Piano Recital: Marina Baranova
Baranova: Hypersuites (2016)
Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2017-10-10
The Ukrainian pianist Marina Baranova (*1981, see also Wikipedia for information) grew up in Kharkiv, in a small apartment. As she told the audience, there were two pianos in adjacent rooms: on one of the instruments, her mother was teaching classical piano, in the other, her father was giving Jazz lessons. This has apparently formed her musical mind from very early childhood on. Needless to say that she was a very talented child at the piano. She was admitted to a music school in her home town at age 5. At age 11, she started winning prizes at competitions.
Towards the turn of the century, Marina Baranova moved to Germany, to take up studies with Vladimir Krainev (1944 – 2011) at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover (Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media). During these studies, just about every year she won prizes at competitions. Today, she is pursuing an international career as concert pianist. She has so far recorded four CDs. The picture above shows the cover of her latest recording, featuring music that she presented in this recital:
Apart from the classical and Jazz influences through her parents (along with her faible for improvisation), there was another trigger that led to the concept of “Hypersuites”: Marina Baranova watched DJs at work. These people fascinated her when they made pieces seamlessly flow into each other, following their momentary intuition and imagination.
This has become the topic of her latest CD, and the theme in this concert, where she chose pieces by four baroque composers. Each composer was presented in a separate segment. Some pieces appeared as stand-alone movements. Some remained close to their original form, were possibly transposed. Others started off with the original score, then muted into jazzy, rhythmicized, and/or harmonically enriched form. Just as late-romantic composers / pianists, such as Liszt or—more so—Godowsky would often do. In other cases, a section started with an improvisation and only gradually revealed the outline of the original composition. And most often, one piece would seamlessly flow into the next one.
Certainly, in the context of a classical concert / recital series, it was very helpful that Marina Baranova (on a per-composer basis) offered explanations and comments on what she was playing. And undoubtedly (expectedly, given the number of her successes at competitions), she played with great agility, with excellent rhythmic feel, and a sense for the musical flow.
I’m grouping my further comments by composer of Marina Baranova’s “source works”:
Hypersuite on Music by George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759)
The first Hypersuite in this concert is using music from the Keyboard suite in D minor, HWV 437. Handel’s original suite features five movements:
The Sarabande turns out to be a set of two variations on a much older theme, also known under the name “La Follia”. Numerous composers have used this theme for variations. One of the prominent, early variation sets is by Arcangelo Corelli (1653 – 1713). From there, it also became the theme for the Variations on a Theme of Corelli, op.42 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943).
Marina Baranova started off with a short segment that sounded like an improvisation. While keeping the sustain pedal pressed, she sounded scarce tones, short motifs (or ornamented tones) or melody fragments at various pitches over the range of the keyboard. Between these motifs / toines, she was listening to the resonances, the harmonics, as they faded away in the instrument. It felt as if she was seeking the music, or the melody. At the same time, it forced the audience not just to listen to the key strokes, but to the rich set of resonance in the concert grand. This was an excellent way to capture the listener’s attention!
Prelude — Allemande — Courante
In a seamless, hardly noticeable way, this intro mutated into segments from Handel’s Prelude, up to a preluding fermata. The Allemande section started off close to the original, then, gradually extra, “curly” ornaments joined in, making this more of an improvisation-like section, “Handel style”. Baranova often closed her eyes, listening into the sounds, then again momentarily and subconsciously seemed to seek inspiration, maybe from the wall paintings? It didn’t take long for her to be immersed in the music, gently moving her body along with the swaying agogics, and often, her legs made sudden, spontaneous movements when they were not involved in operating the pedals.
The Courante was carefully articulated and aptly ornamented: fluent playing, with a mellow, gentle keyboard touch. Gradually, the rhythmic swaying intensified, turned more accentuated, and almost unnoticeably, the playing appeared to pick up jazzy elements.
Sarabande / Follia — Gigue
With the “Follia” variations, the scope of the music opened up—not just towards Jazz, but at the same time (as she later explained), Marina Baranova took inspirations from Rachmaninoff’s variations, with very virtuosic passagework, then moved into a segment that sounded a Mazurka by Frédéric Chopin, while keeping the skeleton of the bass line. Then, she seemed to move further back in time, dressing the theme into the costume of an Impromptu by Franz Schubert. Finally, the Gigue started off as fast, virtuosic piece, then turned more and more jazzy and humorous, up to an almost abrupt ending. Fascinating, overall!
Hypersuite on Music by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764)
The second Hypersuite picked up inspiration (“mental hyperlinks, as the artist explained”) from books 2 & 3 of the “Pièces de Clavecin” by Jean-Philippe Rameau, namely, from
- Suite in G major / G minor, RCT 6, from the “Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin” (1729/30):
- Les sauvages
- La poule
- Suite in E minor, RCT 2, from the “Pièces de clavecin” (1724):
- Le rappel des oiseaux
Les sauvages — La poule
Also this suite began with a short introduction. A series of chords, pure baroque initially. Gradually, the artist added “romantic enrichment” and freely preluding linkage, which could as well have been a Jazz improvisation. The first “real Rameau”, “Les sauvages” started close to the original, exposing the popular theme, then rapidly transforming itself into a more and more virtuosic Jazz fantasy, particularly in the right hand.
The even more popular “La poule” didn’t even pretend to be the original by Rameau (although original quotes did indeed appear), Rather, Baranova took the ostinato repetitions as Leitmotif, freely associating chords and rhythms in the style of modern Jazz, interspersed with the Rameau quotes. It all was playful, very rapid and virtuosic, sometimes nearing, if not exceeding the limitations of the piano mechanics. This segment culminated in a short, cascading firework, rushing down into the lowest bass register.
Courante — Le rappel des oiseaux — Tambourin
The Courante followed seamlessly: a piece that cleverly interchanged between baroque textures (harmonies, melody and ornamentation) and a playful modern Jazz fantasy.
Suddenly we found ourselves in “Le rappel des oiseaux“: a piece full of bird trills already in the original. Marina Baranova added voices and harmonies, evolved the piece into another modern Jazz fantasy, short, but full of virtuosic passagework, from which a short, rapid excursion into the top of the keyboard led into the final segment, initially quoting “Tambourin” (with harmonically enriched accompaniment), then gradually transforming itself into Jazz, initially based Rameau’s ornaments, but then opening to a rather wild, free Jazz improvisation (or, at least, it sounded like a virtuosic, very aptly played improvisation).
Hypersuite on Music by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)
The next Hypersuite had music by Bach as foundation:
- The Prelude from Prelude and Fugue No.10 in E minor, BWV 855, from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, volume I — or rather: the adaptation of that Prelude by Alexander Siloti (1863 – 1945), of course with further “modifications”;
- The aria “Schafe können sicher weiden” from the Cantata BWV 208, “Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd“ (Jagdkantate / hunting cantata);
- The Siciliano from the Sonata for flute and harpsichord obbligato in E♭ major, BWV 1031
- The Chorale Prelude “Nun freut euch, liebe Christen g’mein” for organ, BWV 734
Prelude in E minor, BWV 855
As Marina Baranova explained, she took Siloti’s arrangement of the Prelude in E minor BWV 855 as a basis, rather than Bach’s arrangement, but re-introduced the melody line (removed by Siloti), even reinforced it, further enriched the piece harmonically. Given that journey, the result was quite far from the original, but of course retained the repeated semiquaver motif in the left hand, as well as the Presto part, while the melody now appeared harmonically enriched with mostly arpeggiated chords: a rather grandiose piece that reminded of transcriptions by Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924).
BWV 208, BWV 1031, and BWV 734
In stark contrast, the segment using the aria “Schafe können sicher weiden” from the hunting cantata, BWV 208, remained close to Bach’s original. We heard a Pastorale that felt like music for Christmas, even though Baranova’s transcription for piano turned this into an intricate, artful construct covering continuo in the left hand, the two recorder voices, and on top the actual aria line. No Jazz this time, but a rather elaborate arrangement!
The subsequent Siciliano from BWV 1031 appeared to take up the ostinato accompaniment from BWV 855 in the left hand again, but then added the flute melody. It was still close to a Pastorale in the atmosphere, albeit less serene. This led into an interesting transition into the final segment, based on Bach’s chorale prelude for organ (two keyboards plus pedal). An artful, stunningly fast and virtuosic contraction of a chorale melody (from the pedal part of the organ piece), an elegant staccato line in the left hand, and a blazingly fast semiquaver line: brilliant!
Hypersuite on Music by François Couperin (1668 – 1733)
In the last Hypersuite, Marina Baranova returned to harpsichord music—this time by François Couperin:
- “Le tic-toc-choc”, ou “Les maillotins”, from the “18th order in F major” in the “Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin“
- “Les Baricades Mistérieuses“, from the “6th order in B♭ major” in the “Second livre de pièces de clavecin“
- “La muse-Palantine“, from the “19th order in D major” in the “Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin“
- “Le carillon de Cithére”, from the “14th order in D major” in the “Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin“
- “Muséte de Taverni”, from the “15th order in A major” in the “Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin“
As the artist explained, the last Bach piece challenges the pianist, because it combines pedal and two organ keyboards into two hands on one piano keyboard. Similarly, the “Tic-toc-choc” has been used as a pianist showpiece that combines two independent voices on a two-manual harpsichord into one keyboard on the piano (by pianists such as Grigory Sokolow or Alexandre Tharaud). It looks as if the fingers of the two hands end up almost interwoven, as the two voices are frequently crossing each other.
Baranova remained close to the original, with very few deviations—but she didn’t try exposing artistic and articulative trickery (as Sokolov does), rather chose a fast, fluent tempo and articulation—undoubtedly very virtuosic in the semiquaver figures, yet strongly highlighting the mostly punctuated melody.
Les Baricades Mistérieuses — La muse-Palantine
An iconic, mysterious piece: the meaning of the title has not been “decoded”. It’s reflective, melancholic and pensive music in the original. Here, Baranova started with the bass line, then only joined in with the right hand, while at the same time adding syncopation—and in no time, the music involved into another “composed Jazz improvisation”, swinging, with power and drive, into the heat of a virtuosic climax, then immediately returned to Couperin’s original.
A jazzy, Boogie-like bass line led into “La muse-Palantine“—rather hidden within a swinging Jazz enclosure, building up to a playful, yet virtuosic, complex rhythmic texture over a bass ostinato.
Le carillon de Cithére — Muséte de Taverni
The “carillon” started off in the atmosphere of a Pastorale, with Musette-like elements, gradually adding syncopes, swinging, the a very virtuosic, jazzy solo line—undoubtedly brilliant! There was also a segment with ostinato repetition of short motifs, reminding of Minimal Music. The concert concluded with another virtuosic, artful Jazz fantasy, based on the “Muséte de Taverni” (Musette)—quite far from Couperin, obviously, but fulminant, artful, and again brilliant.
As encore, Marina Baranova offered a switched even more into the Jazz world, in a piece that—as she mentioned—referred to the tale of a firebird. Another, virtuosic fantasy that went through two climaxes. The music occasionally alluded to classical melody pattern / motifs—a high-level, artistic Jazz composition.
I have one reservation about Marina Baranova’s Hypersuites. She mentioned that she picked her favorite baroque pieces as a basis for these suites. One could call this “cherry picking”. That certainly isn’t something one can object to—in principle. And from a Jazz point-of-view, Baranova’s compositions are definitely brilliant, her technical and artistic skills, including those as a composer, are excellent.
My quibble with the Hypersuites is that for one, placing that many musical gems / baroque highlights next to each other may lead to a certain saturation. Also, some of the pieces (I’m thinking of “Les Baricades Mystérieuses“, or several of the Bach pieces) lose depth. They largely are deprived of their contemplative aspects. When looking at this performance from the classical / baroque point-of-view, I think that Baranova’s approach works better for the playful, artistic pieces, maybe a little less so for reflective, contemplative original compositions. But again: no objections when looking at this from a Jazz perspective!
In closing, let me step back for a moment. I should say that I like Jazz, but I’m far from being an expert, and I regard this genre as just outside of the horizon of my scope of interest. Not because I’m not interested enough, but because I have only one life, there is so much music—much, much more than I can ever possibly cover in my limited scope. hence, decades ago, I have decided not to devote much (if any) time to Jazz. Despite all this, it was a very interesting, fascinating concert evening / experience!