Stephanie McCallum on Beethoven, Schumann, and Alkan
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Written by Martin Anderson   
Friday, 24 May 2013

Stephanie McCallum on Beethoven, Schumann, and Alkan

As some Fanfare readers will know, I run the label Toccata Classics, which specializes in unfamiliar repertoire. One of my house-rules is not to record music that’s already adequately represented in the catalogs—why waste resources in duplication when there’s so much else to do? Of course, if the only available recording doesn’t do its music justice, that’s a different question, and I had been wanting to bring out the five Recueils de chants of Alkan for some time, since the only complete recording was poorly done, on an obscure French label, and decades old. So when I received an e-mail from the Australian pianist Stephanie McCallum proposing that she record exactly that, plus a handful of other Alkan rarities as fillers, she was knocking on a door that was wide open; Volume 1, with Books I, II, and III, has duly just come out (TOCC 0157), and Volume 2, with IV and V (TOCC 0158), will emerge at the other end of 2013, the year that marks the bicentenary of Alkan’s birth. But her Alkan is part of a wider recorded repertoire, recently released on ABC Classics in her native Australia. Before Alkan she has recorded also Beethoven and Schumann.

Q: All three composers come from the same few decades of musical history, of course: Is that where you feel most at home?

A: I suppose I’ve had a slightly bifurcated area of work: I did a lot of work in contemporary music, fairly cutting-edge contemporary music, in particular with a group called Sydney Alpha Ensemble, which I was helping to direct artistically. That was mainly in the ’90s. I’ve done a lot of solo work in contemporary repertoire as well, and I’ve done some solo recordings, but they’re from some time ago now. There’s a recording I did for ABC Classics illustrating a series of lectures by Andrew Ford called Illegal Harmonies —that’s got a spread throughout the 20th century. There’s another one called Notations [Tall Poppies 37], where I included the Boulez Notations and Herma by Xenakis as well. But yes, most of my solo work has been in high-virtuoso 19th-century repertoire, with Alkan and a lot of other French music as well. In my early days I did some concerts for the Alkan Society: I played the Trois grandes etudes , op. 76, with the Weber C-Major Sonata and a few other things.

Q: In Wigmore Hall in the early 1980s? Then I was there, and I can still remember it.

A: Yes, ’81 or ’82 it must have been.

Q: I further remember from those days that you were a student of the Alkan evangelist, Ronald Smith. Is the prominence of Alkan in your repertoire an inheritance from studying with him?

A: Yes! In fact, I’m the product of a long line of Alkanists. I originally studied with Gordon Watson. Gordon’s an Australian but he was in London for 17 years, the main part of his solo career, and during that time it was he who gave the first modern performance of the Ouverture from the op. 39 Studies for the BBC. He did a lot of unusual repertoire; he was also a great Liszt player. Then he had a terrible car crash and his legs got busted up; he had to take several years off to recuperate and after that he just decided to come back to Australia and do some teaching and take it a bit easier. He was very keen on Alkan. At a certain point in my early education Ronald Smith was at the height of his powers and he was coming out to Australia to perform some Alkan and generally spread the word. Gordon said to me: ‘We’ll give him an absolute shock. You can play Le tambours bat aux champs for him when he comes to give his master class and he won’t know what’s hit him!’ So I did Le tambours bat aux champs for him in his first master class and I was very impressed with him as a player but also with his marvelous communication as a teacher. He really knew what he was doing and he was able to impart it in a way which was easy to grasp. His other pupils say the same thing: He just made the technique of playing the piano, well, not easy but accessible, so that once you developed your technique, things did feel easy and tackling Alkan was not such an issue—you could concentrate on the music.

Q: I got to know Ronald Smith’s playing in out-of-the-way repertoire—Alkan mainly but also things like the Balakirev Sonata—and it was some time before I heard him in something mainstream, the “Waldstein” Sonata in a semi-private recital (he prefaced it by playing the opening in 3/4 and claiming it was really called the “Waltz-Time Sonata”). It wasn’t until then I realized that his concentration on Alkan had obscured the fact that he really was one of the best pianists around, a musician of world standing.

A: Yes, particularly the quality of sound, the breadth of color, the absolute control was very inspiring for me. I came to England specifically to study with him in 1978 and I had three fairly intensive years living down in Kent. I ended up getting a job in Sibton Park School, in a little village up the road; when we moved up to London, I carried on in a less intense capacity and we became great colleagues and friends. I was in England for nearly eight years, so I knew him for quite a long time. Actually, Freddy Kempf was studying with him at the same time—but he was about five! It was really interesting seeing him deal with this very talented little boy. Ronald shocked me with the level of work in the initial stages. He kept saying ‘You’re too old to do this, you’re too old to do that’—when I was all of 20 or something! ‘You should have been doing this when you were 12’—but I seemed to get through it and out the other end. It was a big change in how I related to the instrument. Now I feel I’m almost more Ronald than Ronald himself in that regard.

Q: And what regard is that?

A: His way of playing was very much involved with gravity. The idea was that you built up the strength in your hands so that they were like little rocks on the end of your arms and then you just sort of let them fall, and you manipulated them with your wrists. It’s a bit like emulating bowing or breathing. Basically, your default position on the instrument was down rather than up. People would often comment when they saw Ronald or me and some of my students that the way you leap around the instrument looks very agile because every movement you make is breaking free of gravity and then letting gravity take over again.

Q: When Ronald played in concert, his hands seemed to be hanging off the end of his arms.

A: That’s right, because when they were in the air, they had just pushed off the keyboard as if it were a trampoline and they were in the act of falling again. The trick is to control the speed at which you fall so that you have ultimate control of the volume—and miniscule rates of volume variety give you true cantabile, legato and so on. I sent a student who was finished with me over to the Royal Academy [of Music, in London] to study with William Fong who also studied a little with Ronald, and he said I was teaching more Ronald than Ronald, as if I had gone over the top! We all find our own way on the instrument, of course, but Ronald was an amazing teacher, and he helped many people a lot with his particular way of playing. It just increases your muscular efficiency. People—particularly young women who are very thin—often comment: “You give me faith that I’ll eventually be able to make enough sound on the instrument.” I’m very slight, but it doesn’t make the blindest bit of difference; even Ronald was very slight when it comes to that.

Q: So you went back to Australia after your eight years in London?

A: Yep. Basically to teach at the Conservatorium and to do as much performing as I could in Sydney. There are, of course, severe limitations on the variety of performance-venues available in Sydney and so one of the avenues I pursued when I got back was my interest in contemporary music; I actually got involved in quite a number of contemporary music ensembles, included one which came from England, where it was called Lysis, although in Australia it was called Australysis. And then, of course, there was our own one, the Sydney Alpha Ensemble.

Q: Time to turn to the music. One of your recent CDs, a Beethoven recital entitled Für Elise (ABC Classics 476 6889), has the complete Bagatelles.

Yes, including what my record-producer christened “fragatelles,” which were little bagatelles that we put together from fragments that Peter [her husband, the writer and musicologist Peter McCallum] discovered in the final Kullak sketchbook, and a complete bagatelle that he discovered that would be definitely the last piece that Beethoven wrote. That was a project that originated with ABC [the Australian Broadcasting Corporation]: I was asked to do all the Beethoven Bagatelles and my husband was working on a transcription of that final sketchbook, one of the books that Beethoven carried around with him all his life, jotting down every idea that came into his head. He had various versions of them—big ones to go on his desk and little ones, pocket sketchbooks. The pages of these books have been scattered around the world, and a lot of scholars have done a lot of work piecing them together and they’re now available in various libraries. Peter’s been working on a transcription of the final book for some years now. It might sound like a simple proposition, but I can assure you it’s not; it’s a highly specialized skill, which takes many years and involves a lot of conjecture.

Q: Indeed, it does: Some of that stuff is pretty well indecipherable.

A: That’s right, so these conjectures have to be based on good, solid knowledge of everything else about Beethoven. It’s a really interesting area of research. In this final sketchbook there are these little fragments stuck between sketches for the quartets and the other major works of his late period, so when I told Pete I was going to do a live-to-air broadcast (at this stage we hadn’t decided on recording them), he said: ‘I will soon have some new ones out of his last sketchbook!’ And so he did. We made a number of reconstructions out of little bits where we put them into ordinary bagatelle ternary format. But there was one which was written very much in shorthand, but Peter recognized that this really was a complete piece, it really was a bagatelle, but it was in this shorthand and it went across two sides of the one page; I think that’s why people hadn’t noticed it before. It’s in that ternary format, and it’s quite a cute little thing. Pete could date it, too: He knew when it had been written. So I recorded it, and it got a lot of press interest, worldwide press interest, because it was Beethoven’s last piano piece. And the whole idea of him writing bagatelles to get a few pennies out of a publisher is quite interesting, I think.

It was after I did that recording of Beethoven Bagatelles that I began to be quite interested in the idea of cycles of short pieces. Beethoven sort of invented the song-cycle and with his op. 126 Bagatelles he grouped these little pieces into a cycle that was larger than its bits. So I was looking at how that played out over the 19th century, in works like Papillons and Kinderszenen , later on the Grieg Lyric Pieces ; the Mendelssohn Songs without Words fit the same mold, though I guess they’re less cyclical, and the Chants are fantastic examples of that.

Q: ABC Classics recently released a CD of your playing Schumann (476 3852).

A. Yes, it’s called Scenes from Childhood: Piano Music of Robert Schumann , and it contains the Kinderszenen , the op. 17 Fantasie, Papillons , and the second Novelette , the one in D Major. I always wanted to do the Fantasie , so that’s why it’s on there, and the Kinderszenen and Papillons were the cycles I was getting interested in.

Q: I’m in two minds about Schumann’s piano music. I find some works, like the Fantasie and the Symphonic Studies refreshingly strong, but I wouldn’t lose any sleep if I never heard Carnaval again. Some pianists are appalled by such heresy, but this reaction surprises me.

A: Me, too! I’ve never liked Carnaval ; good on you! I can’t understand how that is a favorite work; it’s one of my least favorites of Schumann. I should have included it in my cycles, but it’s not something that appeals to me.

Q: The Alkan Chants then also fit into this interest in cycles, but on a rather larger scale.

A: It was a huge project from my end. I knew about a half of them already, but with the others I was working pretty much from scratch and I really wanted to get to the bottom of them. And it’s easy to forget how difficult this music is: It’s highly virtuosic. In every set of Chants you have these two enormous hurdles—the big A-Major bizarre third one and the fifth one in F♯ which is always fairly large-scale, ridiculously fast to make sense of on a modern piano.

Q: (All five Books follow the same basic pattern.) I would imagine that, Alkan being Alkan, even the ones that sound relatively simple to people on our side of the footlights have their pitfalls, too.

A: Well, nothing’s easy, is it, when you want to give something your best shot, give it the best shape and the best colors when you’ve really thought about it from every kaleidoscopic viewpoint. It takes time, it takes thought. The very fast ones have to be memorized thoroughly in order to play them. So it’s a lot of work, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable work. I always find that when you do this kind of stuff, if you get more and more interested as you go along, it’s a good sign.

Q: How naturally does Alkan’s music fall under the fingers—does the writing take account of the geography of the keyboard or does it simply ignore difficulty and leave the pianist to cope as best he or she can?

A: It’s pretty athletic—you have to leap around the keyboard a lot. Then there are the accompaniment patterns. In the very first one, for example, you get these huge sweeping arpeggios up and down the keyboard for your left hand. That’s fine: If you’ve got a good strong left hand, you’re comfortable with arpeggios. You need to be able to feel comfortable in mid-air: There’s not a lot of stuff that’s in a single hand-position. It’s very different from Schumann, where you tend to be in a fairly confined space. Alkan really uses the range; he loves wide spaces. And he loves widely spaced accompaniment patterns—a 10th or a 12th. You can play Liszt and it sounds amazing, but it’s much easier to play than it sounds. That’s not quite the case with Alkan: When you’re playing the really virtuosic stuff, it does sound very energetic, very athletic.

Q: This talk of wide spaces makes the third of Alkan Trois grandes etudes, op. 76, something of a cosmic joke: The first and second, for the left and then right hand alone, range over the entire keyboard, but the third keeps them strictly together—you could almost play it with handcuffs on.

A: Yes, two octaves apart all the way through. But it still has the interesting accompaniment patterns flung across a 10th and a 12th, where you’re dealing with a line in the top part of a spread accompaniment pattern—that’s still done, in unison in the hands! And later on in that piece there’s a fearsome passage where you’re leaping backwards and forwards at the 10th, with both hands in unison. It’s very exposed and very hard to get accurate—but absolutely magical when it is accurate.

Q: Is Alkan’s music also featuring in your concert schedules in this anniversary year?

A: Yes, I’m doing the Symphonie [Nos. 4–7 of the op. 39 Etudes ] in concert in the middle of the year, pairing it with the Fifth Book of Chants in an all-Alkan program for a wonderful festival down in Victoria, the Woodend Festival. It’s about an hour out of Melbourne in a lovely mountain district, and they usually record for national broadcast, so I’m hoping that will give Alkan a little bit of a splash out here. I’m also giving a couple of lectures on Alkan, just to make some mark in the bicentenary year and get people thinking about him and his music. And 200 years from Alkan’s birth, it’s a very different scenario now than before Ronald Smith came along. These days mainstream pianists are getting interested in having a go at least at some of his music, and there’s a greater appreciation at the amount of the very high quality material that’s there. Although it obviously appeals to different personalities, people are beginning to understand that he’s not just one of those weirdoes off to the left of field—he’s one of the great piano composers of the 19th century.

ALKAN Recueil de Chants Nos. 1-3, Opp. 38 & 65. Une fusée: Introduction et Impromptu Stephanie McCallum (pn) TOCCATA 0157 (71:14)

SCHUMANN Kinderscenen. Fantasie, Op. 17; Papillons; Novellette in D Stephanie McCallum (pn) ABC 3852 (70:48)

BEETHOVEN Seven Bagatelles, Op. 33. Bagatelle in a, “Für Elise.” Bagatelle in C. Allegretto in C. Presto in c. Eleven Bagatelles, Op. 119; Six Bagatelles, Op. 126; Bagatelle in B♭. Allegretto in b. Allegretto quasi andante in g. Waltz in D. Ecossaise in E♭. Fragatelle in A; Fragatelle in c♯. Fragatelle in E♭. Bagatelle in f Stephanie McCallum (pn) ABC 6889 (70:48)


Last Updated ( Friday, 24 May 2013 )