THE JOY OF MUSIC FESTIVAL 2012: GERSHWIN PLAYS GERSHWIN, RACHMANINOV PLAYS RACHMANINOV and others


THE JOY OF MUSIC FESTIVAL 2012:
RE-PERFORMANCES BY GREAT PIANISTS OF THE 20TH CENTURY
JOHN Q.WALKER
Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall
Sunday (14 October 2012)

After being startled and captivated by Glenn Gould performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations in a Zenph re-performance of his celebrated 1955 Columbia recording, John Q.Walker was on a roll. This morning his technology was to bring back to life previously unrecorded performances by George Gershwin and the jazz greats, as well as the pianist-composers such as Rachmaninov, Albeniz and Granados.

His primary source materials were old recordings, even video footage with antiquated sound. Anything that could be digitised would be subjected to study and data analysis, with the end product being a re-performance on a Yamaha Disklavier Pro, minus all the scratches, hiss, pop and surface noise. This would then be synchronised with the original film for a crystal clear reproduction of the original performance.
John Q.Walker himself plays one of the Gershwin songs, and the audience gets to hear Gershwin himself play in a re-performance on a Yamaha Disklavier Pro. 

The longest time was spent on the short-lived genius that was George Gershwin (1898-1937), who began as a humble song-plugger in New York’s Tin Pan Alley, a pianist who churned out songs like an assembly line. Walker delved into his quest for legitimacy as a serious composer, his study of the great classical composers of the time (he was a particular fan of Alban Berg) and his forays into art and portraiture. As a pianist, he improvised freely and hogged the pianos at parties where he would thump out his songs in a highly rhythmic and sometimes percussive way.

Gershwin as artist. A self portrait (left) and a portrait of his tennis partner, Arnold Schoenberg.
 
A number of pieces from his songbook were re-performed, including Strike Up The Band, Sweet and Low Down, Do Do Do, Clap Yo’ Hands, Someone To Watch Over Me and Liza. There were short and long versions of each song, the former published for use by amateur players and for domestic use, and his unpublished elaborations which are subject to much extemporisation. The latter were far more interesting because of the freedom in which he used the keys, and whenever some of these flourishes appeared, Walker would giggle out loud like a giddy-headed schoolboy. He must have played these umpteen times, but GG never ceases to amuse and amaze, and that is the mark of someone truly in love with his art (and science). From the sidelines, one cannot help but also feel the same way.

Alajalov's art for the original edition of The Gershwin Songbook, including Fascinatin' Rhythm and The Man I Love, and a Kandinsky painting that GG owned.  

GG was not the most accurate and one would hear the odd slip or smudged note in his Three Preludes, all captured faithfully in the re-performance, but what a treat this was all the same. In his highly abridged Blues section of Rhapsody in Blue (without orchestra), one becomes truly in tune with his pianism. He was never the most subtle, but always in the spirit of the musical moment.

Art Tatum
Oscar Peterson
 
Before the lunch break, there was time to hear two more jazz greats, the blind virtuoso Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, whose re-performances are available on CD (Sony Classical). The former, always light with his fingers, flew away with the music, and was greatly admired by Vladimir Horowitz. The latter’s own take of Gershwin’s The Man I Love had his inimitable touches and elaborations that added much to the original conception.

The group reconvened after lunch to hear previously unheard performances by Spanish composers Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados. The former’s recordings existed in form of ancient wax cylinders and including salon-like improvisations and a piece called La Vega that were not published. Thanks to this technology, even these improvisations have been scored and published as newly discovered works. Granados played a Scarlatti Sonata, two of his own Spanish Dances and El Pelelein a somewhat simplified form of the published version was also re-performed.


A famous photo of Rachmaninov with Walt Disney and Vladimir Horowitz. If only one had recorded what the three great men were discussing...
 
The bulk of the afternoon was devoted to re-performances by Sergei Rachmaninov (above), including original works (the Prelude in C sharp minor) and transcriptions including Bach’s Violin Partita No.3, the Kreisler Liebesleidand Liebesfreud, and my personal favourite, that dark and smoky transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby Op.16 No.1. Immediately one was drawn to the freedom in which he played the pieces, lots of rubato and a singing tone always. Some missed notes were captured and even his strain was showing in the E flat major Etude-tableaufrom Op.33. Amazingly there does not exist any film of Rachmaninov performing. Instead we treated to his home videos (playing with his children, boating, relaxing, smiling etc.), which showed him to be anything but the 6’4” scowl that he was described to be.

Finally, there was time to hear Walker’s own teacher, the former child prodigy Ruth Slenczynska (below) speak in an interview and her very deliberate but musical account of Chopin’s Ballade No.3 in A flat major. What she lacked in power and velocity, she made up with clarity and svelte cantabile. Time passed ever so quickly, and I took my leave to catch a plane flight back to Singapore.

Ruth Slenczynska playing Chopin.
It was a most enthralling five days of music and musing about music in Hong Kong. The Joy of Music Festival was just that, a happy meeting of musicians and music-lovers in celebration of what we love best. Without good music, life would truly be meaningless.

The Joy of Music Festival was organised by The Chopin Society of Hong Kong.