Miklós Spányi on Mozart’s Other Father: a Review and Interview with the C.P.E Bach Specialist

22/06/2011

Miklós Spányi on Mozart’s Other Father: An interview with the C. P. E. Bach specialist and a review of his recital at the Boston Early Music Festival 17.6.2010 (SSM)

 

Miklós Spányi - Photo Credit: Magdy Mikaelberg Spányi

I came to Boston to interview the keyboardist and C. P. E. Bach scholar Miklós Spányi and to spend a few days at the 16th Biennial Boston Early Music Festival. Little did I know that our scheduled interview on Saturday would coincide with one of the largest mass gatherings in Boston’s history. The Bruins had just won the Stanley Cup, ice hockey’s Holy Grail, for the first time in 39 years and the area around our meeting place was where a celebratory gathering of fans, estimated at over a million, congregated. My knowledgeable taxi driver got me to Spányi’s hotel minutes before all the streets in the area were closed to cars.

Could there be a greater auditory contrast between the outside world and the nearly silent music that Spányi elicits from the clavichord? His closing performance the previous day at a mini-festival devoted to recitals and lectures on the three most prominent keyboard instruments of the Baroque, the harpsichord, fortepiano and clavichord, felt like being freed of manacles from the beautiful but comparatively noisy instruments that preceded this heavenly sounding device. To play virtuosically on the piano is no mean skill, but the clavichord requires fingers sensitive enough to control the most delicate sounds the instrument can produce. The audience, spread out in the First Church of Boston’s modern concert space, was asked to gather as close to the stage as possible. We were also asked to refrain from applauding, but rather to shake our programs instead. What a welcome break from badly timed and overly vociferous applause at concerts and operas that not only distracts the artists but destroys the very sound world the performer has just been spending his time creating.

Spányi began his recital with a transcription for keyboard of C. P. E. Bach’s sinfonia originally written for orchestra. The range of timbres that Spányi created were just extraordinary. The difficulty of having not only to play the right notes, but to play with the right pressure reminded me of the difficulty Baroque trumpeters have in playing valveless instruments: a slight change in embouchure and you’re in another musical staff.

The concert continued with more C. P. E. Bach, and then movements from J. S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue. One normally thinks of playing this last work of Bach on one or two harpsichords or an organ or whatever instrument(s) within its range are available. On the clavichord, this music sounded to me for the first time ever not coldly analytical — Bach’s technical guide to the possible permutations of this musical form — but rather a warm, human and expressive work of art. Spány’s recital  ended with a set of variations by Beethoven on a theme as corny as the theme from the Diabelli Variations, but turned into something of actual musical interest in the hands of the great composer.

Miklós Spányi not only plays the clavichord better than anyone alive today but is a master of the harpsichord, fortepiano and tangent piano, an instrument according to Spányi that is “a member of the piano family in that its strings are struck rather than plucked as on the harpsichord. The main difference between it and the fortepiano lies in the action: the pianoforte uses pivotal hammers to strike the strings while the tangent piano instead has little slips of wood (‘tangents’) that move freely on a vertical plane.”

In addition to his skills as a keyboard player, Spányi is in the process of recording all of C. P. E. Bach’s keyboard sonatas and concerti, having to date recorded 17 volumes of keyboard concerti and 22 volumes of keyboard sonatas for the Swedish label BIS. I asked him how much more he has to record.

MS: Let’s see, we still have three CDs to do, 18, 19 and 20. We will end up with 20 not 19.  We couldn’t spread the tracks properly to fit on only one CD, so we will have to do two. As to how many volumes of solo pieces are left to record, there’s still a long way to go. It will probably take another 15 to 20 CDs to finish this collection.

He laughed when I asked him if BIS has been good to him: “Yes, very good.”

SSM: I’m going to surprise you starting off not with what you might expect me to talk about, C. P. E. Bach. I’m going to read to you from a review by our contributor in Budapest, Bettina Mara, who writes: “Miklós Spányi, the famous early keyboard specialist, was next with the Continuum — and who better to play this vintage Ligeti, a piece which the composer described as ‘consisting of innumerable thin slices of salami’ producing a ‘paradoxically continuous sound,’ so fast that it conveys the impression of standing still, achieved by playing at least 15 to 16 notes per second, as Spányi must have been doing, although needless to say it would have been impossible to tell with the naked ear.”

MS: What is that?

SSM: You performed Ligeti’s Continuum….

MS: Ahh! Yes, yes, I  performed that work at the end of May. It was something I’ve never done before. I was happy to do it though because I love Ligeti.

SSM: Have you played any other Ligeti and did it take you a long time to master this piece?

MS: I’ve only played his three harpsichord pieces. These pieces are really difficult and two of the pieces are written for the so-called modern harpsichord. I’m very interested in 20th century harpsichord music.

We returned to the subject of C. P. E. Bach. In the 1940s Stalin told his troops in Berlin to bring back any cultural spoils of war that they were able to find, and freight cars filled with potentially priceless cultural works were transported to Moscow. Rumors spread that a cache of manuscripts stolen from the Singakademie were somewhere in the Ukraine. Later it was found that the papers were in a corner of the Kiev Conservatory. After many years of back and forth correspondence with the Soviet Union, the Bach scholar Christopher Wolff, ten years after the Cold War ended, brought back 5,000 musical items to the US for cataloging. I asked Spányi if by chance there were any pieces by C. P. E. Bach discovered in that collection, keyboard concerti for instance.

MS:  No, there are only 52 original keyboard concerti. As far as I know there are no new concerti in that collection. There are many concerti attributed to C. P. E. Bach but none that we can prove were written by him. We confirmed the existence of a flute concerto that we theorized long ago was the source of a  keyboard concerto: one  that we had already previously recorded.

SSM: What about the Passions found in the collection?

MS: Yes, many of them, but most of them are pastiches.

SSM: C. P. E. Bach’s music is so adventuresome, improvisational, complex, complicated. Why has it often been ignored?

MS: It is quite a disappointing situation. I really don’t understand why his music isn’t played by more keyboardists. You are right when you said that his music is very complex and sometimes difficult to understand. In many cases his technique is very demanding, and at other times you could say that it is very strange. I don’t know— I just love this music.

SSM: How did you discover and develop such a an interest in C. P. E. Bach?

MS: It was when I recorded the first concerto with the Concerto Armonico a long, long time ago. It was the D-Minor (1989, Hungaraton label, ed.). I also loved the  beautiful recording of this same concerto played by Gustav Leonhardt sometime in the 1970s.

SSM: Speaking of old recordings, have you ever heard Wanda Landowska’s recording of the D-major concerto?

MS: Yes. Did you know that she had a collection of C. P. E. Bach concerti manuscripts? They were lost, I think, when she had to leave her home during the war.

SSM: I remember that the few clavichord LPs that were available when I was young, such as Ralph Kirkpatrick’s recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier for the DGG Archive label, had a comment in the liner notes that the playback volume of the recording should be set at the lowest possible volume to hear the true sound of this instrument. In producing your keyboard sonata series, where all but a few are played on a clavichord, was there much difficulty in getting the right sound recorded?

MS: Yes, recording the clavichord is very, very difficult. First, you need to find a suitable room for the instrument which is neither too big nor too small. And then there is the question of how to adjust the volume level so as to produce a big sound. You still need to put something in the album booklet telling the listener to reduce the volume. There exist clavichords that produce relatively big sounds, but the instrument I played yesterday was a rather soft instrument. No clavichord will ever sound like a grand piano.

SSM: I hear that you have tried your hand at conducting. Is that something you see yourself doing?

MS: For a certain time I preferred conducting to performing, but I realized that it might be better to leave that job to the professional conductor. Conducting from the harpsichord is one thing, but standing in front of all those people is not my…

SSM: Cup of tea?

MS: Yes!

SSM: Having played so many different types of instruments, which instrument do you feel most comfortable playing and which do you find most expressive?

MS: Which for me is most expressive?  Of course it would be would be the clavichord, but you know you can play the harpsichord in a very expressive way. The clavichord is an extremely expressive instrument. I also love the so called Tangentenflügel, the tangent piano. It’s a lovely instrument. It’s simply fantastic to play Mozart or even Beethoven on the tangent piano.

SSM: The variations by Beethoven that you played at your recital yesterday, did Beethoven write them specifically for the clavichord?

MS: No, no, but as far as we know he liked the instrument. Suffering as he did from hearing problems in his old age would not make the clavichord his ideal instrument.

I then asked him about the influence of C. P. E. Bach on Mozart and Haydn, how so many elements of these two composers seem to first appear in C. P. E. Bach’s concerti, and that Mozart met C. P. E. Bach once in the 1780’s, the period of his greatest piano concerti.

MS: Mozart did know some of C. P. E. Bach’s music, but you see more of  C. P. E. Bach’s influence on Haydn’s sonatas than on Mozart’s. Not only did Haydn know many sonatas of C. P. E. Bach, he also knew this book written by C. P. E. Bach, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spiele.

SM: A new edition just came out from the organization doing the complete scores of C. P. E. Bach. Have you seen this book yet?

MS: No, not yet, but I know it exists.

SSM: And then there is the Mozart quotation given to us by Rochlitz: “He (C. P. E. Bach) is the father, we are the children.”

MS: Ahhh! Yes. Right. As for Mozart, the greater influence though would be the music of the youngest Bach, Johann Christian. J. C. Bach’s keyboard style had a tremendously strong influence on Mozart.

SSM: There are the three early piano concerti that Mozart arranged from J. C. Bach’s Opus 5 set of sonatas.

MS: Yes, of course.

SSM: What are your plans for the coming year?

MS: A few concerts in France in the beginning of August, but my biggest project for this year is recording the next volume of C. P. E. Bach’s concerti. We hope to record a CD in November or December.

SSM: Will this be with your previous group, Opus X?

MS: Unfortunately, no. Due to some very serious financial problems, we can no longer work with the Opus X ensemble. The rest of the series will have to be done in Budapest with the Concerto Armonico, but this is not the same group of musicians I played with 10 years ago. I plan on recreating this ensemble by gathering together some friends and colleagues. I am just reusing the name, Concerto Armonico. I hope this project will succeed.

SSM: I’m sure it will. I’ll  looking forward to your next CD and hope you will make it back to the US before the next Boston Early Music Festival in 2013.

Stan Metzger

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