200 YEARS OF THE PIANO / An Interview with Kenneth Hamilton

Piano Recitals by Kenneth Hamilton
31 March & 2 April 2012 /
7.30 pm, Esplanade Recital Studio

Singapore welcomes back the Scottish virtuoso Kenneth Hamilton, who has over the years presented some of the most interesting and intriguing piano recitals to my knowledge. Not only is his breadth and depth of the piano repertoire astounding, as he is a scholar with the most inquisitive of minds, it is his breath-taking delivery and the inimitable wit which have made his recitals memorable and treasured events. For the first time, he performs over two evenings.

The full programme is available here:

As generous as always, Kenneth Hamilton avails himself to yet another exclusive Pianomania interview.

200 years of piano literature encompassed in two recitals. Surely omitting certain works by iconic composers must have been a painful experience. How did you arrive at this final programme?

You are quite right. I simply had to resign myself “with regret” to wholesale omissions. There is no way, after all, that I could have offered an example of everything, even if the recitals had been of a gargantuan, Anton Rubinstein-like length (and that in itself would have been a bad idea—one can have too much even of a good thing). So I was basically guided by a few ground-rules: to make sure that the programmes had sufficient variety, while also giving some idea of how writing for the piano had changed over the last two centuries; and only to perform pieces that I myself loved and admired. After all, if the performer isn’t himself enthusiastic about what he is playing, he can hardly expect the audience to be!

We start with Mozart and Beethoven, who were among the first of the great composers to have tried their hands on the pianoforte. Mozart was indifferent to it while Beethoven embraced it with open arms. Do you think that was some turning point in the history and fortunes of the instrument?

Yes, it was a turning point, but motivated more by the development of the instrument itself than anything else. When Mozart grew up, the harpsichord and clavichord were still in general use, and the piano was simply one of a selection of keyboard instruments one could choose to play on. When Beethoven was trained a few decades later, the piano had slowly begun to supplant the other instruments, at least for domestic and concert purposes (let us not forget that Beethoven was also known as an organist in his young days). The piano had “won”, if you like, because it was gradually becoming more reliable, more responsive and somewhat louder than before. Of course, it still had a very long way to go. Beethoven was well known for still being unhappy with the state of what he called “a most imperfect instrument”. Still, it was more “perfect” than it had been in Mozart’s day, and that was the turning point. For the first time, the advantages of the piano - sensitivity, a range of dynamics - outweighed the disadvantages.

You have given more than ample playing time to Charles Alkan (1813-1885), who celebrates his bicentenary next year. Just how important and revolutionary was his contribution to the piano, with respect to Chopin and Liszt?

Alkan was a fascinating pianist and composer. I don’t think, however, that his direct influence on keyboard writing was that great, given that his music tended to be relatively little known (even if it had always attracted a clique of influential fans, like Liszt and Hans von B├╝low). His indirect influence, on the other hand, was much greater. That was mediated through Ferruccio Busoni. Many aspects of Busoni’s keyboard style - the spacing of scales and figuration two octaves apart, for example, or the chordal technique - are pretty obviously derived from Alkan. And from Busoni we then derive several important aspects of early 20th-century pianism. Alkan at a distance, as it were.

Liszt's Totentanz was inspired by the Dance of Death fresco by Francesco Traini.

Tell us a little more about Liszt’s Totentanz, which is better known in its orchestral form. It polarises many listeners because it contains both transcendental and vulgar aspects of Liszt’s pianism. What is your take?

Well, the devil was supposed to be a virtuoso (like Paganini), so it is quite appropriate that a musical “dance of death” should be virtuosic! And the virtuoso writing in Totentanz - the implacable, overwhelming piling up of difficulties - is an essential part of the musical expression. It is, to some extent, the horror-film music of the 19th century. They didn’t actually have horror films, of course, but they had Gothic novels and various other macabre art forms. Totentanz is a musical realisation of this sort of thing. It is, in my view one of Liszt’s very best pieces.

It originally did not have much success. It was obviously too “advanced”, novel and shocking for most people. But then in the early 1880s, when Liszt was an old man, some of his pupils began to revive it (Alexander Siloti was the best known of these) and it suddenly became a huge hit with audiences, much to Liszt’s surprise. “I’ve now had my revenge” he said, “for failures of days gone by!” Liszt then revised some sections of the piece, and extended some passages in the version for piano and orchestra. These revisions are still often neglected (simply because many pianists don’t know about them), but I’ve added them into Liszt’s solo transcription of the piece that I’ll be playing in Singapore, so to that extent it will be a “new version”.

As for Brahms, was he a better composer for the piano in his youth with his large-scaled Sonatas and Variations, or as a mature sage with his late miniatures Klavierst├╝cke and Intermezzos?

That’s a very pertinent question, especially as I have just played the F minor Sonata (Op.5) in a few concerts in the UK. The early works have many intriguing features, and promises of greatness to come, but they also exhibit some fairly glaring faults, at least in my view. The piano writing is often uncomfortably thick, verging on the stodgy. And a few of the sonata movements are, quite frankly, too long for their material. The slow movement and Scherzo of the F minor Sonata, for example, work very well indeed. The outer movements are nevertheless problematic, albeit still interesting to play and to hear once in a while. It was with the Handel Variations (Op.24) that Brahms completely came into his own. That is an unalloyed masterpiece, and most of the later, shorter pieces are also utterly beautiful, and perfectly proportioned. I feel the same way about the two piano concertos, incidentally. The first has some wonderful ideas, but also some pretty tedious stretches. The second is magnificent throughout.

We know you love playing transcriptions. With respect to Ronald Stevenson, Busoni, Liszt, Brahms and Rachmaninov (whom all appear in the programme), what makes successful transcriptions work?

In a good transcription, the piece is reconceived for the piano, not simply transliterated. With the work of the best transcribers, one might think that the music had been written for the piano from the start. The other side of the coin are these truly dreadful vocal score arrangements of operas and oratorios et cetera, some of which are almost unplayable. And of course, the very finest transcriptions also have a “value added” aspect. They highlight some elements of the piece that are perhaps not so obvious in the original, or shed new light on the work in some other way. Both Liszt and Busoni had a quite phenomenal ability to reconceive orchestral, operatic, or organ music in terms of the piano. Ronald Stevenson also has this gift. For instance, his arrangement of Richard Tauber’s My Heart and I is more or less a new composition, but one that retains the passion of the original, and adds a bittersweet, nostalgic tinge to it as well. Truly “value-added” indeed.

There was a time when the piano was a necessity in all households, but this has been replaced successively by the radio, television and now personal computers. Do you think someday that the piano will make a glorious comeback?

No, alas, the real glory-days of the piano are over in that sense. We can’t un-invent the CD player, and all the rest. But in fact, one of the most astonishing things is how popular the piano has remained, notwithstanding all the domestic musical rivals that turned up in the last century. The piano, of course, produces live music - and consequently gives the performer and audience a direct contact that they don’t get in many other media. And whether the player is good or bad, he or she is still instrumental in producing the music, rather than simply being a passive recipient from the radio, CD player, or whatever. There is something unusually thrilling about being in the presence of live music and that, I think, is one of the reasons why there are still audiences for piano recitals, and why so many people still learn the piano themselves, even if they have no intention of becoming professional players. All in all, the piano is still holding its own pretty well these days, despite the competition!

Kenneth Hamilton was interview by PianoManiac.