Mar 15th 2018

Naboré does Brahms: ‘Landscapes of the heart and soul’

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

The Brahms Scherzo Op. 4 opens with a delicate and playful theme, then carries us along on waves of emotion swinging from the filigree, to the lyrical, the thunderous, and back to the delicate. Fortunately the numerous recordings of this piece already out there did not discourage William Grant Naboré from making it the lead on his new CD “Johannes Brahms: The Go-Between” (Academy Classical Music 2017). He brings to it a fresh vitality and the rigorous articulation for which he is well known. 

Naboré, director of the International Piano Academy, Lake Como, somehow found time to record the Scherzo, plus Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, and the six Piano Pieces (Klavierstucke) op. 118, dedicated to Clara Schumann. In addition to running the Academy, he shuttles back and forth to China, South Korea and Japan to direct master classes for piano-mad Asian students, and stops in Ohio to keep up with his Oberlin Conservatory partnership. Nobody knows how he does it. 

William Naboré, a drawing by the author, Michael Johnson.

His new Brahms is paired with equally fresh CD “ Mozart: Love and Losses” on which he plays one of his favorites, the Rondo in A minor (K.511) with a loving touch imbued with melancholy. It is followed by the F-major sonata (K.280), the C-minor Fantasy (k.475) and the C-minor sonata (K.457), a feast of Mozart’s familiar piece. 

It was the Brahms that first attracted me because I was aware that Naboré can claim a direct line of study to Brahms himself. His teacher Renata Bogatti can trace her own training back to teachers who knew Brahms. This gives Naboré the kind of lineage that musicians value. Mlle. Bogatti “taught me how to paint landscapes of the heart and soul in playing Brahms with luminosity and darkness as well,” he recalled for me in an interview (see below). 

He named this CD to take note of Brahms’ relationship with both Robert Schumann and his wife Clara. All six of the Klavierstuke op. 118 piece are dedicated to Clara. As Naboré writes in his liner notes, their love lasted their entire lifetime and has tantalized music-lovers ever since. The correspondence will never be complete, however. “He kept his letters, she burned hers.” 

Brahms was a master of Lieder and brought the art of singing to his piano performance s well. As Naboré says in his interview, this is the secret of true Brahms playing. “The pianist who wants to play Brahms has to be a great ‘singer on the piano’” Naboré said, “if he wants to play Brahms his way.”

 

 

INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM NABORE

 

Question. You have said that as a young pianist you found the lovely G-minor Rhapsody turgid and opaque. Have you changed your mind ?

 

Answer. Well, every self-respecting young pianist tramples on this piece in his or her clumsy way. My teacher at the time assigned it to me and I dutifully left my own poor imprints, which were as bad as the others. However, my teacher insisted, and I ended up rather liking it after all. Today even though I still think it isn't really vintage Brahms, it's a good piece to start learning the Brahms idiom, so I feel my teacher was vindicated in giving me this piece.  I only wish she had given the companion Rhapsody in B-minor, which is much more interesting and of course more difficult.

 

 

Q. Does this mean your appreciation of Brahms came slowly?

 

A. Yes, I was 16 when I had my first revelation of what Brahms could be. I heard the F-major cello and piano Sonata op. 99 at the Aspen Festival. It had a great effect on me. It was performed by that wonderful cellist Zara Nelsova and her partner Franz Rupp, who was also Marian Anderson's faithful accompanist.

 

 

Q. So you were hooked?

 

A. Well no, not quite yet. At that same festival I heard the Klavierstucke op. 116 impressively played by Artur Schnabel assistant Leonard Shure, and the C-major Trio op. 87 by some students as well. For some reason, I was still not that bowled over. Maybe because I was only 16...

 

 

Q. Well, a breakthrough must have come soon after, no?

 

A. No, not soon enough! It did come, but two years later after my fantastic teacher in Rome, Renata Borgatti, gave me as a Christmas present -- the score of Brahms' Piano Quintet. Op. 34. After studying it in depth and playing it many times with friends, I was truly hooked. I was now 18 and thereafter studied everything of Brahms I put my hands and my heart on. It became my own “private Idaho”, as the saying goes.

 

 

Q. Was this the point at which you focused on Brahms’ chamber music?

 

A. Yes, from that point onward, his chamber music has interested me as much as the solo piano music.

 

 

Q. You play both solo and chamber Brahms today. Where is your emphasis?

 

A. I always felt –and still feel -- that chamber music is Brahms' greatest achievement as a genre. I studied and performed the entire repertoire of Brahms' chamber with piano in many concerts until I was around 28 years old when I decided to perform the whole cycle at the Conservatory in Geneva. It was a huge success with both public and press.

 


Q. Did you continue with that cycle?

 

A. Yes, since then I have performed it many times in many cities in Europe. I learned so much from my various partners including Pierre Fournier, the cellist, the Amadeus Quartet, the Schildloff Quartet, the Munich String Trio, and with Alberto Lysy, Norbert Brainen and Ana Chumachenko, the violinists, among others.

 

 

Q. What was the role of Renata Borgatti in your mastery of Brahms?

 

A. Mlle. Borgatti gave me so many insights into performing Brahms -- she had played with the Rose Quartet which Brahms himself had played with three generations earlier, and who had given the first performance of his late chamber music. This tradition of the performance of Brahms’ works that she passed on to me has been invaluable in my approach to Brahms.

 

 

Q. Was your study with Borgatti a decisive factor in your “love affair” with Brahms?

 

A. By all means! Her understanding of Brahms was anything but turgid and opaque. She taught me how to paint landscapes of the heart and soul in playing Brahms with luminosity and darkness as well. However the most important factor in my performance today of Brahms is that I have lived and performed this music for a lifetime and it has given up its secrets, sometimes slowly because of my loving and insistent care. Now its mine!

 

Q. Wasn’t Borgatti situated in a direct line of Brahms teachers and students?

 

A. Indeed, her own teacher, Ana Hirzel Langenhan, was an assistant of Teodor Leschetizky, and she played the solo works of Brahms for Brahms himself in Vienna and heard Brahms play several  times in public. She told Borgatti, who had become her own assistant, that Brahms himself always played in a grand and noble way almost as he was improvising his own music but with a total absence of sentimentality. Despite his ringing tone as a player he also achieved a beautiful lightness of texture which he always tried to impart to his partners in chamber music. He maintained that French players performed his music best because the lightness of their execution.

 

 

Q. Was Brahms critical of those who played his music?

 

A. Yes, he was often despairing that many musicians played his music heavily awash in bathos, which he hated. Many times his tempos are faster than we hear today. But he was particularly upset with incorrect phrasing. 

 

 

Q. What do we know about his piano technique?

 

Brahms wrote 51 exercises that are still an excellent way to learn his piano technique. They are not long -- some are quite brief -- and they get straight to the heart of the problem that each exercise seeks to solve. These are not only physical exercises but also exercises in mental control and they demand a high level of concentration.  Many are devoted to polyrhythms, double notes and the strengthening of the outer fingers of the hand (3, 4, 5). Brahms also advised young pianists to play those old Liszt transcriptions of Italian composers  (notably those of Bellini and Donizetti) as a good way to acquire a complete piano technique. 

 

 

A sample of the Brahms exercises demonstrates their focus.

 

 

 

Q. Can you identify specific Brahms influences on your playing handed down through this lineage from him?

 

A. The most important thing that the music of Brahms has taught me is the attention one must pay to sound production. This does not mean there is a "Brahms sound" for all of his music. Au contraire! You have to develop many qualities of sound to accurately convey the emotional content of his masterpieces. Cantabile playing was also a feature of Brahms' own style of playing the piano. He was very interested in Baroque and oversaw the first modern edition of  François Couperin's complete harpsichord "Ordres". That triggered my own interest in Baroque and in Couperin's music in particular. As a young composer, Brahms studied counterpoint assiduously in the company of his friend the violinist Josef Joachim, who was also a composer. This interest came directly from Robert Schumann himself and the Schumann Variations on the CD are the fruit of those studies.

 

Q. After a lifetime of playing his music, are you still evolving as a Brahms interpreter? What differences can you hear in this new CD compared to your earlier recordings.

 

A. Actually I don’t really like to listen to my earlier solo  recordings of Brahms. However when I started recording his chamber music, after one of the cycle performances, things really got better. I still like my recordings of the three violin and piano sonatas with Anton Barakovsky and the  chamber music for clarinet, violoncello and piano with Steven Kanoff, the clarinetist, and Stanimir Todorov, the cellist. However I can say a few things about the works on this CD. The first work, the E flat minor Scherzo, op. 4  was a sort of "warhorse" of Brahms' youth which he even played for Liszt in Weimar, who was most impressed with his music as with his virtuosity.

 

Here the printed sheet music scrolls as the pièce is played :

 

 

 

Q. What else of spécial interest did you program on this CD ?

 

The other works were composed after Brahms had met the Schumanns. The Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann was the first of these works which was dedicated to Clara Schumann. Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of her time, was know as the "Queen of staccato" and Brahms in these variations composed to her strength. There are several variations which Brahms writes many varieties of staccato as well as incorporating themes that Clara had herself composed, quite an extraordinary feat in itself which Robert Schumann noted and appreciated. The op. 118 six Klavierstucke were the occasion of a reconciliation between Brahms and Clara Schumann after an unfortunate misunderstanding between these two great artists in the twilight zone of their great friendship.

 

Q. What has your collaboration with musicians of earlier generations bought to your understanding of playing Brahms?

A. This question is in fact very pertinent as I had the privilege to work with musicians directly or indirectly who were closer to a direct tradition of the Viennese music-making in the time of Brahms. Today's we are still very much influenced by the technology of the modern age which translates into more metronomic and bland performances, leaving little flexibility in tempo. This was not the case in the laid-back performances of the Romantic Epoch especially those in Vienna. The "gypsy" music element in music making was still very strong there. Just listen to the last movement of the second piano concerto of Brahms.

 

Q. How can you decide on tempo changes that are not clearly indicated in the score?

Playing the Brahms Trios with Norbert Brainen of the Amadeus Quartet, who had studied in Vienna in the years before the war, Brainen demonstrated how to relax the tempo in many passages – a common practice of all those great musicians who lived in Vienna at the time. This was a revelation for me. I have always tried to teach my students the charm of this way of making music: of breathing, of  "letting you hair down…" The art of "singing on the piano", of playing cantabile, was of great importance to him. Many of Brahms' late concert appearances were to accompany singers, almost exclusively beautiful women who also had beautiful voices. The pianist who wants to play Brahms has to be a great “singer on the piano” if he wants to play Brahms his way.

 

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Feb 27th 2024
EXTRACT: "Question: Some pianophiles say the CD could be useful for meditation, therapy or even healing. ---- Answer: Indeed, that is the kind of feedback I am getting. But this music doesn’t belong to me any more, therefore I cannot label it with any purpose. It has taken on a life of its own. I can’t say how it affects the life of other people. Will it be therapeutic or will it have another effect? Time will tell."
Dec 4th 2023
EXTRACT: "Seated in a quiet corner of a Bordeaux hotel last week, we had an interview – more a casual chat – about her life, her Soviet Russian origins, her career, her future."
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "Schiff creates an atmosphere that we 'seniors' remember from the old days. No clowning, no bouncing on the bench, no outlandish clothing. He dresses in a black smock, black trousers, black shoes, topped off with a mane of pure white hair. His manners, his grateful bowing, are très Old Europe. ---- Schiff keeps control of his two hours onstage. He believes that dignity goes with the great music on the program and he scarcely moves as he plays."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "  Boston-based guitarist, band leader and composer Phil Sargent is not about churning out endless CDs. In fact his ten-year recording gap, just ended, had his fans wondering where he was. But in New York and Boston, he tells me, he has never stopped working with other groups while composing and actively teaching young and mature talent. Although not always visible, he seems to be a confirmed workaholic, even practicing five hours a day. Yes, virtuosos also need to practice. ---- And now he is back. His new CD, 'Sons'....."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "There is a renewed fascination with the memory-stimulating and healing powers of music. This resurgence can primarily be attributed to recent breakthroughs in neuroscientific research, which have substantiated music’s therapeutic properties such as emotional regulation and brain re-engagement. This has led to a growing integration of music therapy with conventional mental health treatments."
Sep 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "British psychotherapist, Michael Lawson, who has worked with several prodigies and former prodigies, calculates there may be as many as 200,000 piano prodigies active in the world today. “In a sense, they are not that rare,” he says in our interview below. Lawson is author of International Acclaim: The Steinfeld Legacy a new novel of the great pianists of the 19th and early 20th centuries in which the prodigy phenomenon is described in some detail."
Sep 17th 2023
EXTRACT: "Like so many stories about relationships told over an extended time, Past Lives uncovers the twists and turns, the “what ifs” and the manifold choices that lead to two people wondering whether they were meant to be together."
Sep 12th 2023
EXTRACT: " OrpheusPDX, a new company founded by Christopher Mattaliano in Portland, Oregon, concluded its second season with a brilliant and thought-provoking production of Nico Muhly’s “Dark Sisters,” at Lincoln Hall (August 24), exploring and exposing relationships in a polygamous sect and the courage of one sister-wife to leave it. With Stephen Karam’s libretto inspired by memoirs of women who have left the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) and the 2008 raid of the YFZ Ranch by the FBI, “Dark Sisters” was delivered with spot-on directing by Kristine McIntyre and riveting performances by an exceptional cast."
Aug 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "Wagner’s operas are well known to be budget busters, and lack of funds is probably one of the main reasons that Seattle Opera has not mounted the Ring Cycle in since 2013. After Speight Jenkins retired from his post as General Director in 2014, the company delivered The Flying Dutchman (2016) and Tristan und Isolde (2022), the latter under its current General Director, Christina Scheppelmann. Now starting its 60th season, Seattle Opera celebrated with Das Rheingold, but that can be seen as a bittersweet moment since Scheppelmann is moving on to take over La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels at the end of the 2023-2024 season."
Jul 6th 2023
EXTRACT: " More than a hundred recordings have been made of his suite of 14 light pieces he called “The Carnival of the Animals”, and a range of his other works remain in the standard repertoire."
Jun 18th 2023
EXTRACT: "Conservatories and university music departments are filling up with fee-paying Asians as their parents pressure them to succeed in the West. Piano competitions around the world, now numbering about 800, are open to this new wave of Asian players. They are winning top prizes and they are building careers in Europe and the U.S.  Too often, according to some teachers, young Americans prefer computer games, the latest movies, rock bands, sports, or other less-demanding activities. The Asians are happy to fill the vacuum."
May 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "Three of Europe’s longtime leaders in contemporary jazz, now in their senior years, have just launched a CD of twelve  pieces that shows what a lifetime of sharing ideas in music can really produce." “New Stories” (Frémeaux et Associés) by the French trio of pianist and composer Hervé Sellin, bassist Jean-Paul Celea and drummer Daniel Humair is remarkable for improvisations so synchronized that the listener can feel the music come together from three angles in real time. The tracks were mostly composed or improvised by Sellin."
Mar 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "The young ex-dancer from Italy first burst upon the piano scene three years ago with 20 of her hand-picked Scarlatti sonatas. Now comes her second CD (Academy Classical Music) even more original and powerful, performing six of Baldassare Galuppi’s 18th century sonatas. Margherita Torretta‘s early training as a dancer gives her playing a swaying, graceful air while she maintains Alberti bass for control of the rhythm, momentum and especially continuity. Her ornamentation is boosted with some of her own improvisations, producing a fresher feel. It’s a magic combination."
Mar 24th 2023
EXTRACT: "Driven by a sense of mission and determination over several years, French pianist Lydia Jardon has completed a rare cycle of nine piano sonatas by Nikolai Miaskovsky. Her new CD  of numbers 6, 7 and 8 completes the task and offers a particularly rich sample of Russian experience in the worst of times. Miaskovsky may be only vaguely remembered today but he was a leader in the Soviet music world until the end of World War II. He left a wide range of engaging sonatas that have been brought back to life by Mme. Jardon on her own label AR Ré-Sé (AR 2022-1)."
Mar 16th 2023
EXTRACTS: "The most ambitious application yet of Steinway’s new digital piano, Spirio r, delivers stunning levels of sound and color in the new CD release of The Richter Scale, an hour-long keyboard drama written by well-known German composer and pianist Boris Bergmann." ----- "For the first time, the Spirio has been configured on a Steinway D grand to enable four-hand pieces to be played by two hands. The secondo score is first recorded in playback mode then combined with the live primo part. Liu is the live player who has to coordinate and fuse the two."---- "I took Bergmann’s advice and listened to the full composition from start to finish to best feel the gathering emotional turbulence. I was gripped by the melodies, harmonies, rhythms and percussive explosions along the way."
Feb 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The piano music of Belgian composer Joseph Jongen is rapidly emerging from obscurity where it has reposed since his death in 1953. One of the champions of this rebirth is the Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilic who acknowledges he discovered Jongen only by accident. Researching early 20th century music, he recalls, “somehow Jongen appeared on my radar.” He quickly dived into archives in Belgium and became immersed in Jongen’s prolific output."
Jan 5th 2023
EXTRACTS: "One duo of special interest today is the pairing of brother-and-sister pianists of Slovenian origin,  Zala and Val Kravos. Both are veterans of solo performances and joint four-hand playing internationally. Their new CD offers....... The musicality and the technical perfection achieved by this team sets it apart from others in the same category."
Dec 23rd 2022
EXTRACT: "One of the festival’s best surprises was the glamorous Russian-born Irina Lankova. Her evening was dominated by Rachmaninov and perfectly suited her origins. She has invented a program of music and fireside chats, creating a quick and pleasant connection with her audience. At ease between numbers, she chatted in relaxed manner notable for her erudition. Dressed in a modest ankle-length gown, she was all about music, not showboating. Contrary to several other women headliners in the piano world today, she says “I do not need to eroticize my looks”. ---- Her opening Rachmaninov  Elegie No. 1 cast a silent spell over the Femina Concert Hall and she carried her charm through nearly two hours of graceful pianism. It is not unusual, she told me in an interview, to leave members of the audience in tears. 'I also cry, at least internally, when I play,' she says."
Nov 13th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Classical guitarist Jose Manuel Lezcano breaks new ground with his first solo CD,  “Homage: Spain & Latin America”. He combines two Scarlatti sonatas and his adaptation of works by Maurice Ravel, Bill Evans and the great Paraguayan guitar virtuoso Augustin Barrios. Mood and tempo jump from the contemplative to familiar classics to dance to jazz. I found the CD so captivating I played it in loop for hours." ----- "Twice a Grammy-awarded  composer and guitarist, Lezcano lives in retirement in the U.S. northeast and teaches at Keene State College in New Hampshire where he holds the title emeritus professor."
Sep 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "When I try to understand my life as a critic in the dazzling world of piano music, I am at a loss. We have inherited so much over 300 years that I feel overwhelmed. There is no obvious focal point. What is at the heart of piano world? -- Personally I could not make it through the day without the stimulation of piano performance. My home resounds with music all my waking hours, constantly renewed from the thousand-odd CDs I have accumulated." ----- Picture: The author, Michael Johnson.