Tuesday, 23 September 2008

An Interview with Kenneth Hamilton: Concert Pianist and Author of "After the Golden Age" Part 1

This interview took place just before Kenneth Hamilton's piano recital at Esplanade Recital Studio on 23 March 2008. A preview article adapted from this interview was written for The Straits Times, which was not published. Here is the full transcript, with the kind permission of Dr Hamilton.
Kenneth Hamilton gave the Singapore premieres of works like Alkan's Le festin d'Esope, Wagner-Liszt Tannhauser Overture, Gounod-Liszt Hymn to Saint Cecilia, Ronald Stevenson's Peter Grimes Fantasy, the Hexameron and a number of John Ireland pieces.

Q: What was the inspiration for you to write After The Golden Age?

Basically, a horror at the sheer boredom of some of the piano recitals I’ve attended as an audience member! One especially awful memory was of a concert where the audience were ‘warned’ not to make any noise whatsoever before the artist came on stage. Subsequently, when the pianist did eventually come on stage, everyone sat through the recital in an atmosphere of barely-suppressed terror and embarrassment. Not an enjoyable experience! Frankly, I would simply have left the hall before the end of the concert had I not been there as a guest, but I suppose the fact that I hadn’t paid for my own ticket was the only pleasant thing about the whole evening!

I knew that this sort of almost frightening concert ritual - more like a funeral than an entertainment - was of a very recent origin. The fact is that concerts were very different, much more lively and interactive, when most the pieces we play (Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin et al) were actually written.

I therefore decided to do some research on piano playing and concerts of the past, and found some things that surprised me. For example, audiences would regularly clap between movements of a piece up till as late as the 1940s. Or that pianists would usually introduce each new item on their programme with an improvised prelude, again up until the early decades of the 20th-century. Preludes like this have survived in ‘cocktail-bar’ piano playing, but are hardly ever heard in ‘serious’ concerts now. But nevertheless, that was what was done!

I wrote After The Golden Age to let people know just how different pianists and concerts of the past actually were. Not just different, but frankly more entertaining!

Q: Are musicians and artists entertainers or preachers, or a bit of both?

They have to be a bit of both, depending on the piece they are playing. The problem is that nowadays the ‘preaching’ aspect has taken over for almost everything, so that no matter what you’re playing - a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody or Horowitz’s Carmen Variations - it’s all supposed to be done and listened to with the utmost seriousness, like a religious experience. But that’s simply not what pieces like that are about. When the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies were written, audiences would clap in the middle of the piece if they were enjoying what they were hearing (just like in jazz concerts now), and even call out for an encore of especially exciting sections!

Now such behaviour is not appropriate for more serious and contemplative pieces - like a Bach fugue or one of the late Beethoven sonatas. But then, pieces like that were never actually written to be played in pubic concerts. They were essentially music for the home, or for a small circle of friends and music lovers. When we play them in large halls, we are playing them in a context that their composers didn’t envisage. We shouldn’t have a boisterous a ‘Hungarian rhapsody’ atmosphere for these pieces, but that doesn’t mean that the audience should be sitting in terror of making any sound at all. After all, human beings sometimes need to cough or sneeze, and if you have to sneeze, you have to sneeze, whether someone is playing a Beethoven sonata at the same time or not!

Kenneth Hamilton with his interviewer.

Q: Franz Liszt was the archetypal artist who embodied both qualities of a performer, yet he is often remembered more as a charlatan-like character. Why was that so?

Well, I suppose it’s because the ‘showman’ aspect of Liszt’s character was the one that the public got to know first, during his concert tours of the 1840s, when he played to frenzied crowds all over Europe and became effectively the world’s first ‘pop star’, Everybody recognised that he was by far the greatest pianist up to that time, but some stricter musicians - Mendelssohn, for example - were appalled at the things he would do to the music he was playing - adding extra octaves and chords to Beethoven to make it more difficult, and things like that. Liszt became much more sober as a player in his later years, but by then his showy reputation with the public was already fixed.

Then there were all the scandals of Liszt’s so called private life, which was always more public than private. Liszt always seemed to be most attracted to women who were already married to someone else. He must have liked a challenge! Of course, later in life he took minor orders in the Roman Catholic church, and dressed as a priest, but that seemed just to add to the gossip and scandal. He wasn’t entirely hypocritical, however. He never became a fully ordained priest, because he wasn’t willing to take the next necessary step - the vow of chastity!

Q: When was it that the dichotomy between entertainment and high art become a more or less permanent divide?

We can see this happening during the 19th-Century. Earlier in that era, most concerts were ‘variety’ concerts, with a mixture of pieces, some serious and some very light. You could easily find a Bach fugue followed by a set of variations on Yankee Doodle. At the first performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto in Vienna, the soloist played some novelty numbers between the movements, during which he held the violin upside down as an added attraction! He must have thought that the Beethoven was a bit too heavy for the audience to digest without some light relief.

Later in the century, we begin to see the divide growing between ‘Classical’ and ‘Popular’ concerts, and this divide grew wider throughout the 20th century. It’s a pity in many ways, because there’s a lot of Classical music that’s just as approachable as pop music is, but some people are quite literally scared off by Classical concerts nowadays. They think they won’t understand the music, or won’t know how they ought to behave - like being in an expensive restaurant for the first time and not knowing what wine to order or what cutlery to use!

Kenneth Hamilton practises at the Conservatory.

Q: The middle to late 20th century became a “war zone” between the entertainers and the preachers. On one hand there was the visceral Georges Cziffra, an ultimate showman of the piano, and on the other hand the cerebral Artur Schnabel, who only performed works that were “better than they could be played” and who never played encores. Who was the greater artist?

Well, if you mean artist in the sense of ‘musician’ then it was certainly Schnabel, though Cziffra had by far the more spectacular piano technique. His octaves, for example, were astonishing, and his Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies utterly spectacular. Yet when it came to pieces that needed more than just lightning-fast passagework and power- even pieces by Liszt like Funerailles or Transcendental Study No.10 - then Cziffra could be absolutely awful, even frankly boring, as if he had no idea how the music ought to go. I remember listening to his recording of the latter, and thinking to myself, “What on earth does he think he’s doing? This is truly terrible!”

Cziffra could never have come near Schnabel’s wonderful interpretations of the Beethoven sonatas, but then I can’t imagine Schnabel could have played a Hungarian Rhapsody anything like as well as Cziffra (even if he’d been interested in trying, which he wasn’t). So, I think Cziffra was the winner when it came to exciting but sometimes mindless virtuosity, Schnabel when it came to Beethoven. Of course, in the virtuoso stakes, you often can’t do better than Horowitz - simply because the range of tone colours he produced was quite phenomenal!

Q: Tastes have changed somewhat in the late 20th century. Has the pendulum swung from the cerebral to the visceral?

It’s certainly swinging a bit more that way - correcting itself, if you like. One can now give whole programmes of transcriptions or opera fantasies (a bit like my Singapore programme this month) without automatically being accused of tastelessness by the ‘art for art’s sake’ brigade. I think people are beginning to realise again that some of this virtuoso music allows you to do things with the piano - to create a variety of sonorities and tone-colours, to add subtle secondary voicings - that would be inappropriate in a Schubert or Beethoven sonata, but demonstrate just how ‘orchestral’ the piano can be. After all, the piano itself is entitled to be shown off a bit, along with the music!

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