Rubato from Another Planet; or, Waking Up Early

Last night, inexplicably, I put a new CD in my CD alarm clock. (Avid Think Denk readers–is this a plural? or even a singular?–will recall volume two of Nina Simone’s “Tomato Collection” residing there previously.) I felt no particular urge for change; it just hit me, like the smell of sour milk emanating from a Mr. Softee truck. And let me tell you, there is nothing like waking up, bleary, at 6:50 AM on a Friday morning, after staying up stupidly late staring at an over-packed suitcase and a list of things to do upon awakening (1. Throw out garbage 2. Pack toothbrush and toothpaste 3. Pay rent 4. Check wallet for credit card and drivers license) and trying to remember music I might have forgotten to pack… there is nothing like waking up after one of those short, stressed-out nights to zany Viennese lilt, chords and notes flying everywhere, and sudden blasts of tender, lyrical playing unheard of in modern days: in other words there is nothing like waking up, exhausted, to Ignaz Friedman’s Alt Wien. It coaxed a silent laugh out of what is often my darkest hour; I was awake for a strange non-moment before it came on (curse my inescapable, time-laden consciousness) and I drifted back to sleep; with a harrumph it began in B-flat, and I was smilingly, totally awake; its joyous abandon blasted into the half-lit, half-cleaned apartment like secular incense, blessing my early morning scramble.

I meant what I said about the “harrumph.” In the boisterous waltzes, Friedman’s downbeats have outrageous, tremendous impulse; they are huge, sprawling, but also springy, dancing catapults … the intervening 2 and 3 beats are often overwhelmed, virtually swallowed within the downbeat’s energy, in a way that modern conservatory education would find unacceptable (tut tut! don’t swallow those beats!) I yell back: Yes Friedman, swallow them! Keep it coming! Go for it, baby! This is taken to almost comical extremes, admittedly; sometimes neither the rhythms or notes of the 2 or 3 are very clear or accurate, there is only a vague sense of intervening chatter between the rollicking, galloping 1s. This is when Friedman surrenders himself entirely to the waltz as frenzy, as leap, as twirl… then he stops, reassembles, recomports himself, a tender strain enters … everything is suddenly placed again, the internal beats are nuanced, proportioned, perfect …. ah, Vienna, the good old days…

A very famous pianist (and irreproachable artist) of my acquaintance disparaged Friedman for being too crass. I know he is wrong. Or, maybe, I think he is right but I don’t care; when he says it it passes into one ear, one lobe of my brain, and I smile an empty smile; the other lobe recalls all my favorite Friedman moments and adores them internally while I pretend to agree. Am I a hypocrite? Anyway, Friedman makes up for any vulgarities–his sudden accents, added octaves, etc.–with an abundance of grace. His B-flat Chopin Polonaise (which comes right after Alt Wien in my Naxos recording) is a virtual philosophical demonstration of charm (Hmmm, apply the Kantian Categorical Imperative: what if every pianist in the world today were suddenly compelled to play as charmingly as that? Would piano playing in the modern world come to an end?), he transfigures an “ordinary” piece: Chopin’s filigree has never been so light, and not sugary-sweet-syrupy-silly… simply appropriate, decorative, the pianist’s hand passing over the keys, “like a feather.”

I know what it is: Friedman’s playing is not limited by a Beethovenian “es muss sein” (it must be)… it has a place for the arbitrary and the accidental. Sometimes he seems motivated by rhythmic/musical forces from another planet, and there is no way to know what he is thinking, and why he is thinking it. This makes me happy; I puzzle over his rhythms with pleasure. For example, Friedman’s account of the opening (rather simple) bars of the B-flat Polonaise doesn’t resemble any way that anyone I know would play the dotted rhythms they contain. It is as if some other layer of harmony and tension, unbeknownst to mortals, was apparent to Friedman, made it impossible to play the dotted rhythm in its typical tum-tee-tum; somehow the “tee” is too important to him, it’s got something to say, it drags against itself. I adore these rhythmic displacements in his playing, irregularities born of secret expression which sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. I know a lot of pianists out there cannot accept the “sometimes fail” (despite this, they still sometimes fail, as we all do)–they must aim for the “always succeed.”

In case you don’t own any recordings of Ignaz Friedman, go on and buy one. Obviously he is one of my heroes, especially at 7 in the morning. And when else do we need heroes more desperately?

If you thought the writing in this post was a bit fanciful, perhaps it can be explained by this photograph, taken “candidly” in the Northwest airlines terminal, awaiting the flight that Friedman woke me up for, which I feel captures my state of mind perfectly. I append it with no further comment.


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  1. Davei
    Posted June 11, 2005 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Wiener BLUT! NIce job.

  2. Leon Kirchner
    Posted June 13, 2005 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    from Leon
    At last a brillian critic. Who can it be. My God, it’s my Jeremy!

  3. Anonymous
    Posted June 15, 2005 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Who is taking the picture, I want to know.Denk you are cuuuuuuute! And that to lighten up on the analysis a little bit.It is interesting, yes, intentionally rhetorical and overworded, yes, but I forgive you, because your playing is sublime (I have heard you live) and…you’re cuuuuuuute.

  4. carl lee
    Posted January 20, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    As one who loves listening to piano music, and Chopin in particular, rubato is what brings music to life. Chopin’s music is full of rubato, yet he couldn’t teach he it. It isn’t technique, style. He said that if one senses the music then the rubato won’t be a problem.

    Iganz Friedman is one of my favorite virtuosos. His rendition of the Moonlight Sonata is dead on. His Chopin mazurkas are a thrill, as are his performances of the Mendelssohn and Mozart scherzos.

    Back to rubato. His take on Chopin’s Waltz in A minor, Op.34-2, redefines the word languid. It’s an extreme, but very effective interpretation. Drawn as it is, its mood is quite focused, unlike Horowitz’s scattered, but aurally satisfying 70’s recording.

    Chopin’s music is many things, but most of all it and its performance is about communicating–as you note in your blog on Chopin’s Polonaise Fantasie, Op.61 (IMHO a masterpiece). If you sense the music, the rubato will be right, and the music–not the mere notes, will be heard. Friedman may be a wild man, but he communicates, and the listening is rewarding.

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