From Beethoven to Bizet: Chatting with Pianist David McGrory
Ordinarily, though not always, artists are interviewed in these pages in conjunction with the release of a new or recent recording. That is not the case here. David McGrory is a young Belfast-born pianist who made his official debut in 1999 with the Ulster Orchestra. Winner of a number of prestigious competitions and awards, McGrory has performed throughout the U.K., as well as in Munich, San Antonio, and Boston, where he now lives with his wife and twin daughters. His website also tells us that McGrory is a composer, though the webpage listing his compositions was still under construction at the time I visited it.
McGrory’s debut album, reviewed in 36:6, contains a bang-up performance of Beethoven’s
and a rare piece for solo piano by Bizet I’d never heard before,
. Mainly, it was my fascination with the Bizet that led to this interview.
Jerry: How did you come upon this unusual piece, and what gave you the idea to pair it on your disc with the Beethoven?
David: For as long as I can remember, I have always had unusual works peppered across my repertoire. My piano teacher in Belfast used to suggest repertoire, some of it standard, some not so. At the time, I didn’t realize that these works were not known in the wider field. If they sparked my interest, then to me they were works well worth performing. This started a long obsession that I’ve had with looking for pieces that are not on the well-beaten track. To this end, I used to play a game in college. I would go to the library, settle down amongst the shelves with the piano scores, and ask, “I wonder if composer X has written anything for piano?” Alternatively, I would just start looking along the shelves to see what was actually there. Remember, this started before the burgeoning world of the Internet became widely available to me, so I had no other recourse than what scores were present. The
was such a work. I found it in the library at the Longy School of Music in my first term there. I was in discussion with my teacher at the time about a recital program. We were talking about what would be interesting, bouncing ideas around, and the spark was born. The original performance, which this recording comes from, contained three pieces: the
, and Benjamin Britten’s
. Of the three, the
is the one that people are aware of. But in talking to other pianists and musicians, I discovered that, although some of them knew of the Bizet, a lot of them had never actually heard it performed or listened to it on CD.
Jerry: Bizet’s reputation has suffered, I think, as a result of being typecast as a one-work composer, of
We seldom associate his name with anything else, except maybe for the Symphony in C Major, which has gained a foothold in the standard repertoire, his incidental music to
and another opera,
The Pearl Fishers
. Frankly, I was a bit taken aback when I perused a complete list of Bizet’s works and discovered that the man wrote 31 operas, out of which, counting
The Pearl Fishers
, only seven appear to have been recorded. Even more surprising, though, is the very large volume of songs Bizet composed, and the not inconsiderable volume of works for solo piano. Are you familiar with any of the composer’s other piano pieces, and have you considered—or would you consider—putting together an all-Bizet program?
David: Do remember that a lot of his manuscripts were lost after his death. Composers, more often than not, seem to suffer at the hands of those who come after them. Recall the famous case of Johann Sebastian Bach, who lay largely in obscurity for almost a hundred years. A new generation of composers and audiences comes along with new ideas and decides that the previous generation is now outdated. Oddly, one of the reasons that Bizet did not become a performing pianist is that he seemed worried about being pigeon-holed into a single category and not taken seriously as a composer. One of the challenges of the kind of research I do is finding available scores. Quite often, I will read or hear of a piece but not be able to find it in print, or if it ever was printed, it is locked away under copyright but not available. As such, I have not been able to do a true study of his other works. I have looked at his
Chants du Rhin
¸ a very charming set, which I am considering for the future. I rarely ever consider putting any one composer on a program. I like to explore similar themes and ideas passed across several composers; for example I have performed a concert of works that had first been published posthumously (Mussorgsky, Schubert, and Britten) and a recital of works based on literature (Prokofiev, Korngold, and Liszt) amongst others.
Jerry: Can you describe the
in a bit more detail? What sort of technical challenges does it present? What other composers known for their piano music from around Bizet’s time might have influenced his keyboard writing and style? Franck or Saint-Saëns, perhaps?
David: The theme of the variations is a chromatic scale ascending followed by a chromatic scale descending. This doesn’t sound like much or indeed anything that could spark variety, but the way Bizet sets it, starting with it in two voices, one octave apart, over a pedal C, and then slowly adding two other voices each another octave higher, is ingenious. It gives the piece an ominous feel. When he does step away at the end of the scale, he establishes C Minor as the key. He keeps this key for the first half, reaching to cacophony at the end of the Seventh Variation, almost a scream, before being able to let go and find freedom in C Major throughout the second half. But the real challenge in the theme is to feel that swell without the later voices sounding jarring, and from the peak to settle back into the quiet mist from whence it came, all the time maintaining the smoothest legato, only punctuated by six chords in the middle and at the end. He then goes on to mostly use this scale as the bass line, with a few exceptions—most noticeably the Seventh Variation, which has the chromatic scale in contrary motion, with three voices per hand, each entering one after the other, all pinned in by octave Cs, with each hand constantly in tremolo. The work contains bravura and
writing, as well as some soulful writing reminiscent of Chopin’s nocturnes. I feel his biggest influences on this work are in fact Franz Liszt and Chopin, who Bizet described as being the only composers whose works truly felt like improvisations.
Jerry: Let’s talk for a moment about your performance of the Beethoven. Obviously, when it comes to the
you’re in much more competitive territory. So many great pianists have recorded it; yet, absent from the catalog are recordings by one or two very prominent names. I’m thinking, in particular, of Emil Gilels, only because Beethoven was such a staple of his repertoire. He recorded the concertos, multiple times, almost all of the sonatas, and even a number of Beethoven’s sets of piano variations, but not, to the best of my knowledge, the
. Why is this work considered so intimidating? Is it as technically difficult as the “Hammerklavier?” Personally, I think it’s a hoot. I think Beethoven was having fun thumbing his nose at Diabelli and the other 50 composers that contributed to the project. Do you think it could have something to do with the fact that people find it hard to accept that Beethoven, in such a late work, could be so flip?
David: Initially, Beethoven didn’t want to be involved in the project. He had been burned on a similar experience earlier in his life, but he did contact Diabelli about doing his own set of variations. I don’t think he was necessarily thumbing his nose at the other 50 composers; he was just being Beethoven. The only variation that he explicitly marks as being an imitation of something is No. 22, marked
alla Notte e giorno faticar di Mozart
. He was certainly having fun. Who else would take a waltz theme and start by turning it into a march? And there are still movements where he gets serious. The sequence from nos. 29 to 31 is very tragic, as though his depression was reasserting itself; but this leads to the grand fugue that is no. 32 (in E♭ Major, the heroic key), bringing him out to grander things; and the piece ends on that beautiful minuet which starts with such serenity. I have always found a lot of humor in Beethoven, obviously more so in the earlier works. Look at the opening of the First Symphony; to me that chord sequence is hilarious, as though Beethoven is teasing us. He seems to have a twinkle in his eye, much like his teacher Haydn. And in his later life, look at the op. 119 Bagatelles, some of which have an almost childlike joy. Is it more difficult than the “Hammerklavier?” In some ways, yes. The “Hammerklavier” is certainly a technically difficult work, but each movement is an idea or set of ideas. As such, the same material and techniques often return. In the variations, there is no real continuation of ideas. Each movement (with the exception of nos. 16 and 17, which are inversions of each other) stands alone. You are never given time to run with the river; you must always be ready for the rapids ahead, constantly veering course; very different from the 32 Variations in C Minor, which do follow a more linear thought progression. Why is it so intimidating? I’m not sure. I found them fascinating, a delight to work on and perform, so I didn’t find them intimidating. Beethoven’s sets of variations for piano do not receive the same attention as the sonatas. There is also the length; not many people jump headfirst into the “Hammerklavier” when looking at the sonatas, but you have to if you want to do the complete set. The complete variations do not seem to have the same draw to most.
Jerry: Some time ago, I got to review a fascinating two-disc set in which pianist Edmund Battersby presented two complete performances of the
, one on a modern Steinway D, and the other on a replica of an 1825 Conrad Graf. What do think you think of playing Beethoven, especially late Beethoven, on period instruments?
David: There is always a benefit, even with late Beethoven. To play on a period instrument allows you to hear certain nuances, aspects that are inherent to the instrument. In some ways, it’s like playing Schumann’s works at his metronome markings. They’re not always going to be that attainable, but it gives you an insight to what he might have been thinking and can add another dimension. Every piece of information has bearing on a performance. After all, what we are basically doing is transposing these works from one instrument to something that is quite different in many ways, an act that is made more interesting for those who do not travel with their own instrument but find a new one everywhere they go.
Jerry: What near future concert engagements and/or recording plans are on your calendar?
David: I’m working on a program about departure and exile featuring Beethoven, Hindemith, and Bach. I’m also working on a program of portraits of friends with Poulenc’s
Les Soireés des Nazelles
as a centerpiece. For other recordings, I’ve been thinking for a while of recording Mussorgsky’s
Pictures at an Exhibition
as a CD set inspired by paintings.
Jerry: Programming the Beethoven and Bizet together was a brilliant stroke. Do you have some ideas for similar pairings of works?
David: Thank you. I’ve long been interested in the works of Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who was a contemporary of Beethoven, being only eight years younger. It’s interesting that some of their piano sonatas actually have the same opus numbers, and I’ve been working on putting some of them together, starting with “Les Adieux” and Hummel’s F♯-Minor, which are both op. 81. This would not be in any way an attempt to compare the works. They are by very different people, with very different styles. But that in itself is fascinating. Both of them had a huge influence on a new generation of composers. Chopin spoke of “Mozart, Beethoven, and Hummel—the masters of us all.” And much like Bizet, Hummel’s reputation did not survive past his life, despite him being an influence on such major composers as Chopin and Schumann.
Jerry: Tell me about your composing activities. What have you written? Have you received commissions for new works? Have there been opportunities for performance?
David: I have never been formally trained in composition. Theory was an integral part of my training from the beginning, and I was required to compose as part of school exams at both 16 and 18. Those works, however, were not very often supervised, with the one at 18 being entirely left up to me to work on with no input from my teacher. Since then, focusing on performing, I have not had much time to write more than the occasional song until the last few years, where I have produced chamber works for string quartet, a movement of a piano concerto, and some settings of Yeats’s poems. I’m currently working on a suite for piano, the rest of the concerto, a string quartet, and a piece for clarinet and piano.
David McGrory (pn)
DAVID MCGRORY (64: 09)
Available for download at Amazon, Itunes, and CD Baby. For more information visit: davidmcgrory.com