Sviatoslav Richter & Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso (from Miroirs)

“I am not a complete idiot, but whether from weakness or laziness have no talent for thinking. I know only how to reflect: I am a mirror . . . Logic does not exist for me. I float on the waves of art and life and never really know how to distinguish what belongs to the one or the other or what is common to both. Life unfolds for me like a theatre presenting a sequence of somewhat unreal sentiments; while the things of art are real to me and go straight to my heart.”
–Sviatoslav Richter

Richter was a famous Soviet pianist of the 20th century, born in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. I had a chance to read and watch his biography, “Richter: The Enigma”, a while ago (done by Bruno Monsaingeon). He seemed like quite a character: intensely private, he never discussed his personal life until Monsaingeon convinced him to relent during his later years (in fact, the last year of his life); he had some unconventional views concerning performances; he disliked airplanes and traveled to his venues by train or ship whenever possible; disliked the studio recording process (in fact, according to his biography, even disliked being recorded talking); and did not maintain students (or perhaps had very few, I don’t remember exactly) due to his being such a natural pianist that he felt if he had to analyze his own technique in order to explain it, he would surely lose it in Heisenberg fashion.

From reading his biography and watching the documentary… I think I would have found him a most sincere man; I wish I could have met him. If you get a chance, you should watch the documentary too.

Miroirs (translated as ‘Reflections’) is a solo piano suite (of five pieces) written by Maurice Ravel around 1905. Each piece is dedicated to a fellow member of an Impressionistic group ‘Les Apaches.’ Ravel had joined Les Apaches (‘Hooligans’) around 1900; the artistic group is comprised of artists, poets, critics, and musicians. Alborada del Gracioso (#4) translates as the morning love song (alborada) of a medieval jester (gracioso). Aubades (as they are called in English), are usually the material of medieval troubadours, usually where the lyrics revolved around unrequited love. As one can hear in the piece, there are the sprightly major sections that sandwich a mournful minor section. Spanish influence pervades the music.

Miroirs (Reflections)
1. Noctuelles (Night Moths)
2. Oiseaux Tristes (Sad Birds)
3. Une Barque sur l’Ocean (A Boat on the Ocean)
4. Alborada del Gracioso (The Spanish Court Jester’s Aubade)
5. La Vallée des Cloches (The Valley of Bells)

Glenn Gould & J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1981)

Of legendary status is the 1981 studio recording of Glenn Gould performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It is a piece for solo piano, consisting of an aria + 30 variations. In the musical world, variations is a compositional technique where the composer takes a musical idea/theme and alters it in some particular way in each variation. These can be changes to, or variations on melody, harmony, composition, counterpoint, and so on.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations revolves around the bass line and chord progression introduced in the Aria. One can refer to the skeleton of the structure of harmony here: [Form of BWV 988]
Along with the score of the variations (download here), one can see that the harmony from variation to variation follows true to this skeleton–even though the rhythmic and melodic material change each time.

Glenn Gould’s interpretation of the set is wonderfully light, refreshing, clear, and raw. The clarity with which one can follow all the melodic lines woven together is something to strive for, not only in this piece, but in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (Fugues, especially) and Inventions as well. Once again, I have linked a recording in which one can study Gould’s technique and way of achieving such tone. That being said, I would like to add this warning to the ambitious who may want to emulate Gould’s piano technique:

The height of one’s seat at the piano is determined by the position of the elbows, which should not be below the level of the keyboard to avoid introducing too much weight into the playing. Sitting much lower prevents the pianist from using the weight of his upper body. (I am convinced that Glenn Gould was able to play the way he did not because of his abnormally low sitting position but in spite of it. It certainly has not worked as well for some of his emulators.) People with a small build in particular may need every ounce of their upper body weight to produce a powerful and full sound. On the other hand, sitting too high may invite shallow playing, with fingers not reaching to the depth of the keys.
–Boris Berman, Notes from the Pianist’s Bench, pg.30

That being said, Watch and Listen on! Best done in a quiet room, in a quiet mood. For the uninitiated, a second warning: Glenn Gould is a character; among many of his odd habits, ‘humming’ and ‘hurring’ along while he plays is common.

J. S. Bach – Goldberg Variations
00:00 – 06:34 Interview with Glenn Gould
06:34 – 58:56 Goldberg Variations