Piano Recital: Deszö Ránki
Haydn / Ravel / Bartók
Aula KZO, Wetzikon ZH, 2019-02-02
2019-02-08 — Original posting
Lasst die Musik sprechen! — Kurze Zusammenfassung
Bescheiden, mit ernstem, neutralem Gesichtsausdruck, introvertiert, die Augen halb geschlossen, beinahe ohne Mimik—so präsentierte Deszö Ránki sein Programm. Nach Haydn und Ravel widmete er sich Bartóks Zyklen mit rumänischen und ungarischen Volks- und Kinderliedern—mit der gleichen Sorgfalt und Ernsthaftigkeit wie bei den pianistisch anspruchsvolleren Programmpunkten. Wie von selbst lebte die Musik auf, ohne dynamische Exzesse, aber mit guter Kontrolle und perfekter Balance zwischen Melodie und Begleitung. Polyrhythmische Passagen meisterte er mit Leichtigkeit, auch im virtuosen und trotzdem gesanglichen Spiel. Die Musik erblühte in all ihrem Reichtum, ohne je ins Akademische abzudriften. Der Pianist blieb durchwegs auf die Musik fokussiert. Erst im Schlussapplaus stahl sich ein leises Lächeln in Deszö Ranki’s Gesicht.
As earlier instances, the Klavierissimo Festival 2019 / Top Klassik Zürcher Oberland featured a series of piano recitals. There were also teaching sessions by the main artists, as well as smaller recitals before or after the main events. The final day, on Saturday, 2019-02-02, featured several events. Here is the context of the recitals that I attended this year:
2019-01-31, 19:30h— Oliver Schnyder
2019-02-01, 19:30h— Alina Bercu
2019-02-02, 15:30h— Alice di Piazza
2019-02-02, 17:00h— Deszö Ránki (this report)
2019-02-02, 20:00h— Yulianna Avdeeva
The Artist: Dezsö Ránki
Dezsö Ránki (*1951) grew up in Budapest, started taking piano lessons at the Budapest Academy of Music at the age of eight. Five years later, he switched to the Budapest Conservatory where he studied with Klára Máthé Mikolósné Kéri (1900 – 1985). Years at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music followed, where he was a student of Pál Kadosa (1903 – 1983) and Ferenc Rados (*1934). Among his classmates were Zoltán Kocsis (1952 – 2016) and Sir András Schiff (*1953). Once he won the first prize at the 5th International Schumann Competition in Zwickau, 1969, he successfully started an international concert career, performing in Europe, Scandinavia, the Soviet Union, the USA and Japan.
Since 1985, Deszö Ránki also appears in duet recitals with his wife Edit Klukon.
Deszö Ránki performed his recital without intermission. He framed the concert with two late piano sonatas by Haydn. The core of his recital was in two parts, one French (Ravel), the other one Hungarian/Romanian (Bartók). He suitably used Ravel’s “Menuet sur le nom de Haydn” as transition between Haydn and Ravel. A major part of the Bartók segment was devoted to short pieces “For Children”, as well as another set of short pieces, a set of Christmas Songs from Romania:
- Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809): Piano Sonata No.55 in B♭ major, Hob.XVI/41 (1784)
- Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1931):
- Béla Bartók (1882 – 1945):
- Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809): Piano Sonata No.59 in E♭ major, Hob.XVI/49 (1790)
The venue for all recitals in the Klavierissimo Festival is the theater-like main convention hall of the local high school (KZO), a semi-circular, ascending auditorium. The venue is actually too big for the number of people attending the recitals (it’s out in the countryside)—however, this has the advantage of letting everybody sit where they want (and all seats have excellent view onto the podium), and for a Steinway D-274 concert grand, a venue of that size certainly offers better sound than a small hall with “bathroom acoustics”!
I opted for a seat in the right-hand side block, around row 10 (half-way up): this gave me a good view for taking photos. I am not desperate about watching a pianist’s hands, as I’m following the score while also taking notes and operating the camera.
Haydn: Piano Sonata No.55 in B♭ major, Hob.XVI/41 (1784)
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) composed over 60 piano sonatas. 1782 – 1784, he created a set of three sonatas (Nos.54 – 56), all in short form with only two movements. He dedicated the sonatas to one of his patrons, Princess Maria Josepha Hermengilde Esterházy de Galantha (1768 – 1845), daughter of the duke of Liechtenstein. The Piano Sonata No.55 in B♭ major, Hob.XVI/41 features the following two movements:
- Allegro di molto
Before commenting on the actual, musical performance, I can’t resist adding some extra remarks—some thoughts that came to mind when thinking about this recital performance and the preceding one by Alice di Piazza. In fact, the difference in recital appearance could not possibly be any bigger (even ignoring gender, etc.):
Enforcing Emotional Views…
The first recital that afternoon featured the hyper-emotional performance by a pianist who was visibly, emotionally, mentally and physically carried away by the emotions that she projected into the music. All of her performance seemed to express tragedy, pain and a strong religious desire/longing. Actually, these seemed the only emotions that she conveyed to the audience. In my opinion, this implied limiting, narrowing the emotional scope of the music she played beyond measure: essential aspects of the music got lost, were suppressed.
On top of that, with the pianist’s extreme facial mimics (not to say “grimacing”) and body language, it was impossible for the listener to perceive any other emotional aspects in the music of this recital. As I wrote in my review, the performance was very polarizing at the very least: some may have been able (perhaps even enjoyed) to follow the artist on that emotional path, while others (me included) rather felt oppressed by the “emotional straightjacket” that the pianist imposed on the audience.
… or Letting the Music Speak?
In contrast now Deszö Ránki: tall, modest, unpretentious to the extreme, a no-nonsense appearance. He sat down at the piano, only shortly seemed to take notice of the audience when accepting applause, then stayed focused on the music, the keyboard, his eyes usually half-closed, keeping an essentially neutral, earnest facial expression throughout the recital. Nothing in his face could possibly have given any hints about what he was playing. In line with this, he avoided body language, as well as excessive gestures (except for those required to reach the keys). In contrast to all others, he even accepted the applause half-way behind the piano!
Superficially, one might have had the impression of a “dead performance”—however, the music was living in all the richness, the breadth of the emotions in the 54 (!) movements / pieces that he performed! Only at the very end, when accepting the flower from the organizers, a friendly smile (even a slight embarrassment?) revealed his very likable character. Certainly, in (or despite) his modesty, he touched & moved me infinitely more than the artist in the preceding recital.
The above already makes it clear: this is an artist who truly doesn’t perform to display his abilities, nor for some esoteric or transcendental purpose. Even pleasing the audience may just be a coincidental benefit. I believe that Deszö Ránki’s prime objective is to serve the music, the composer. The entire recital actually confirmed this first impression!
Joseph Haydn’s mature sonatas as prime examples of Vienna classical piano music! Ránki’s performance was unexcited and devoid of excesses in tempo or dynamics. He articulated carefully, observed all details of the notation, without ever making the music sound academic: everything sounded “natural”, just simply “right”. In Deszö Ránki’s hands, the music retained a clear phrasing and overall structure. Needless to say that the artist observed the repeat of the exposition.
II. Allegro di molto
Same here: a fluent tempo, clear, clean and naturally careful articulation, with focus on phrases / themes, rather than motifs, keeping an eye on the overall structure. And of course, all repeats were observed. I must say: in this performance, I even didn’t have any objection against playing this music on a modern instrument: yes, the sound is darker, the internal balance different, etc.—but Deszö Ránki resisted exploiting the full capacity of the Steinway grand!
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Ravel: Menuet sur le nom de Haydn, M.58 (1909)
1909, on the occasion of the centenary of Joseph Haydn’s death, Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1931) wrote the short (54 bars only) Menuet sur le nom de Haydn, M.58. Along with Ravel, five other composers also followed commissions by the Revue musicale mensuelle de la Société Internationale de Musique (RSIM), to commemorate the centenary.
Quoting from Wikipedia: The theme is based on Haydn’s own name as a five-note motif. The letter H represents B natural, A and D representing their respective pitches, Y as D natural and N as G natural. This is found as H-A-D-D-G at the very beginning of the minuet. The piece is just two pages. Ravel marked the theme with capitals above the notes: there are four instances of the regular theme, plus one backwards (N-D-Y-A-H), and one where it appears both backwards and inverted.
I don’t think one should read too much into this music. The idea of “encoding” a name into music has been used for centuries (Johann Sebastian Bach and Robert Schumann). In some cases, the “code” is obvious to the listener (B-A-C-H being a prime example, Dmitri Shostakovich’s D-S-C-H a more recent one). On other instances (Schumann, or this one by Ravel) one needs the score to understand the concept. Even “highlighting” the theme while playing would barely help. Ravel must have taken the task of using Haydn’s name as an intellectual challenge, a play of sorts.
Ravel didn’t even try alluding to Haydn’s music. Deszö Ránki played it—like Ravel, as an impressionist snippet (the piece only lasts two minutes). From the sound, it might also be by Debussy. Actually, Ránki gave it a “romantic touch”, e.g., by starting the rallentando (Retenu) several bars early.
Ravel: Sonatine, M.40 (1903 – 1905)
The Sonatine, M.40, which Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1931) wrote 1903 – 1905, wasn’t directly commissioned. Rather, Ravel wrote it for a competition sponsored by the Weekly Critical Review magazine. The requirement was the composition of the first movement of a piano sonatina no longer than 75 bars, with the prize being 100 francs. In the end, the Sonatine had three movements:
- Modéré – doux et espressif (F♯ minor — F♯ major)
- Mouvement de Menuet (D♭ major)
- Animé (F♯ minor — F♯ major)
Deszö Ránki took the Menuet as prelude to the Sonatine, continuing with the latter almost attacca.
I. Modéré – doux et espressif
Serene music with mediterranean atmosphere, smooth playing, the demisemiquaver figures blurring into a shimmering background, excellent dynamic control and balance between the hands, the voices. The Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) comes to mind!
II. Mouvement de Menuet
A pensive, reflective Menuet—calm, serene impressionist music, never, ever dry (throughout the Sonatine), at a natural pace—and with that much warmth, especially in the final bars!
Masterful, flawless technique & touch, merely gliding over all the rapid passagework in the middle voice. Stunning dynamic control, perfect balance between melodies and accompaniment. My only minor quibble, maybe: not all of the transitions seemed entirely compelling—was that just my impression? Or, perhaps, some of the a Tempo may have been a bit too immediate??
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Bartók: Vol.I from “For Children”, Sz.42, BB 53 (Version 1945)
Béla Bartók (1882 – 1945) wasn’t “just” a composer, but he also studied folk music throughout Hungary and neighboring countries. One result of this is the collection “For Children” (A Gyermekeknek), Sz.42, BB 53, from 1908 / 1909. The initial release of the collection comprised 85 pieces in four volumes. Volumes I and II (together 42 pieces) were Hungarian tunes, the other two volumes featured Slovak folk tunes. After a revision in 1945, the collection was 79 pieces only and came in two volumes (40 and 39 pieces). Note that despite their title and the suggested use “For Children”, the pieces in this collection aren’t necessarily trivial to play.
Deszö Ránki selected the 1945 version. From Volume I (40 songs based on Hungarian folk tunes), he performed the first 21, presumably corresponding to the content of the original first volume from 1909.
The Pieces in Volume I
Here’s the table of content of the entire 1945 volume 1, with the selection performed in this recital marked in bold:
- Children at Play
- Children’s Song
- Quasi adagio
- Pillow Dance
- Study for the Left Hand
- Play Song
- Children’s Game
- Children’s Dance
- Allegro moderato
- Old Hungarian Tune
- Round Dance
- Soldier’s Song
- Drinking Song
- Allegro robusto
- Dance Song
- Andante sostenuto
- Pentatonic Tune
- Jeering Song
- Andante tranquillo
- Allegro non troppo
- Con moto
- Drunkard’s Song
- Swine-Herd’s Song
- Winter Solstice Song
- Allegro moderato
- Swine-Herd’s Dance
The composer arranged the pieces not just by (gradually) growing technical demand, but also such that the sequence made sense musically.
Interestingly, the transition to Bartók’s “For Children” seemed almost natural! Deszö Ránki’s performance was both (appropriately) simple and artful—and truly unpretentious throughout. He did not try putting more into these songs than there is, avoided “charging”, emotionally overloading the music. Still, his playing wasn’t “just trivial”, let alone ever mechanic! Overall, Ránki kept the ideal balance between folk (i.e., children’s) tone, the lively, joyful and innocent character. He certainly applied the very same care, diligence and attention to articulation and dynamics as with all the other music!
Already in the first song, one could feel how the pianist was imitating children singing, by adding very subtle, “spontaneous” accelerandi and ritardandi every here and there—just as little children would do. Nos.9, 12 and 14 were other examples showing the unsteadiness so typical for small children.
Many of the songs use catchy melodies. However, the brevity of the segments avoids “over-using” any of the tunes. Some of the pieces may sound simple, if not almost trivial, but on the other hand, there are also little, musical gems, such as Nos.11, 13, 16, and others, some even with an “impressionist flair”!
No.18, “Soldier’s Song”, and No.20, “Drinking Song” appear to have aspects of comedy—Ránki avoided making these look like caricatures. No.19, seemed to tell a lively (but of course very short) story, and the cycle ended with the boisterous No.21, combining comic, joy, play, and fun!
Through all of the 21 pieces, Deszö Ránki’s performance was a true joy to listen to! With this, he made me realize how much of a universal language music is.
Bartók: Romanian Christmas Carols, Sz.57, BB 67 (1915)
Another result of Béla Bartók’s folk tune research is in the Romanian Christmas Carols (Román kolindadallamok), Sz.57, BB 67 from 1915. These are in two volumes (Series I and Series II) of 10 Christmas Carols each, which groups of children would typically sing in Romanian villages, around Christmas. I don’t list the songs here, as (in Wikipedia), the song titles are only given in local language.
Here, of course, we enter a different world! There are similarities to the children’s songs in the harmonies, the melodies—but this now is true, Romanian (Hungarian) folk music, with all its rhythmic complexity, such as frequent changes in meter, or (seemingly) irregular meters such as 2+3+3. Some of the apparent complexity is in the fact that in Western Europe we are not familiar with Hungarian / Romanian folk music. It is “not in our blood”. But, of course, also Bartók’s artful setting contributes to this, too.
Compared to “For Children”, the Christmas Carols aren’t just more complex, if not intricate, they also are stronger in their expression, more earthy, some almost crude. Clearly, these songs were / are performed by older children.
Needless to say that Deszö Ránki is intimately familiar with all aspects of this music. He made all the frequent changes in meter, the polyrhythmic textures, the “Romanian / Hungarian meters” sound absolutely natural—it was astounding to see how he seamlessly and instantly switched between the different moods, rhythms, and meters. Actually, after a while, the listener became unaware of the rhythmic complexity in this music.
A highly interesting performance! The fact alone that Deszö Ránki devoted substantial parts of his recital to children’s and folk music is highly commendable—let alone that he did so with that much devotion, care and attention!
Bartók: Suite, op.14, Sz.62, BB 70 (1916)
Béla Bartók (1882 – 1945) wrote the Suite, op.14, Sz.62, BB 70 in February 1916. The composer debuted the work in 1919, in Budapest. Along with the better known Piano Sonata (Sz.80, BB 88), this is Bartók’s most significant work for piano solo. The Suite features four movements:
- Allegro molto
Wikipedia quotes the composer from a radio interview: the Suite “… has no folk tunes. It is based entirely on original themes of my own invention. When this work was composed I had in mind the refining of piano technique, the changing of piano technique, into a more transparent style. A style more of bone and muscle opposing the heavy chordal style of the late, latter romantic period, that is, unessential ornaments like broken chords and other figures are omitted and it is more a simpler style.“
In the above performances, I also (again) realized how much also Bartók’s other works are influenced by, if not even directly based upon Hungarian (in the wider sense) folk music. The Suite, op.14 further illustrated this, even though Bartók’s own statement seems to contradict.
Already the Allegretto may indeed not contain actual folk tunes—nevertheless, especially in the beginning, the initial theme, the music is very obviously “Bartókian”, talking the Hungarian idiom, both rhythmically, as well as in the melodies! Where there is more Bartók than folk tone, though, is in the harmonies, the sometimes strongly dissonant sections.
Seemingly simple, at least initially, the Scherzo is actually not without challenges: fast, wide-spanning staccato / marcato (marcatissimo) sequences, side-by-side (and on top of) legato elements, highly agile accents. Certainly on the listener’s side a true fun piece!
III. Allegro molto
Fast, virtuosic, at the same time playful, at least in Deszö Ránki’s performance. Rolling, quaver sequences spanning the keyboard, martellato segments full of sforzati and syncopes, all building up to a true firework, ending in fff chords and a long fermata on the last note…
Unexpectedly, the fermata leads into a highly reflective Sostenuto—dissonant, yet with impressionist atmosphere fading away into silence—the “unanswered question”?
Do I need to state that the artist offered an absolutely authoritative, magistral interpretation and performance of this music? Was it amazement, the open ending, or the pianist’s non-verbal communication that prevented any applause after the ppp ending? An interesting moment of silence!
Haydn: Piano Sonata No.59 in E♭ major, Hob.XVI/49 (1790)
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) created his Piano Sonata No.59 in E♭ major, Hob.XVI/49 in 1789 / 1790. The dedicatee of the sonata is the composer’s friend, Maria Anna von Genzinger (1754 – 1793), a music lover from Hungaro-Austrian aristocracy. In contrast to the sonata that opened the program, this one has three movements:
- Adagio e cantabile
- Finale: Tempo di Menuet
The second Haydn sonata closed the circle in the program, which covered quite a range, from the Hungaro-Austrian Empire to Impressionism in France, on to Bartók and Hungarian/Romanian folk music, back to Haydn…
Deszö Ránki didn’t rush into the sonata, took the beginning of the exposition (with repeat, of course) carefully, later accelerated gradually. As in the opening sonata, the performance was convincing in the “speaking” articulation, the excellent dynamic control, the clarity in structure and phrasing.
II. Adagio e cantabile
Cantabile, indeed: singing cantilenas, which Haydn embellished with playful Rococo-like ornaments. The melodies are simple, catchy, almost folk music-like. The middle part is more emotional, often even dramatic—though Deszö Ránki avoids exaggerations, his playing remains unpretentious. The last part combines aspect of the middle part with the simpler expression of the beginning.
III. Finale: Tempo di Menuet
Deszö Ránki offered another, exemplary performance of a classic sonata! Yes, the instrument is modern—but the artist essentially limited the scope of expression (dynamics, articulation) to what also a historic instrument would offer. Mainly, just the volume was increased on the Steinway D-274. I can summarize the performance of the entire sonata as being natural, unpretentious, and truthful to the music, the composer. An impressive recital does not require virtuosic excesses, nor pretentious gestures: thanks for such an enriching concert experience!