Hando Nahkur (and Tüür) seems to listen to the fading of the chords, until the preluding sets in again. Fragments of a short melody (more a motif, really). The piece moves on to a busy climax, where lots of fast action surrounds a sequence of melody fragments. Towards, the end, the preluding segments get shorter, the pauses longer and more frequent.
It’s hard to judge an interpretation if there is no comparison or standard other than the artist’s own CD recording. But without doubt, Hando Nahkur knows the piece inside out, his playing is impeccable, as far as I can tell (without score). I can confirm the strongly atmospheric nature of the piece—definitely for this movement, where the waiting, the holding during the pauses seemed to indicate strong expectations, but at the same time also loneliness—the listening to wind, weather?
The beginning of the second movements (following attacca) consists of a series of loud staccato “bangs” at various pitches, while holding down a chord in the bass. This creates interesting harmonics in the unmuted chord. The piece then turns more silent, with melodies above resonant bass notes, Building up volume again, to a strong climax. then it seems to fade away, until the initial “bangs” resume, to complete the A-B-A form. In terms of volume, the outer parts appear to compete with Ligeti’s ffffffff … Interesting music, for sure! And even “just” a Steinway B-211 proved to be capable of producing an astounding volume.
III. Allegro con moto
The final movement (again following attacca, without rest) is the one with the strongest relation to Minimalism: trails of repetitive pattern that start ff, then gradually fade out. Such trails overlap in sequence. The movement is often strongly rhythmic, sometimes almost jazzy. A very vivid movement. And yet, to me, it seems to express nature—nature alone, without humans or other animals, “pure landscape”, maybe winter? The movement goes through an intense climax—so strong that I’m reminded of volcanic, harsh geological “events”, maybe earthquakes, rather than endless forests and lakes of nordic landscapes… turmoil in the composer’s mind? Reminiscences of the composer’s past in a rock band? Strong music to me, for sure: I really like it!
Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886): “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude”, S.173/3
1847, Franz Liszt gave a concert in Kiev. There, he met the Polish Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein (1819 – 1887). The princess remained one of the key personalities for the rest of his life. She wanted Liszt to concentrate on composing, rather than on traveling as a virtuoso. So, after a tour of the Balkans, Turkey and Russia that summer, Liszt gave his final concert for pay in September, then spent the winter of 1847 with the princess at her Polish-Ukrainian estate in Woronińce. A quote from Wikipedia: “By retiring from the concert platform at 35, while still at the height of his powers, Liszt succeeded in keeping the legend of his playing untarnished.”
“Harmonies poétiques et religieuses”, S.173
One of the works that Liszt wrote in Woronińce is the cycle “Harmonies poétiques et religieuses”, S.173. This is a cycle of 10 compositions:
- Ave Maria
- Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (The Blessing of God in Solitude)
- Pensée des morts (In Memory of the Dead);
- Pater Noster
- Hymne de l’enfant à son réveil (The Awaking Child’s Hymn)
- Funérailles (Funeral);
- Miserere, d’après Palestrina
- (Andante lagrimoso)
- Cantique d’amour (Hymn of Love)
Hando Nahkur played the third piece from this cycle, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (The Blessing of God in Solitude).
Performance Notes, IV:
A difficult piece, unless one just uses it to reflect, to meditate! Extremely long phrases, harmonies that never appear to reach a target, long waves in dynamic arches. Only in the last part, the music turns more melodic, conciliatory, seems to come to a rest—in peace. Clearly, Liszt’s later style, not the extroverted virtuosity or sensationalism. Music which I think one needs to listen to a couple of times in order to fully enjoy it. What a contrast to the direct expression in Tüür’s sonata.
Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886): Concert Paraphrase on “Rigoletto”, S.434
In March, 1851, the Opera “Rigoletto” by Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) premiered in Venice. The opera—one of Verdi’s true masterpieces—uses a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave (1810 – 1876). That libretto in turn stems from the play Le roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885). The popularity of this opera motivated Franz Liszt to write a Concert Paraphrase (S.434) on melodies from this opera, in 1859, eight years after the premiere of the opera.
Paraphrases go beyond the technique of transcriptions. They are rather free fantasies on themes of n existing work—in this case, Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto”. One should keep in mind that the chances for a music lover to attend a performance of “Rigoletto” 150 years ago must have been slim. At a time where there were no media for spreading music, the promotion of operas and other music to a fair share relied upon arrangements and transcriptions that one could purchase and play at home, privately or in small circles of music lovers. And this is exactly where Liszt’s paraphrases come into play.
Performance Notes, V:
As it is based on operatic music, this paraphrase is clearly more extroverted, more direct in its expression. And it is much more entertaining, both because of the popular melodies, as well as due to their rapid succession. It is not a transcription, for sure! In Hando Nahkur’s hands this turned into a somewhat extroverted, virtuosic showpiece. Nahkur used rather strong rubato—a vivid kaleidoscope of views onto a big opera. Yes, it was dramatic and very strongly expressive, at times almost explosive. To me, the extreme rubato often tended to tear the piece apart: I missed a more natural flow. Also, given that the piece is from 1859: was it really meant to be such an extroverted showpiece-fireworks? Yes, it led to a strong applause, but…
Hando Nahkur ended his recital with two arrangements of popular melodies — the first one about Frank Sinatra’s “My way”, the second one about two popular melodies, one from Estonia and one from the States. Well—here, he lost me, for sure: that’s not my style of music, and I would have preferred keeping the Liszt pieces in my mind, or rather even the Tüür sonata. Yes, it may all be well-made and well-played—to me, it is too shallow, too smooth, too easy-going. Sorry—maybe that’s just me… I did indeed meet people who liked the “outer” parts of the recital the most!