Exploring the Vast Piano Repertoire with Steven Spooner Print E-mail
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Written by Robert Schulslaper   
Thursday, 24 January 2013

Exploring the Vast Piano Repertoire with Steven Spooner

Pianist/composer Steven Spooner’s insatiable musical appetite has led him to perform his own version of the repertoire-spanning concerts pioneered by Anton Rubinstein in 1885. Given over a period of three years, these live recitals were recorded and are now available on six CDs. Before Rubinstein there was Franz Liszt, who played everything, knew everyone, and, along with Chopin, revolutionized piano technique. Spooner’s DVD, Aspects of Liszt , pays homage to Liszt’s protean musicianship and is his contribution to the worldwide bi-centennial observances of 2011. I discussed both of these immersive projects with Spooner along with other topics prompted by our mutual fascination with the piano and pianists.

Q: Before learning about your Historical Piano Recital Series, I thought we might delve a bit into your personal musical history. When did you begin to play the piano?

SS: I was nine and was forced to begin lessons—I was not particularly happy about this but my siblings did it so I figured I had to do it, too.

Q: Are you part of a musical family?

SS: No…but many members are true ‘lovers’ of music, not in a casual sense.

Q: Is the piano your only instrument?

SS: Yes. At first I wanted to play the cello but my mother said we had a piano and I should learn that first. But I couldn’t bring myself to abandon the cello completely, so I pretended to play Dvořák’s Cello Concerto on my brother’s guitar with a clothes hanger as a bow.

Q: I’d like to see a video of that. In any case, you went on to compose as well as play: Did you study formally or are you self-taught?

SS: No, I never studied composition, though I’ve played my pieces for some composers to get their reactions. I’ve been composing since the very beginning and even did some commercial work quite by accident…I wrote the music for the commercial spots to early Harry Connick ads.

Q: How did that come about?

SS: A friend of mine was a junior producer at a local TV station in New Orleans—she was responsible for these ads and because of copyright issues, they couldn’t use clips from his albums. I improvised on It Had To Be You . I also made a “toys for tots” spot that still airs every year during Christmas. When I studied with Earl Wild, he told me he did all sorts of commercial projects during his career at NBC.

But getting back to my “serious” studies, my main piano teacher in the former Soviet Union was quite an accomplished composer who studied with Khachaturian and Schnittke and he was always urging me to compose, improvise, and basically think like a composer. I think the art of piano has declined since the time most pianists could compose and improvise.

Q: That’s an interesting point of view. What do you feel is missing in contemporary interpretations that would be improved by pianists receiving a more complete compositional/improvisational education?

SS: I think it’s a matter of perceiving the truth in the score. As I like to say, pianists always ask “how” (regarding execution) but composers always ask “why” since they are usually fascinated by the process of unraveling a composer’s motivations. These days an Urtext culture is eroding the core concept of interpretation, because pianists in particular view the score as somehow sacrosanct and distance themselves from the truth of the music by remaining objective. A healthy point of view that many composers have is that the sound is the most important thing: Everything else is secondary. That approach flies in the face of our Urtext-obsessed world where authenticity is everything. We are in a time where we literally “worship” the score and forget those notes on the page are but rough symbols for us to re-animate. Master pianist and composer Dinu Lipatti said it best when he proclaimed he was most interested in “ur-spirit” not Urtext.

Q: You’ve had many teachers along the way, so perhaps it’s a bit unfair to ask you to single out any particularly influential ones, but…

SS: Wow, where to begin? I’ve been so lucky to have not only great teachers but teachers who represented varied aesthetic backgrounds. My earliest teacher, Margaret Norton, put up with my monumental apathy towards the piano, until she finally broke through by playing Artur Rubinstein’s My Favorite Chopin for me. That record literally changed my life so I owe her a lot.

My biggest influence was my teacher in Tbilisi, Nodar Gabunia. He was a pianist and composer and a person of tremendous intellect and culture who performed the complete Beethoven sonatas and many Russian premieres of Bartók’s music. He had studied in Russia with the greats—Goldenweiser during the golden years, with fellow students Tatiana Nikolayeva, Lazar Berman, etc.—and was good friends with Gilels, Feinberg, and many leading musical personalities. He was the rector of the Conservatory, which continues to have such a stellar reputation and I still loathe the day he died unexpectedly in 2000. At our first lesson he asked what Liszt I played and I replied I did not like Liszt—he said, “Well, you can’t really be a pianist and avoid Liszt…I’ll assign you the Liszt Sonata and show you what you are missing.” He opened the doors for me to have lessons with other great teachers including Nikolayeva and Naumov. He treated me like a son and I miss his presence in my life terribly.

Another influential pianist entered my life during the Liszt Competition. The jurors were taking a break right after I played the first round and the distinguished Russian pianist Viktor Merzhanov came right up to me (rather breaking the standard competition rules) and started speaking Russian saying how much he enjoyed my playing. I asked how he knew I spoke some Russian and he said “I can hear it in your playing!” He continued, “Who was your teacher?” I said Nodar Gabunia—he exclaimed “what a musician! You were lucky!” And indeed I realize more and more how lucky I was.

After Russia, I came back to the States and had an opportunity to study with a friend who was just a few years older than me named Logan Skelton (now a professor at the University of Michigan). He treated me like a young colleague and we actually had a habit of playing for one another which touched me and gave me the confidence I needed. He was a detailed and incredibly conscientious teacher who basically told me he was going to work on the weaker points of my playing, specifically Scarlatti, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, since I was already beginning to specialize in bravura repertoire. We had such a short time together but it was very valuable; he gave me other options to explore and forced me to play with more than just instinct. We remain close friends.

I also enjoyed short stints in Paris and got to work with the American pianist Noel Lee along with some really incredible musicians such as the baritone Bernard Kryusen, [accompanist] Dalton Baldwin, and [composer/pianist] Emile Naoumoff, another big influence. The “language” of playing the piano and of French music is so different in the French School that it was very valuable for me to experience that and draw deeper into the music through color and a cooler temperament.

Q: It’s interesting that you, an American pianist, should have had such extensive training abroad. I’m reminded of the earlier years of the 20th century when aspiring musicians often went to study in Europe and American performers sometimes changed their names to disguise their local origins: Olga Samaroff, née Hickenlooper, for example. So how did you come to study in Paris, Moscow, and Tbilisi?

SS: Well, as a young boy who was quickly crazy about piano, I used to listen to recordings non-stop and read anything I could get my hands on about piano. Van Cliburn was from my home state of Louisiana (NOT Texas) and he was a big influence (Abram Chasins’s book, The Van Cliburn Legend , accompanied my entire youth) and it seemed that most of the people I was listening to were Russian or had studied with a Russian, so I determined at a rather young age that I would try to study there if the opportunity arose. I am from New Orleans and a major ballet manager lived there who actually had the connections to contacts in Russia, and before I knew it I was the first person involved with an exchange program from the States. The exchange, through Loyola University, where I was an undergraduate, was to Tbilisi, and knowing the various “schools” in that part of the world I was very excited. This is where Joseph and Rosina Lhévinne taught, not to mention Neuhaus (before Moscow), as well as the current huge teachers at the Moscow Conservatory who were students there, Bashkirov, Virsaladze, and Vlassenko. Additionally, I had the easy opportunity to visit Moscow (back then it cost about $10 to fly there) and have lessons, listen to concerts, etc. After my time there in the mid ’90s, I was invited in 2003 by Merzhanov to come work with him in Moscow. Unfortunately, I could not take him up on this opportunity.

My work in France was rather piecemeal but valuable…the most incredible experience was with the master musician composer/pianist and last disciple of Boulanger, Emile Naoumoff. It was at the Paris Conservatory summer festival in Villecroze—a magical place where one could concentrate fully on music and be surrounded by inspiring young colleagues. It was there that I got to work with Naoumoff on solo repertoire and it was revelatory. I played Debussy Preludes Book I among other pieces. His approach was so foundational and completely devoid of any interpretational subjectivity. He stressed line, counterpoint, structure, balance, and color. This simplicity really made an impact on my playing and teaching.

One draw to continue my studies at Indiana was the great pianist Lev Vlassenko; however, he died before I arrived and I basically found myself without a teacher. Then something wonderful happened—I had heard wonderful things about a new teacher there, the pianist/fortepianist Edmund Battersby. So, with a little trepidation, I had a lesson and I was intrigued because he assigned me first to see what I would do with a Haydn sonata. At that first lesson he seemed to be speaking a completely foreign musical language than I was accustomed to and I knew I was in the right place. I learned things from him I would not know even to this day and he opened up new musical perspectives for me regarding style, gesture, sound, etc. He seemed to be deeply influenced by a German style of playing, which was also new to me and we even had a session or two on the fortepiano. He also had a lot of confidence in my playing which really helped me find my own confidence. He really got me thinking that I was an artist, not a student. It was also during this time that I had the chance to work with the master of Lieder, Leonard Hokanson. He was my advisor for my secondary minor in collaborative piano and it was an incredible experience to study the entire chamber music of Schubert with him—especially the song cycles Winterreise, Die Schöne Müllerin , and Schwanengesang . I’ll never forget some of the details of those lessons, such as an interpretive key to Winterreise, which was so perfect…he advised that “all of the walking songs should get slower during the course of the work.” He suggested that the first one, “Gute Nacht,” should not be too slow because our heartbroken young man was “angry.”

My final teacher at Indiana University was the virtuoso Karen Shaw. At my doctoral audition, she was so kind and said some very perceptive things about my playing. She immediately set me up with a gig and throughout my time at IU was always so supportive. A couple of years later I heard her play, magnificently, the Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise of Chopin. I was struck by her elegant, golden-age approach and incredible finger technique. She was a perfect coach for me at that stage of my career and really was there to advise and guide me as an independent artist…in fact, she expected that. She could be brutally honest, which is something young pianists really need and would say things like, “this is not your piece”—she also had really practical technical advice and was always there for a pep talk before a concert. She had a motherly instinct towards her students, which was endearing. I’m really thankful because she brought me full circle as an artist.

Q: Tell me about winning the Ivory Foundation prize and your subsequent studies with Earl Wild.

SS: Ivory Classics [the record label] had a scholarship program, through the submission of CDs and resume, that afforded young pianists the opportunity to work with Earl Wild free of charge with free travel expenses. I take pride in the fact that I was the last pianist to take advantage of this incredible opportunity. I traveled to his home in Palm Springs for the sessions that were both long and detailed—in fact I was quite astounded by his stamina. He conveyed to me on this occasion an almost desperate need to pass his knowledge on to the next generation. The first piece I brought was the Liszt sonata and since he already had heard my recording, he wanted me to play it and he would interrupt. In fact, after the first two Gs he said, “Oh, God, don’t do it like that!” He was also passing on his incredibly ingenious fingerings for the work and really attacking my fingering concepts as “traditional and academic.” He said fingerings should be practical first and foremost and said, “the page is worthless without the sound.” Throughout the lesson he would also urge me to stay as close as possible to the keys with no outward “artistic choreography”…this “showman” was really insisting on utmost seriousness in this piece which took me by surprise. It took two and a half hours to go through the sonata before he needed a nap and we continued the next day. I’ll never forget the meals spent with him, which were fantastic because he was such a lively storyteller and dished on so many famous musicians. I encouraged this because I sort of interrogated him regarding his relationships with Petri, Toscanini, and his friendships with Horowitz, Cliburn, Bolet, and many others. I was surprised how he kept up with recordings by pianists of the youngest generation and he said lots of fascinating things. One of many stories from this evening included a recollection of lessons with Egon Petri. He said that right after his lesson, the troubled and abused child prodigy Ruth Slyczynska would have her lesson and when Petri opened the door to see little Ruth and her father he once exclaimed, “why it’s Ruth and ruthless.” I’ll never forget the last thing Wild ever told me: “listen young man, don’t change a thing about your direction! Don’t let those academic bastards at universities or concert managers tell you to play different repertoire—play what you love!”

Q: I have a feeling he was speaking from personal experience and it’s certainly advice you’ve taken to heart. Looking backwards from Wild to Anton Rubinstein, when did you first become aware of his monumental traversals of the piano literature?

SS: Well, a book that I have enjoyed for years is David Dubal’s Art of the Piano , and in it he reprints the programs of Anton Rubinstein’s Historical Recitals of 1885 (Rubinstein’s title). Nine huge programs (almost twice as long as standard recitals today) covering piano repertoire from English virginal music to contemporary works. I liked the idea of such a large project and knew it would really help me grow as a musician. Also, so many of my pianistic heroes such as Hoffman, Horowitz, Rubinstein, and Richter played enormous amounts of repertoire and each did recital series that embraced large portions of the standard repertoire. Their omnivorous approach has become less common in our own day—with notable exceptions, of course—perhaps to the extent of seeming rather old-fashioned, I’m afraid, and I think the piano recital has really suffered due to pianists carrying so few pieces each season. There’s such a pressure for perfection that there’s very little room for magic to occur any more. Plus, none of the older pianists would carry one program and one concerto per season as many famous artists do now. Richter played eight different Carnegie Hall recitals and two concertos in less than three week’s time during his first trip to the United States in 1960. Plus, it’s almost impossible to grasp composers’ individual language without playing many of their works, not to mention knowing much about their larger output. I believe that in order to play Haydn well, a pianist needs to know his string quartets, with Mozart, the operas, Schubert, the songs, and Brahms, the chamber music.

At the risk of being redundant, in my liner notes I tried to explain my fascination with Rubinstein’s groundbreaking endeavor: “In 1885 legendary pianist Anton Rubinstein inaugurated a series of celebrated solo piano recitals entitled ‘Historical Recitals.’ In these monstrously outsized concerts (some, up to three hours in length) Rubinstein established the boundaries of the standard piano repertoire and cemented his dominance as one of the greatest living pianists since Liszt. From October 2003 through roughly October 2006 I made it a goal to recreate (in my own way) the series of historical recitals of the great Anton Rubinstein. This was also a way of paying homage to my more contemporary heroes such as Artur Rubinstein and Sviatoslav Richter who both performed series of concerts displaying the many facets of their gifts in a variety of repertoire and with great stylistic breadth….Most of my recitals were devoted to works of a single composer and I must confess it was my most fulfilling time at the instrument. Unlike Anton Rubinstein, I was not seeking to set a definitive stamp on the repertoire. Instead, it amounted to an act of tremendous love of music and the art of the piano combined with a sense of masochistic self-improvement. With each recital I attempted to enter the composer’s world with hours of listening to their chamber, vocal, and orchestral music (if applicable) supplemented by reading as much as I could about their lives, loves, and legacies. I wanted to forget what I sought to achieve in this music—forget how this piece might make me sound and yield myself not only to the work but the composer’s aesthetic. It is this quality I so appreciate in Richter’s playing. Like him, one of my goals was to sound like a different pianist in different repertoire with differing touches, freedoms, and aesthetic values.”

Q: Did you produce the Historical Recital discs yourself?

SS: Yes, no record label seems to be interested in live piano recitals much…

Q: Besides the CDs, you’ve recorded a DVD, Aspects of Liszt . To paraphrase your teacher, one isn’t a complete pianist without playing at least some Liszt, and you have come full circle from avoiding him to celebrating his pianistic and musical variety. Indeed, he plays a central role in your doctoral thesis.

SS: Yes, the title was Paraphrases and Reminiscences: Liszt and the Culture of Transcription (more about that in a bit). I greatly admire Liszt as a personality, not only as a composer. I must admit, there are several composers I admire more than Liszt but few I admire as much as an artist. We must remember Schumann’s first impression that Liszt was a “genius of interpretation,” which suggests his musicianship was unmatched. I have devoted so much time to playing works of his that simply needed to be heard, or I felt were misunderstood, such as several of the transcriptions. I admire the fact that it was Liszt who made so many progressive strides forward which affect us today such as inventing the piano recital, conceiving works of pure sound (a rather contemporary concept)—as a theory professor once said to me “Liszt was probably the first person to fire the shot which would eventually kill tonality”—and the concept “genie oblige.” It was through Alan Walker’s celebrated biographical volumes of Liszt that I got to know what Liszt had truly done, and I am still learning. The B-Minor Sonata has occupied me for nearly 20 years and I find it the most successful large work of post-Beethoven piano music. These days, though, other composers are demanding more of my attention such as Schumann and Beethoven. I am currently learning the cycle of Beethoven sonatas, which is now almost a cliché, but I need to do it for my own edification.

Q: Why does the Liszt DVD include a sonata by contemporary composer Mohammed Fairouz?

SS: The Fairouz Sonata was commissioned especially for the festival, Aspects of Liszt , commemorating the bicentennial of Liszt’s birth in 2011. I thought that given Liszt’s support of new music throughout his life, a new work would be appropriate. My dear friend Jim Zakoura has made these commissions possible through his generous support and through his artistic advice, which has made an impact on my direction. He is an “audience watcher,” and has reminded me, quite correctly, that innovations are essential to capturing the public’s attention and that new works continue to fascinate audiences from all walks of life.

Q: What attracts you to Fairouz’s work?

S.S.: I enjoy the original voice Mohammed brings to the classical canon: Arab flavors blended in the most rigorous contrapuntal frames. Like late Beethoven, the varied sizes of the components and contrasts have a way of altering a listener’s perception of time. Mohammed also listened carefully to my recordings and really came up with a work that fit me remarkably well. It’s no surprise he is popular with a whole host of top-notch performers from the Borromeo Quartet to Kate Lindsey.

Q: The Fairouz sonata, a work in four movements, was inspired by a book by Jacqueline Rose which in part draws on 9/11, Abu Ghraib, and Freud. Are you especially interested in program music?

SS: It was a great joy to work not only with Mohammed, but also the noted author of The Last Resistance , Jacqueline Rose. We did an interdisciplinary session at Brown University that was revelatory for me…hearing Jacqueline comment on the music and it’s resonance with passages in her book added a new layer of understanding to my playing. I find much inspiration in programmatic ideas for my interpretations of all works. As Neuhaus said in his book, The Art of the Piano , it’s essential to find the artistic image of any work. I normally invent “artistic images” to accompany my playing and fire my inspiration when performing works by everyone from Bach to Boulez.

Q: Among your own compositions are Etudes in the style of Keith Jarrett and Martha Argerich, so it seems you’re not only inspired by “artistic images” but by “artistic sounds: ” I’m reminded of two charming pieces by Ravel, A la manière de Borodine and A la manière de Chabrier.

SS: Well, I wrote a whole set of Etudes with the main purpose of capturing the sound of a great pianist I admire and to give to my own playing elements, almost nutrients, I didn’t possess. I’ve written others “in the manner of” Gilels, Lupu, Lipatti, Richter, etc.

Q: Is there some significance to quoting My Funny Valentine in the Jarrett homage and what aspects of Argerich’s pianism where you referring to in “her” Etude?

SS: In the Jarrett Etude the pianist is asked to improvise the introduction but must quote the tune, My Funny Valentine , a Jarrett trio standard. Sometimes this Etude, in the right setting on the right piano can be rather long, almost 20 minutes, depending on my mood. The main idea is to sharpen the art of improvisation, which takes quite a bit of practice. The process reminds me a lot of playing chess. If you don’t practice, you just fall back on what’s most familiar and it becomes stale. The Argerich (a treacherous technical challenge) plays on two or three of her great pianistic accomplishments, namely the Scarlatti Sonata, K 141, Prokofiev Toccata, and Gaspard de la Nuit …I gave it a Latin flair as a nod to her heritage.

Q: I’d like to return to your ideas about Liszt and his transcriptions for a moment, as you play several on the Historical Recital CDs. There’s some Schubert/Liszt, Wagner/Liszt, and a Meyerbeer/Liszt transcription, among others.

SS: Well, there’s a lot to say but I’ll let my playing speak for itself, in this instance. They represent, as Brahms said, “the Classicism of Piano Technique” and they both [the Wagner and Meyerbeer transcriptions] contain my own touch-ups. The cadenza in the Wagner is all mine and uses the typical “reunion des themes” technique that the older paraphrases used. I got some ideas about the hyper-difficult Robert le diable from Earl Wild, though he didn’t even remember recording the piece when I played it for him. These pieces naturally make great technical demands but also require a thorough knowledge and accurate interpretation of the operatic librettos.

The opera transcriptions are some of Liszt’s most harshly criticized works due to their obvious surface emphasis on instrumental brilliance. However, these works display a new pianistic vocabulary in the making as instrumental versions of operatic scenes that reveal a sensitive and artful reconstruction of the libretto. This sensitivity to textual significance and even vocal ranges makes these pieces eminently more valuable than the standard operatic potboiler of a Sigismond Thalberg or Henri Herz, once so popular in the 1830s and ’40s. Charles Suttoni asserts, “In each, [paraphrase] he has selected his themes carefully so that they present a cogent dramatic point of view: Liszt’s personal interpretation, as it were of each opera.” Charles Rosen, in his shockingly insightful analysis of Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy (after Mozart) entitled, Self-portrait as Don Juan , makes a similar point that “The finest of the fantasies, however, juxtapose different parts of the opera in ways that bring out a new significance while the original dramatic sense of the individual number and its place within the opera is never out of sight.” Not only are the themes given a new voice on the piano, Liszt also transcribes their dramatic associations as a completely novel creation. As pointed out before, what distinguishes these efforts of Liszt from similar works by Thalberg or Herz are the thematic connections and suggestive plot outlines that are woven together to construct something more than a popular medley of tunes. I am convinced that the key to playing these works well, besides a comprehensive pianistic craft, is to be completely possessed by the text.

Q: Naturally, anyone attempting a historical survey would have to include some contemporary music. I’ve always enjoyed William Bolcom, so I was pleased that you’ve recorded his The Garden of Eden.

SS: This is a wonderful barnburner and delights audiences with the extra-pianistic elements, such as stomping, tapping, tongue clicking, whistling. This piece never fails in concert.

Q: Your recitals also included Ligeti, Bartók, Mompou, and Shchedrin.

SS: I am recently inspired to play more and more contemporary music and with the help of one very special patron, have determined to commission new works by several composers. The newest commission is by Emile Naoumoff, a marvelous set of variations that I cannot wait to premiere in March of this year. I love many works by Ligeti and Schnittke, not to mention works by American composers such as Jennifer Higdon. I feel a pianist cannot be complete without this facet—inventing an interpretation from scratch, which forces you to ask why instead of how. I go through stages and, that’s the great thing about a life in music, a composer’s work can suddenly speak to you when you thought it was a closed book. I cherish these moments.

Q: No composer is at once more familiar and yet eternally fresh than Chopin, to whom you’ve devoted two CDs.

SS: Chopin is the composer who brought me to the piano…I am never loathe to practice or learn new works by Chopin—they have an evergreen appeal to me that the music of few composers possess. In the Mazurka’s I try to recapture a golden-age approach, which I think is rather lost today. Because they’re so small, an interpreter must be very clear with regard to gesture, color, ardor, so the audience doesn’t miss it. I admire Horowitz’s way with the Mazurkas more than earlier or later interpreters. The Etudes, also, are an ongoing project for me. Most days I use them as ways to reacquaint myself with the keyboard. They remain some of the most difficult works in all the literature and they reveal so much about a pianist.

Q: I seem to recall a comment by Prokofiev that he would show people it was possible to play a piano recital without Chopin (I assume he was speaking ironically, perhaps even with a touch of bitterness).

SS: Well, with a large and varied repertoire, it’s certainly possible. I’m still not sure why so many masterpieces of Schumann are not played regularly, or Haydn, or Scriabin, I could go on...

Q: How do you view the current classical music “scene?”

SS: Don’t get me started…I really loathe the commercialism forced on artists yet I am equally perplexed by artists who seem to be locked in a formula of both repertoire and format that breeds apathy. I think we need to somehow navigate the troubled waters between artistic integrity and innovation. You see, I think concertos are not a proper platform from which to truly take stock of a pianist. The solo recital is where a pianist truly shows their worth and we mustn’t let it become a secondary activity. I have an almost missionary zeal to bring the best music to people but when only the same people come to concerts there is little hope of broadening the circle. We must make recitals appealing to the broader public and I’m putting my money where my mouth is: This season I’m offering four different programs (all dedicated to my favorite dead pianists) and the audience can vote by cell phone just before I step on stage so I have no idea of what I might play from concert to concert. This is actually an old idea since so many pianists years ago played much more repertoire. I was also inspired by the golden-age noodling traditions (improvising within the recital) and the now lost encore traditions of yelling requests, etc. The next step is to incorporate more works audiences actually recognize. When you listen to an old Horowitz recital with encores the audiences laugh and sigh at the beginning of the Chopin C♯-Waltz because they actually recognize the music.

Q: Since you mention improvisation, I’ve seen you and Adam Gyorgy—a fine Lisztian in his own right—on YouTube improvising on Amazing Grace . I thought it was interesting, musical substance aside, for two reasons: First, that you’re willing to improvise in public, which not too many classical pianists do, although there are exceptions—Gabriela Montero and Fazil Say come to mind, and notably, Robert Levin, who improvises cadenzas to Mozart concertos; and two, that you explore a more “popular” repertoire. How does this fit in with your “regular job?”

SS: I do enjoy it but find it difficult to practice this skill as much as my jazz colleagues do. I learned to improvise in church growing up and I found it useful when I was working as an accompanist for dance classes. I think it’s absolutely essential for pianists! In fact one of my upcoming projects is an entire album of my virtuoso hymn transcriptions, which really come from my years of extemporizing in church.

Q: How long have you known Adam?

SS: Adam and I met one another at the Artlivre International Piano Competition in Brazil almost ten years ago—the competition was devoted to only music of Liszt and Chopin. I was a prizewinner along with some really distinguished pianists including recent Leeds winner Sofya Gulyak, but Adam did not advance to the final, which I thought was wrong. I could hear something individual, elegant, and interesting in his playing. We became instant friends and it was my pleasure to introduce him to the music of Keith Jarrett, which he has gone on to champion very successfully. We remain close despite our busy schedules. I do include more “popular music” than most pianists but I’m really devoted to the idea of expanding my repertoire of standard works, too.

Q: Besides Adam, which pianists do you admire and why?

SS: WOW, this is huge…I’m a total piano nerd so there are many…my CD collection is growing toward the 10,000 mark. I love Richter for his immense repertoire and incredible integrity as an interpreter. He successfully destroyed all his gods of piano playing and managed to hear only his unique voice. He also had such balance between intellect and wild imagination. I own more than 500 recordings of his. Lipatti is a phenomenon; I love his restraint mixed with such depth of feeling. His virtuosity is transcendental, he makes even great pianists sound like students in “his” repertoire. Gilels too is a giant for me—the sound alone is such perfection—the noble thunder of his playing is unmatched, in my opinion. Horowitz, my childhood idol, perhaps the most “talented” pianist as Richter suggested. His playing and interpretations are so compelling, especially in Scarlatti, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Schumann, many works of Chopin, Liszt. I am especially influenced by his pedaling which I’ve tried very hard to emulate. Artur Rubinstein; the naturalness of his playing still charms me and I find him so compelling in chamber music, Brahms, his special masculine and noble way with Chopin, and he’s fantastic in Spanish music! Gould and his incredible ability to play counterpoint but I am always won over by the sheer freshness of his playing in many composers. I became a Gould fan after listening to his recording of the Beethoven op. 126 Bagatelles . I could go on…

Among living pianists my favorite is Sokolov! In fact his set of live recordings really inspired my series of live recordings: an incredible pianist and so honest as an artist. I think of him as a modern reincarnation of Richter, though very different aesthetically. Everything he touches is his own and as a pianist he displays such an incredible balance between daring risk and perfection. I very much admire the repertoire and special pianistic sound of Berezovsky. I love some of his recordings such as his Rachmaninoff First Piano Sonata. I very much love Schiff and I find his way with Haydn, Mozart, Bach, and Schubert to be utterly convincing. There’s nothing antiseptic in his playing but so much heart and a true understanding of style. And what can I say about Hamelin? A freak and an individual so fiercely dedicated to his particular vision. His control and mastery over texture impresses me more than his devastating mechanism, which is the envy of all pianists in the world.

Q: I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that you like so-called “historical recordings.” Any particular favorites?

SS: Dozens…Friedman’s Chopin (Etudes, op. 10/7, Nocturne in E♭, op. 55)! Rachmaninoff (in everything, but especially the Chopin Funeral March, Mendelssohn, some of his own works!) Hofmann’s Chopin, Liszt, even Beethoven (op. 31/3)…

Q: I suspect that your love affair with the piano and pianists is something you try to pass on to your students.

SS: Teaching has been a real workshop for me in which to test and implement my theories on music and interpretation. I’m very fortunate to have such fine young pianists in my studio. In fact, I have a few I consider junior colleagues. I’m very happy to be at the University of Kansas, a place where piano has always been one of the strongest offerings. I’m told I occupy John Perry’s old office and there have been many notable faculty here; John Perry, Nelita True, Angelica Morales Von Sauer (yes, Sauer’s wife), and Vianna da Motta student—the last living disciple from the direct Liszt School—Sequeira Costa, as well as outstanding students who went on to impressive careers, such as the noted pedagogue Scott McBride Smith and the Leeds winner Artur Pizzaro.

Basically I’m trying to recreate an intense, hotbed “culture” for learning in my studio. I insist that students bring in music memorized right away and I’m fond of public lessons, like the Russian school. I feel strongly that students need to perform as much as possible—I’m constantly reminding them (and myself) that Artur Rubinstein said “the first 15 concerts of the season are bad,” so the question becomes how many times do we need to perform to feel as comfortable as Rubinstein!?

My teaching at festivals and master classes is very different because I can only interact briefly with the students, as opposed to the more difficult long-term work I can pursue in my studio. However, I enjoy giving master classes and begin each session with something Alfred Brendel said—often repeated by John Perry—“I can’t tell you the truth about the music but I can only tell you my truth.” I am convinced however, that the level of playing is going down and not improving, as I hear many young pianists claim. Today people are in love with playing faster and faster and combining that with some of the most superficial ideas about music. Years ago you needed more than just quick reflexes to be a pianist.

HISTORICAL PIANO RECITAL SERIES, VOL. 3 Steven Spooner (pn) STEVEN SPOONER (no number) Available at CD Baby (66: 55)

SCHUMANN Romanze in F♯. SCHUBERT-LISZT Aufenthalt. Ständchen. LISZT Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13. CHOPIN Mazurkas: in c, Op. 6/2; in f, Op. 7/3; in a, Op. 17/4. Polonaise-Fantaisie in A♭. SPOONER Etudes: “Keith Jarrett”; Toccata “à la Argerich.” BOLCOM Garden of Eden: Serpent’s Kiss

HISTORICAL PIANO RECITAL SERIES, VOL. 5 Steven Spooner (pn) STEVEN SPOONER (no number) Available at CD Baby (73: 07)

LISZT Piano Sonata in b. WAGNER-LISZT Paraphrase on Themes from Rienzi. SCHUBERT-LISZT Aufenthalt. Ständchen. Mut. Die Loreley. MEYERBEER-LISZT Robert le Diable: Valse Infernale

ASPECTS OF LISZT Steven Spooner (pn) STEVEN SPOONER private issue (no number); Available at CD Baby (DVD: 80:06) Live: Lawrence, KS 9/13/2011

LASSEN-LISZT Lose, Himmel, meine Seele (2nd version). FAIROUZ Piano Sonata No. 2, The Last Resistance. LISZT Legendes: No. 2 St. Francis de Paul, Merchant of the Seas. Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13. SCHUBERT-LISZT Ständchen. Erlkönig

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 23 January 2013 )
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