A Year of the Piano

A memoir by Richard Teleky

 Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

FROM EDMUND SPENSER'S “The Shepheardes Calendar” to accounts of the gardening year or memoirs like Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust, writing structured around a calendar always appeals to me. Music also suits this form, but where to begin? The obvious month is September, when the concert season takes off for professional musicians and concert-goers alike, and classes resume for conservatory students after the summer hiatus. Since I’m not a piano student in any formal sense, my choice is freer. Once my academic year has ended I have more time to practice, the current concert season has left its memories, and brochures arrive for the one ahead, like tempting seed catalogues in January. Spring, therefore, starts my chronicle.

May

This summer I want to concentrate on several pieces learned last year, bringing them back into my hands. Inevitably, the ritual of practicing makes me recall piano teachers from my past.

Your first piano teacher can set up your musical life or kill your musical instincts. Mine, fortunately, was an extraordinary, fortyish woman named Susan Krausz. Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Mrs. Krausz (that’s how I still think of her) studied there before marrying a violist; after World War II they immigrated to America, where he became principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra. I didn’t then know that Mrs. Krausz and her husband, Laszlo, had escaped the Holocaust to live in Switzerland. I did know that she claimed to understand very little English when they arrived in New York, and that she kept ordering fried eggs for breakfast because her vocabulary hadn’t caught up with her appetite. Later, during the decade I studied with her, I learned that one of her teachers had been the legendary Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti, who died at thirty-three, of leukemia. Only recently, while reading an entry about her from the Cleveland Composers Guild, did I find that she’d also studied with another legend, Edwin Fischer. Humbling thoughts.

Once my academic year has ended I have more time to practice, the current concert season has left its memories, and brochures arrive for the one ahead, like tempting seed catalogues in January.

It now amazes me that every Thursday afternoon Mrs. Krausz drove to my family’s house, arriving at 4:30 for a thirty-minute lesson that lasted for forty-five; that she charged $3.50 a lesson; and that this splendid musician sat patiently beside me, correcting my mistakes. She managed to have a career as a performer – I’ve kept the program for her 1957 performance with the Akron Symphony – compose music, and eventually lecture in piano at Case Western Reserve University, while raising two sons. From her I had the first glimmering that an artist’s way of life was possible. My mother and I once visited her upstairs duplex in Cleveland Heights. There was no sofa in the living room; instead, two grand pianos, book cases of musical scores, her husband’s paintings on the walls, some low benches. The room should have felt gloomy but seemed alive. (She took my mother into the kitchen to show her, with pride, two recent purchases: a stove and fridge in the avocado color then the height of kitchen fashion.) Decades later I wasn’t surprised to read that “Susan Krausz taught privately until the day before she died” – at ninety three.

After high school I set my piano studies aside, though I attended concerts by a celebrated generation: Artur Rubenstein, Rudolf Serkin, Lily Kraus. I didn’t resume lessons until graduate school, as a distraction from my doctoral thesis. I registered at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory and had the good fortune to land on Andrew Markow, another excellent teacher. Some years passed, Andrew moved to Russia for a time, and I was teacher-less. My work in publishing consumed much of my energy, but Ron Tomorelli, who gave private lessons, was for several years a good coach who overlooked my spotty preparation. By then any spare time was given over to writing, something had to go, and it was the piano. I could never sound like the splendid pianists I heard perform – Alfred Brendel, Maria João Pires, Claudio Arrau. Of course I missed the piano but didn’t touch mine for over a decade. Would I ever return to it?

Your first piano teacher can set up your musical life or kill your musical instincts.

Several years ago, one summer afternoon, a Cleveland friend who once studied at Salzburg’s Mozarteum, phoned about a piano that she’d come across in a consignment store. The Krakauer console had been well cared-for but not much played. Absurdly, after several markdowns, the cost was $200. “It’s a Chopin piano,” my friend said, speaking of its warm tone. An hour later it was love at first sound, and the piano was mine. After a good tuning, the tuner found the piano’s serial number, made a quick phone call, and we learned that the piano had been built in 1959, a pre-plastic era, which helped explain the rich tone for its size. Then I took out my old music and saw, with no surprise, how rusty I’d become. Oddly, it no longer matter. I didn’t have to sound like one of my idols, I just had to enjoy myself. 


June

With Dinu Lipatti’s wonderful 1950 recording of the Chopin waltzes in my head (he made it five months before his death), I bought a fresh edition of the Schirmer’s score and decided to start with the B minor waltz (Op. 69, No.2). I learned each hand by itself and only put them together slowly, after several days, forcing myself to resist the temptation to “play” the waltz. I didn’t want to build wrong notes into my hands, causing neurological patterns that needed correction. When I mentioned this to a physician friend, he said that piano practice was a good way of keeping one’s memory sharp, since it involved coordinating neurological responses in two hands doing different things, along with a foot on the pedal. To my surprise, my pug dog Rennie, who was unaccustomed to the sound of a piano in the living room, came and sat at my feet. Once I was almost comfortable with the waltz, which took longer than I’d hoped, I put a CD of Lipatti’s recording on a small portable player, slipped on earphones and played along with him. Not well, but keeping up. It took a while to find the gentle rolling movement for my left hand that makes the simple three-beats sound expressive rather than mechanical.

I leaf through old scores, deciding against the Bach inventions I once loved, or long pieces. There isn’t enough practice time for sonatas, and I don’t want to frustrate myself. I’m tempted by music played before, like a visit to friends one hasn’t seen for years, but choose Chopin’s posthumous Mazurka Opus 67, No.4, which I loved on a CD by the young Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz, who won the Chopin Competition in 2005, when, for the first time, the judges decided not to award a second-place prize. 


July

I’m not alone in my return to the piano. The manufacture of pianos has declined since the early 1960s, when music lessons for children were a common part of growing up, but many people who left the piano behind after their teenage years have come back to it as adults. This makes sense because the piano, though a percussion instrument, is the most complete instrument in itself – it seems to encompass everything that music can be – and has the richest solo repertoire. I continue with Chopin’s B minor waltz and the Mazurka I’ve mentioned, add his beautiful E flat major Nocturne (Op. 9, No.2), the first piece of Chopin I played, and so familiar it’s almost a cliché, and revisit my favorite sections of Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Then I leaf through Schubert’s Impromptus and my favorite Brahms Intermezzi. More choices than hours.

To my surprise, my pug dog Rennie, who was unaccustomed to the sound of a piano in the living room, came and sat at my feet.

Away from the piano there are magazines like International Piano and Pianist, filled with profiles of great musicians past and present, interviews, and reviews that lead me to CDs and books seldom discussed elsewhere – a specialized world, with its own rewards. Here the past isn’t forgotten. International Piano appears six times a year, and after reading an issue I’m already impatient for the next. Where else would I find new profiles of Walter Gieseking, Wilhelm Kempff, and Géza Anda, alongside those of young artists like Piotr Anderszewski? Or samples of new editions of piano music, like the second movement of Mozart’s sonata No 14 in C minor, K 457, from the Weiner Urtext Edition? Pianist (No. 54) even offered a helpful in-depth “lesson” on the B minor Chopin waltz that brought me back to the piano.

Along with these magazines, books about the piano are also a part of summer reading and rereading. Old favorites like Charles Rosen’s Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist, Harold C. Schonberg’s classic The Great Pianists: From Mozart to Present, Arthur Loesser’s Men, Women & Pianos: A Social History, even Thad Carhart’s charming The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, make good companions, along with Mildred Portney Chase’s always helpful Just Being at the Piano and Russell Sherman’s thoughtful meditation, Piano Pieces. And I especially like collections of interviews. Elyse Mach’s Great Pianists Speak for Themselves, a volume of personal essays, offers insights worth keeping in mind before settling down to practice. This month I’m reading David Dubal’s Reflections from the Keyboard: The World of the Concert Pianist. One point is made over and over: the necessity of long hours of practice. Dinu Lipatti is credited with the remark that if he was away from the keyboard for two days, his hands felt like spaghetti, and Gary Graffman even called his memoir I Really Should Be Practicing. The names of a few titans come up again and again – Edwin Fischer, Dinu Lipatti, and Alfred Cortot. Viennese pianist Paul Badura-Skoda praises Edwin Fischer for his “wonderful non-percussive sound,” a reminder that the piano’s challenge is to achieve a singing tone, a legato the instrument seemingly withholds. I especially like Hungarian pianist Tamás Vásáry’s idea that Chopin has to be played with the transparency of Mozart because “The textures are almost Mozartian.” This is the crux of Chopin, and only a few – like the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires, in her recording of the Nocturnes – achieve it.

I leaf through old scores, deciding against the Bach inventions I once loved, or long pieces. There isn’t enough practice time for sonatas, and I don’t want to frustrate myself.

The other day I stopped at the music shop in Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra, to pick up a recent recording of Mitsuko Uchida with the orchestra, one in a series of Mozart piano concertos that she played and conducted from the keyboard. There’s nothing quite like a new CD that seems perfect from the first bar. I attended the performance for this live recording of Mozart’s only concerto in a minor key – No. 20 in D minor, K466 – and No. 27 in B flat major, K595. Not just a souvenir of a memorable evening, this CD belongs on a shelf beside Géza Anda’s Mozart concertos and Clara Haskil’s wonderful Piano Sonata in C, K 330. How to get such transparency into my Chopin playing? Maybe I should take out the music for K 330, studied twenty-five years ago.

In the 1990s Philips had a wonderful series called “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” – each volume included 2 CDs of remastered recordings. Though the series has been discontinued, a set occasionally crops up in a local music shop. Last week I bought one of Clifford Curzon, the British pianist known for his elegant musicianship, and this morning listened, transfixed, to his performance of Schubert’s impromptu No 2 in A flat. Recorded in1952, when Curzon was at the height of his powers, the impromptu stopped time. A great interpreter of the Classical school, Curzon was drawn to a quality he called innerlichinwardnessa lyrical directness. It’s similar, perhaps, to what the pianist Arthur Schnabel called “the second simplicity”. Curzon’s wonderful legato suited a piece of music marked sempre legato, and let me imagine the moment when Schubert put pen to paper. I knew in a flash that the A flat impromptu would be a piece to learn this summer. Fortunately I had an old Edition Peters of the impromptus. The deceptively simple opening lines of the A flat impromptu mustn’t be hurried, or the yearning in its stately theme can turn into something perfunctory. I listen to Curzon’s version over and over until I feel the pianist is at my side, cautioning me: take your time. Simplicity demands patience.


August

Like film festivals, international piano competitions have proliferated in the last few decades, but the best of them do bring attention to gifted young musicians. This month is the nineteenth biennial Cleveland International Piano Competition, which was founded as the Robert Casadesus International Piano Competition at the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1975, in memory of the French pianist, who often performed with the Cleveland Orchestra (it was renamed in 1994). The competition offers a $50,000 First Prize, one of the largest anywhere. In the last twenty years the audience has grown from 1,000 to over 10,000, and the number of applicants from under 50 to more than 250 – impressive figures suggesting that the piano world is a healthy one.

Like film festivals, international piano competitions have proliferated in the last few decades, but the best of them do bring attention to gifted young musicians.

I attend several sessions and listen to others on the radio, aware of the courage it takes to perform under such intense conditions. (The last time I joined in a student recital was after the tenth grade, when I played – too ambitiously – Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat, known as “Heroic”. Somehow I got through it without a wrong note and promised myself “never again.”) The competition’s initial sessions began with twenty-seven pianists. It’s moving to watch young performers, many in their early twenties, offer versions of some of the greatest music ever written. Half of them showed more than promise, and this made me wonder what they would achieve in the years ahead. A glance at past competition winners shows that only a few go on to international prominence. In the 1979 competition, for example, the Second Prize went to Jean-Yves Thibaudet, of France, and Third Prize to Canada’s Angela Hewitt. I’m glad to predict three of the four finalists (that fourth I’d ruled out early on), with a slight preference for this year’s winner, Alexander Schimpf, a twenty-nine-year-old from Germany who, unlike many of the other contestants, had not studied at either Curtis or Juilliard.

There’s another side to playing the piano, and it happens during a late summer thunderstorm, rain beating on the windows. The storm fills me with memories of my teenage years, of similar nights when my mother would ask me to play the show tunes she loved, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” or “On the Street Where You Live” – music that used to be called “pop standards” and is now known as “the American song book”. I’ve kept those worn collections of Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hart and Jerome Kern, and take out “Smoke Gets In your Eyes” Nostalgia music, it suits an end of summer mood.       


September

The new concert season begins. Marking it for the New York Times, in an article called “Pride at the Piano”, Vivien Schweitzer summed up every concert-goer’s dilemma: “Pianophiles in New York are privileged to hear many first-rate concerts each season by rising stars and established pianists. But only a few of them – including Mitsuko Uchida, Martha Argerich and András Schiff – can be counted on for revelatory and transcendent interpretations.” How, then, to value concerts that aren’t “revelatory” or “transcendent,” which make up the bulk of concert going?

My first concert is with the German pianist Markus Groh. Scheduled at the St. Lawrence Centre, the recital was moved to Walter Hall at the University of Toronto, which meant drier acoustics. Groh is a favorite of the series’ general manager, who in 2007 brought him together with the Tokyo String Quartet. A tall, lean, fortyish man, with hair pulled back in a pony tail that appeared to be held together by a rubber band, and dressed in tight black clothes, he affects the style of a bohemian romantic, perhaps to suit the first half of his program: Schumann’s “Papillons” and a selection of Chopin’s waltzes and polonaises. After a stolid Schumann, several hurried waltzes, and one okay polonaise, I debated about returning after the intermission to hear Brahms’s “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel”. But I’m glad that I did. From the opening bars, this music suited his temperament. If the performance wasn’t “revelatory” it was “first-rate,” and I left the hall wondering what Groh would make of Haydn or Bach. As usual the audience was almost geriatric, though that didn’t stop people from immediately jumping to their feet, as if a standing ovation was de rigeur. Schweitzer’s remarks remained in my mind. With the start of classes, I miss my own time at the piano. Concerts aren’t substitutes.


October

This month, several surprises. The fall-term Reading Week allows for a visit to Cleveland, and I anticipated time at the piano with Franz Liszt’s Consolation No. 3 in D flat, my way of marking the bicentennial of his birth. A recent RCA compilation of Arthur Rubinstein’s Liszt recordings included Consolation No. 3, and it inspired me. (The elegiac piece was used in the French film Rue Montagne, where a disillusioned concert pianist cancels his recital schedule to visit the cancer ward of a local hospital and play for terminal patients.) Liszt is a composer I want to like – perhaps because of my Hungarian forebears – more than I do.

October 6th brought the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize winner in literature: Tomas Tranströmer. The eighty-year-old Swedish poet has been partially paralyzed on his right side for the past twenty years, and he is also largely unable to talk. Yet his condition has not stopped him from creating a rich body of work, nor has it prevented him from playing the piano, but only with his left hand. In the poem “Allegro” he has this to say (in Robert Bly’s translation):

After a black day, I play Haydn
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.


I’m struck by the “sound” that is “full of silence”; the image – following “spirited” and “green” – for a moment seems like a contradiction. While the poet’s discomfort with speech may shape the idea here, with a piano replacing his own voice, aesthetic decisions are often made in silence while playing or practicing, and Tranströmer has the order right in his sound sequence.

Several days later I received a birthday package from Teresa Stratas. It contained an old German Schott score, Das neue Operetten Buch, that she had used and knew I would enjoy. I headed straight to the piano, wishing to be a better sight-reader. Playing through some favorite arias – “Einer wird kommen” from Franz Lehár’s Der Zarewitsch, and the beautiful waltz “Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden...” from Paganini – I was delighted to hear familiar melodies come from my own piano and not from voices on a CD. I hummed along and felt the music a perfect match to a birthday’s reflections. More than any other instrument, the piano can express every mood, every emotion. While it also reinforces one’s limitations and inadequacies, like my poor sight reading, it can, as Tranströmer wrote, give silence sound – a kind of freedom.


November

Ravel has been on my mind. It started with Roger Nichols’ new biography called, simply, Ravel. Nichols is a great musicologist and his discussion of individual works led me to my favorite Ravel recordings by the French pianist Jean-Philippe Collard. The CDs soon took me back to an old, marked-up score for Pavane pour une Infante défunte, loved perhaps because my hands used to fit into it comfortably. Since I haven’t played the Pavane for more than twenty years, it no longer slips on easily. And I’m self-conscious about practicing in my Toronto apartment and disturbing neighbors; I won’t learn new music here because every mistake seems louder.

More than any other instrument, the piano can express every mood, every emotion. While it also reinforces one’s limitations and inadequacies, like my poor sight reading, it can, as Tranströmer wrote, give silence sound – a kind of freedom.

Nichols doesn’t bring me much closer to Ravel than Benjamin Ivry did in his fine book Maurice Ravel, A Life, so I read a short novel by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French and called Ravel, A Novel. Echenoz suggests that Ravel was influenced less by the sounds of nature than by the sounds of machines – for instance, the turbines in the engine room of a transatlantic steamship – and this notion helps explain the surface of Ravel’s music, which often evokes the slick art deco style. Nichols has reservations about the Pavane (“But even if it is not great music, the melody is instantly memorable and far from obvious in its construction”) while Ivry calls the melody “graceful” and notes that the piece was played at Marcel Proust’s funeral in November 1922, possibly at his request. It’s an easy composition to like but not that easy to play without turning it into a lugubrious moonlit cliché. Ravel famously objected to pianists who played the work too slowly, and quipped that it was the princess who was defunct, not the pavane. Maybe next summer, with more practice, I’ll be happier with my efforts.

A concert by Lise de la Salle suited my reading and rusty efforts. With much advance press about the young French pianist, who is just twenty-four, I wondered if her reputation came from hype. She marched awkwardly onto the stage at the St. Lawrence Centre, head hunched forward with long blondish hair hanging down her back, like a Tenniel illustration for Alice in Wonderland. But I enjoyed de la Salle’s diffidence, and from the first note of Ravel’s Miroirs it was clear that she deserves her reputation, with technique and sensibility in ideal combination. What will she do in ten years? In twenty? I’d like to hear.


December

With the end of the fall semester, marking essays takes over. There are few concerts other than the usual holiday music, along with Handel’s ubiquitous Messiah. This time of year I always remember accompanying my fifth-grade class in the elementary school’s Christmas concert. I’d practiced the carols – “The First Noel”, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” – over and over, and Mrs. Krausz had coached me. The afternoon concert took place in the school’s gymnasium, with several hundred PTA mothers in attendance, and though I was nervous, once I sat down at the piano, and the choir director Miss Anton gave me a nod to begin, I was home free. Miss Anton – Helen Anton – was the school’s art and music teacher, and with luck my home-room teacher, so she knew of my piano lessons and wanted to encourage me. A classic spinster of the 1950s, wearing dark dresses with matching jackets and sometimes a cluster of artificial cherries pinned to her lapel, she had three white plaster busts on the upright piano in our classroom: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, naturally. But she wasn’t a musical snob, and I learned “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” from Oklahoma! to accompany class singing sessions. This month I anticipate the winter-term sabbatical that will leave me free to spend more time practicing.  


January

To start the new year I want something fresh, so out comes an old Weiner Urtext of Bach’s Inventionen und Sinfonien (BWM 772-801), the two- and three-part inventions. I haven’t looked at this music for decades, and am overcome with nostalgia because this edition was given to me as a Christmas gift almost forty years ago, by a friend, now deceased, who loved Bach and wanted me to play the inventions for her. Scattered throughout are penciled notes and fingerings, which I’m glad to find (I can’t recall who wrote them, but the handwriting isn’t mine). One of my favorites, Sinfonia 5, in E flat major, has this note: “Pick up whole hand for each 16th.” Okay. The theme and inverted theme has a slightly improvisational quality, and, as usual, I begin slowly, counting aloud. These pieces were written for Bach’s pupils but they’re more than exercises. While Sinfonia 5 is only two pages long, it’s not going to come back easily. If Dinu Lipatti’s hands felt like spaghetti after two days away from the piano, mine are a bowl of cold oatmeal. According to the edition’s forward by Karl Heinz Füssl, the ornamentation in these works is sparing because Bach did not aim to teach his students “mechanical manual dexterity.” More helpful is Bach’s own forward, from 1727, where he states his goal: “most of all to achieve a cantabile manner of playing.”

[I]t was clear that she deserves her reputation, with technique and sensibility in ideal combination. What will she do in ten years? In twenty? I’d like to hear.

This singing sound came to mind when I read in the morning paper that Alexis Weissenberg has died, at the age of 82. A Bulgarian Jew who, as a child of twelve, managed to escape from Europe and the Holocaust with his mother, Weissenberg must have had much in common with Susan Krausz. After the war he ended up in New York, where he studied at Julliard. A master of fiery technique, Weissenberg’s Bach is fast and loud, and often overwhelming, but its thunder pulls one along, though it’s hardly cantabile. I prefer his CD of Rachmaninoff’s preludes, where music and musician is a more harmonious match. I’ve never heard Weissenberg play Liszt but they seem made for each other. In the current issue of Piano there’s a fascinating interview with András Schiff where he explains that he doesn’t like Liszt because of “the direction that music took from Liszt, Wagner, Schoenberg and the others.” Preferring a Bachian line with counterpoint and polyphony, Schiff regards his dislike of Liszt as a matter of temperament, and admits, “I must be the only Hungarian-born pianist who has trouble with his music!” I’m relieved to read Schiff’s remarks.

February

More Bach – that’s the sound I want to hear – along with last summer’s Schubert Impromptu. It would be helpful to have a sympathetic piano teacher again, someone to consult for suggestions and corrections. I pick up another edition of Bach’s Inventions, one of the Alfred Masterworks, edited by Willard A. Palmer, because it has detailed notes, unlike the Weiner Urtext. Palmer has studied the various autographs and other editions, and makes useful notes about baroque ornaments (which were added by followers of Bach). While no edition can replace a good teacher, it’s what I have for now. 

A classic spinster of the 1950s, wearing dark dresses with matching jackets and sometimes a cluster of artificial cherries pinned to her lapel, she had three white plaster busts on the upright piano in our classroom: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, naturally.

A new book about the piano is rare, and I eagerly read Stuart Isacoff’s A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians – from Mozart to Modern Jazz, and Everything in Between. But Isacoff is often just frustrating. He divides pianists and composers into four arbitrary categories: alchemists (Debussy), melodists (Chopin, Schubert), combustibles (Beethoven, Liszt) and rhythmitizers (George Gershwin). Yet Beethoven wrote wonderfulmelodies (in the “Moonlight” sonata, for one), and Debussy had a gift for rhythm (listen to “Rain in a Garden”). Still, I enjoyed Isacoff’s characterizations of some individual pianists (he calls Glenn Gould “a master of personal theatrics”). But for my taste there’s far too much about jazz, yet no mention of Keith Jarrett’s rhapsodic “Köln Concert” or Brad Meldau, and not a word about cabaret pianists like Eddy or Peter Duchin. Isacoff favors the word experimental but every serious composer is experimental when you consider the previous generation. 


March

A frustrating month, it seems unable to decide what to wear, spring or winter. And my hands are frustrating too. I’m still working on several of Bach’s 3 part inventions but often my hands won’t do what I want them to. My left wrist is sore from a strain last week, and after practicing a short while I need to rest it. This reminds me that we play with our bodies, not just our hands. As compensation (sort of), I’ve listened half a dozen times to a CD by András Schiff – his recording of Bach’s Inventions – from the Great Pianists series. The shaping of Schiff’s performance has an appealing urgency, even lushness, but the base notes are occasionally muffled, not muddy yet not clear, like Glenn Gould’s. The strength in Gould’s left hand was amazing, and when he chose to, he could use that strength for nuances that other pianists seldom suggest. 
 

April

As brochures for the upcoming fall concert season arrive in the mail, I have to admit that this chronicle is coming to an end. The final concert of the season was the highpoint: Mitsuko Uchida playing two Mozart piano concertos: No. 9, K. 271, written when Mozart was twenty-one, and the popular 21st, K. 467, known for the beautiful Andante movement that was used as the soundtrack for the Swedish film Elvira Madigan (1967), with Géza Anda’s unsurpassed recording of it.

Uchida helped make a decision for me. Over thirty years ago I learned Mozart’s sonata in F major, KV 332, and finally I looked for my Henle score. It’s comforting to see old pencil markings for pedaling, fingering, and even corrections to spots which must have caused me trouble. I’ve decided to jump into the Adagio, which I loved. This past year I’ve left Mozart alone because the music can appear deceptively simple and I wasn’t ready to face its demands. Several days before her Cleveland concert, Uchida spoke about Mozart to the local press: “This music has so much in it. There are so many unbelievably deep, hidden things to be unearthed. I’m still scratching the surface.” Remarks like those almost make me want to close the lid on the keys. Somewhere I have a CD of her playing the F major sonata but I won’t look for it yet. It’s odd but I’m less intimidated by a tremendous CD from a pianist I haven’t seen in person – Lipatti, say, or Curzon – because I can’t picture them at the keyboard, while Uchida’s image remains in my mind.

After this year, I’m left with several questions: Will I find another piano teacher? Do I have the energy to embark on the hard work of lessons, and find time for practice? Can I accommodate my aging hands to the effort a piano demands? Of course there will be exciting concerts and new CDs and unexpected books ahead. I’ve learned to lower my standards for my own playing, or else I wouldn’t be able to face any piano, which both saddens me and gives me hope. There’s little perfection in life, and perfection can’t last anyway, except on a few CD reissues of great recordings. I can set two “perfect” performances side by side – say the Chopin Nocturnes from João Pires and Rubenstein – and I’m unable to make a choice. Music practice teaches that there’s always room for something more, something else, another perspective or inspired touch. My own small efforts, at least, are part of the admirable desire to make this big clumsy instrument called the piano sing. I’ll have to live with that.    

 

RICHARD TELEKY is the author of several novels, books of poetry, and collections of essays. His most recent book is The Dog on the Bed: A Canine Alphabet (2011). He lives in Toronto.
 

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