In an age when the United States has just elected their first female Vice President - whom herself will be a heartbeat away from the most powerful office in the world, it is important (regardless of your political affiliation) to reflect back on the myriad stepping stones needed to get to this time and place.
In musical arts, women in general have likewise faced very steep uphill forces over the decades into the realm of touring concert pianism, and the upper echelons of classical music generally. Whether confronted with the demands of motherhood, societal prejudices, or “tradition”, making a mark on the international scene as an established soloist, conductor, or within academia, has taken enormous will and perseverance for a select group of trailblazers.
In the realm of classical pianism, names such as Nannerl Mozart, Fanny Mendelssohn or Therese Janzen (the famed English pianist who premiered the last 4 sonatas of Haydn) reach out from beyond the centuries as early female pioneers of elite musical performance. In the Romantic Era, Clara Schumann was recognized for her technique, power, interpretive vision and the vast scope of her repertoire. Premiering most of the major works of her husband, alongside those of Brahms and many others, Clara Schumann was considered by many as a pianist in rank second only to Liszt.
These names however are few and far between and it is not until the mid half of the 20th century, that we would begin to see a true and continuous flowering of female artists and soloists from around the Globe. Nowadays it is much more commonplace to see women featured as soloists with major orchestras and in major recital series. Or to be chairs of Keyboard/Performance departments at major academic institutions. Long may this continue to evolve as the new norm!!
Our school has been blessed with many fine young talents over the years and this year is no different. This year we have had a bumper crop of outstanding young ladies, all of them playing at a very high-level and with much to say with their music. It is for them primarily today that we pay hommage to some of the leading pianistic doyens, and a few from yester- year within today’s blog. Here are a sampling of some of my favourite female concert pianists in no particular order.
Argerich is widely considered one of the great pianists of all time and one of the great pianists currently active on the recital circuit internationally today. Blessed with a powerhouse technique and inspiring artistic vision, Martha Argerich includes in her repertoire just about all of the major concerto war horses, and solo epics. She won the seventh International Chopin Competition in Warsaw at the age of 24, and has never looked back since.
Prokofiev - Concerto 3
Ferocious rhythmic intensity, technical accomplishment and no fear! This is one of the great performances of this concerto captured live.
Ravel Jeux D’eau
Here Argerich shows off her myriad array of colours and inflective nuances. Her speed and crystalline clarity is something to be both admired and envied!
Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody 6
Panache and extroversion manifest in this conception. Strap on your seatbelt for the octaves midway through!
A remarkable pianist who is equally at home in the virtuoso repertoire as she is in the major essays of Beethoven. One of two protégés of Gary Graffman at Curtis (the other being Lang Lang), Wang is currently ranked in the top 10 touring artists presently. Ms Wang has been playing over 80 concerts a year for well over a decade…and shows absolutely no signs of slowing down whatsoever. Fire, elegance and a magnificent conceptual artist.
Rimsky Korsakov - Flight of the bumblebee
Not much that one can say about this except WOW! When one realizes that this is done as an encore in front of 1000+ people - delivered in alternating octaves no less, that counts for a quadruple WOW!
Beethoven HammerKlavier Sonata opus 106
The greatest of all of the Beethoven sonatas, it is a perennial Mount Everest of the literature. Here is Ms Wang‘s performance live from Carnegie Hall. It is a major statement!
A Romanian pianist largely active during the period spanning both world wars, Haskill was revered for her conceptions of Mozart, Beethoven and the early Romantics. She herself was a student of Busoni and Alfred Cortot. An international competition is named in her honor.
By way of interesting factoids, Charlie Chaplin - a close friend of Ms Haskill, described her talent by saying "In my lifetime I have met three geniuses; Professor Einstein, Winston Churchill, and Clara Haskil”.
Mozart ‘Twinkle Variations’ (Ah, je vous dirai-je Maman)
Clarity of touch and an intuitive approach to phrase architecture. In this delivery Haskill transforms this variation set into a collection of miniature miracles.
A wonderful potpourri mix of masterworks and shorter vignettes, give an inkling into what this great master could create over the course of a full length recital program. There is an attentiveness and energy in her playing which very few can replicate.
Grimaud is a phenomenal pianist who has something integral to say about just about every piece in which she touches. A student of the great Jacques Rouvier at the Paris Conservatoire, Ms. Grimaud is one of the leading exponents of French music in the world today, although conceptually there is nothing which is out of her reach. An interesting piece of trivia here is that she experiences synesthesia, where one physical sense adds to another, In her case, Ms. Grimaud sees music as colour, which she credits with helping her in the memorising of music scores.
Ravel Piano Concerto
Simply one of the great recordings of this master work. The slow movement of this concerto is one of my favourite ever and Grimaud brings poetry, grace and myriad colours to the equation here. A masterful delivery!
Bach Busoni Chaconne
A powerhouse delivery of Busoni’s transcription of the famous chaconne from Bach's e minor partita for violin.
A Hungarian pianist with a powerhouse technique and a probing musical intellect. She was among the earliest winners of the international Liszt competition in Budapest and was revered for her interpretations of the works by the great Romantics. Her playing was held in the highest esteem by some of the worlds greatest conductors and by contemporaries such as Richter who said of Fisher “Annie Fischer is a great artist imbued with a spirit of greatness and genuine profundity”
Chopin piano concerto in e-minor
My favourite of the two Chopinpiano Concertos, one cannot help but admire the absolute pristine quality of Fisher's tone, and the wonderfully sincere and honest emotional integrity which she brings to her interpretation.
Mendelssohn Rondo Cappricioso
Fleet of foot and full of whimsical sarcasm, you will be hard-pressed to find a greater interpretation of this master work.
Uchida is one of my favourite touring concert pianists in the world today. While you may not always agree conceptually with a particular artist, a truly great master always challenges you to question your own ideals and perspectives on at work. She is one such master, particularly in the works of Mozart and Debussy.
Mozart d minor doncerto K 466
Exquisite touch and intense introspection manifest throughout this most intense and disturbed of Mozart’s concerti output. Here is Uchida performing and conducting from the keyboard (as Mozart would have).
Beethoven Concerto 4
One of the truly great performances of one of the truly great piano Concertos! Enough said!
Janina Fialkowska is one of the most important interpreters of Chopin and Liszt in the world today. A prize winner at the international Rubenstein competition (with Rubenstein on the jury), as legend has it that Maestro walked over to Madame Fialkowska during the awards ceremony and proclaimed to the press that he could retire knowing that his spiritual air was ready to take his place. Among many things, Fialkowska made a niche touring with the complete transcendental Etudes of Liszt.
Liszt b-minor Sonata
The B minor sonata of Liszt is my favourite piano work from the romantic era. After Horowitz, this is my favourite recording of this piece.
Chopin - Mazurkas opus 50
The Mazurkas the crown jewel of Chopin’s output. These small exercises in perfection are nostalgic reminiscences and political manifestos in music for of his native Poland. Their deeper subtleties radiate through in Fialkowska’s conceptions.
Dame Myra Hess was one of the great British pianists of all time. She was a student of the famed English pedagogue Tobias Matthay - for those of you studying the Taubmann technique, you will note that much of Taubman‘s research is structured and anchored in the teachings of Matthay. Hess is widely revered as one of the great Beethoven Mozart and Schubert interpreters of all time. During World War II, she gained international attention for her presentation of over 2000 noon time concerts at The National Gallery in London in support of the war effort. One of the most famous concert series in the United States is named in her honour in the city of Chicago.
Bach/Hess - Jesus - Joy of Man’s desiring
This was one of her most called for encores after a Hess recital. It is Hess’s own transcription of excerpts from Bach’s revered Cantata of the same name.
Beethoven Appassionata sonata opus 57
Fire, magnetism and unswerving polish. This is one of the great interpretations of the Sonata. Enough said!
And now for a jazz a twist! Hazel Scott is likely a name you have never heard of before, but I have a feeling that you will be smitten with what she does. One of the greatest prodigies of the 20th century in musical art in my view, she was accepted into the Juilliard school at age 8. A jazz pianist of extraordinary capacity, Ms. Scott had to overcome racism and sexism throughout her career. She is widely credited as being a major spearhead personality for African-Americans to appear in Hollywood films.
The following is an excerpt from one of her on camera cameos in Hollywood film. When she sits down to improvise, she gives a clinic on the spontaneous art and frankly leaves the viewer completely gob smacked with her "blind", left hand leaps! Extraordinary technique!
Black and White are beautiful
I have no words to explain this excerpt, other than it is possibly one of the most impressive displays of piano coordination I have seen. And she’s having a rocking good time along the way!