PIANO

3CD ALBUM:
19TH CENTURY MASTERWORKS, Geoffrey Dorfman, piano

     Disc 1: 
Humoreske, op. 20, Robert Schumann
Ballade in Fm, op. 52, Frederic Chopin
Polonaise Fantasie, op. 61, Frederic Chopin

     Disc 2:
Sonata op, 27, no. 2 (Moonlight,) Ludwig Van Beethoven
Sonata in Dm, op. 28 , Sergei Rachmaninoff
Etude Tableaux op. 39, no. 5, Sergei Rachmaninoff

     Disc 3:
Grosses Sonata in F#m, op. 11, Robert Schumann
'Ad Nos Ad Salutarem Undam,' Fantasie, Chorale and Fugue, Franz Liszt (Busoni Edition, EB 3863)
Encore: Fantasiestucke, op. 111, no. 2, Robert Schumann

Available for purchase here.

 

More examples of Geoffrey Dorfman's live pianism are published on Youtube at his site dorfmanjones as are many examples of unique historic performances by great pianists.

Music Reviews & Interviews

 

BY LYNN RENÉ BAYLEY for Fanfare Magazine, March 2012

Geoffrey Dorfman is one of the more complex personalities I have interviewed. His story is far from typical. After studying piano as a child, he left the world of music for that of art, where he developed into a seasoned painter and educator. Since 1978 he has been an associate professor of art at the College of Staten Island/CUNY, and also served as a visiting assistant professor of art at Dartmouth College in 2000–01. For four decades he has painted in an abstract style nodding at times toward artists as disparate as Paul Cézanne, François-Auguste Ravier (a name, I admit, new to me, although he died in 1895), and the arch-abstractionist Milton Resnick as touchstones. But feeling that he had left something essential behind, he returned to an in-depth study of the piano and its literature at the age of 38, working intensively with Natan Brand until his death, and latterly with Paul Maillet and Temuri Akhobadze. Both his artwork and his piano playing have received high praise from critics over the years.

Before interviewing Dorfman I was directed to his website, geoffreydorfman.com. There I learned not only of his background and influences, but was able to view reduced reproductions of his paintings and read some of his published articles on art. His artist’s statement indicates that he works from the point of view of “a picture’s inadequacies. That doesn’t necessarily mean I address them directly. Sometimes just working in the neighborhood can be sufficient. After all, transition is everything in art, both from a formal and psychological point of view.” To my mind, his abstract art has an almost 3-D effect which, even in reductio, is fascinating to see. Yet on another of his webpages, “Lodestars,” he displays photos and capsule descriptions of his artistic forebears. In addition to pianist Brand and the painters mentioned above, these also include pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni. Clicking on the photo of Busoni brings up a quote taken down during his final illness and typed out for the composer by his secretary. In part, it states that “a composer is like a gardener to whom a small portion of a large piece of ground has been allotted for cultivation; it falls to him/her to gather what grows on this soil, to arrange it, to make a bouquet of it; and if he is very ambitious, to develop it as a garden. It devolves on this gardener to collect and form that which is in reach of his eyes, his arms—his powers of differentiation. In the same way a mighty one, an anointed one, a Bach, a Mozart, can only survey, manipulate, and reveal a portion of the whole flora of the earth; a tiny fragment of that kingdom of blossoms which covers our planet, and of which an enormous surface, partly too distant, partly undiscovered, withdraws from the reach of the individual, even if he is a giant. And yet this comparison is weak because the flora only covers the earth, while music, invisible and unheard, permeates the whole universe.”

Clicking on the link that leads to Dorfman’s writings on art, I found the following in the last article on that page, Outline of a Book on the Nature of Art. Among other things, Dorfman says that in the end, art is “a species of play, the object of which is the creation of forms that need serve no purpose other than that of revelation”; that “like all manner of play, art has rules and boundaries. Although they may alter themselves over periods of time, they never dissolve altogether.” Dorfman also believes that “Art likely started out as a communitarian activity practiced on feast days and days of rest. All the arts were linked together,” but that it evolved into a highly developed and specialized form of activity, due to the initial ineluctable fact that some were naturally more gifted than others. “Prowess implies elitism. It will always have an uneasy relationship with egalitarian or communitarian longings, even those of the artists themselves.”

After reading these statements, I figured that one must listen to his musical performances as, in a sense, a “reduction of the mystery” of music into its essentials: the interior clockwork that makes the entire mechanism work. This is not to say that Dorfman does not view music as a separate art from the visual medium, but that he views it as strongly related. In other words, I imagined that his approach to a musical score might be, to some extent, similar to what he would do if a painting by Ravier, Cézanne, or Resnick were reduced to a paint-by-numbers blueprint: reconstruct it according to his own lights.

Q: To begin with, am I correct in assessing your aesthetic viewpoint toward music, that it is a product of inspiration, like visual art, that the composer is forced to codify as a written score?

A: Naturally, I am not a composer, so an answer to your question must remain somewhat speculative. Then again, composers would likely not all agree on the degree that inspiration plays in their work. I can tell you as a preliminary matter that most of the creative people I’ve met in my life, whether in the plastic or performing arts, don’t happily embrace words like “inspiration.” This is not because it is a fiction—it’s not—but because it’s undependable, and even when it does materialize, it disappears as mysteriously as it presented itself. Yet it is perverse to deny it any role in the creative act. For instance, we know that Liszt originally composed a standard bravura ending for his B-Minor Sonata, but it struck him that at the end of the listener’s journey he could be made to turn around and face one last time the beginning. Such an ending would make both formal and narrative sense in that it would present the work as a hallucinatory vision and also as an entirety. It was an inspiration, certainly, and may have been the last thing he did on that piece, an ideal moment wherein the concept of creating a circle crystallized only at the moment the work was completed. It was perhaps entirely innovative; I can’t think of anything like it before. But really, how often does that sort of inspiration befall an artist? I would say hardly ever. Waiting for a state of grace is no way to work. If it comes, it comes. Mostly one is plugging away at one’s art; clarifying, veiling (yes, certain elements can be too clear, too obvious), adding, subtracting, flipping, relocating, and all the time weighing the consequences, short-term and long-term. Sometimes it can seem a Sisyphean labor, and let’s not even talk about the wild-goose chases. But that’s part of the deal; that’s what the artist signed up for, and no one will thank him for it. The outside world is looking for results, and that’s the case only if the artist is lucky enough to be noticed in the first place. You know, to a pianist something as picayune as a new fingering can seem to him or her “inspired.”

But your question specifically brings up the word “codification,” which I take to mean notation, as a distinction between music—that is, Western professionally composed polyphonic music—and say, painting. That’s a richer vein to mine, and curiously, as it relates to myself, has very much to do with initially choosing to go into art rather than composition so many years ago. It is also why I continue to paint today. It takes a bit of explanation, but gets to the core of what separates the disciplines; for I believe that in spite of today’s zeitgeist—which is to make everything into a hopeless mélange of everything else—these distinctions are important.

As a teacher of musical composition, Busoni stressed speed in writing; that is, he felt that the ability to notate music as quickly as one’s mind could formulate it—or hear it internally—was an essential acquisition for a would-be composer. It's no accident that in his magnum opus— Doktor Faust —Mephistopheles sparks Faust’s curiosity by declaring that he moves as fast as human thought; Faust is intrigued by the ability to “have satisfaction walk side by side with desire.” And indeed Busoni could write out a finished work of several pages length in an afternoon. Recent computer programs facilitate that, but in my youth they didn’t exist, and training oneself to do that is no easy matter. It’s not natural, and seemed almost impossible to me as a youngster. But in painting, there is willy-nilly an immediacy that’s nearly absolute. One can see one’s thoughts in an instant. One can see a brush stroke, its consequences for what is next to it, merely nearby, and for the painting as a whole, all at once. Nothing can really replace that. A painter isn’t just a craftsman; he is looking all the time. It’s really a confrontation, an electrical moment. I try to preserve that first-order sensation in my art. It is paramount that you fully experience the moment as an “actualization,” for better or for worse. Musical performance can approximate the exhilaration of it in some respects much better than composition can, but remember, in performance one is realizing something in sound that already exists. You’re not creating something from nothing, but producing a rendition. That the audience feels you are giving birth to something only testifies to your skill as a performer, as an illusionist. The illusion that you mean to create is that you are the composer of the work, or more accurately an emissary of the composer who has sent you to speak for him because he can no longer do so. If you’re an actor, you create the illusion that you are the character you play. It’s not that different; you want to first convince yourself and then the others of the ‘reality’ of this illusion, but as a purely intellectual matter you know you are using a text. You are standing on the shoulders of someone else. That’s why you appear so tall, and that’s also why you’re less likely to fall. You can’t sidestep that fact. With painting, it’s pretty simple and self-evident; there is no text. If there is, we call it illustration, which has and will remain a pleasing but minor art.

Now it is true that when you get to someone like a Bill Evans [the late jazz pianist and composer], the distinction between composition and performance starts to break down. And maybe it did for Chopin, too; we don’t really know. But generally in what we call classical music, the distinction between the text(s) and its performance is understood and accepted, as it is, by the way, in classical theater. And it’s true in a lot of jazz, for that matter. Mel Lewis, the famous jazz drummer and band leader, was a relative of mine, and he was quite conscious of the European contribution to this art form; I can tell you that the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band’s preparation was every bit as consummate and detailed as that of the Philharmonic. Even great jazz improvisation is not really working from a tabula rasa . If you’re a jazzman, those rhythms, pitch patterns, and harmonies you’ve either traversed or approximated in the past. I guess I’d close with that remark of Toscanini’s that “nothing happens in performance that does not occur in the preparation—except the bad things.” I don’t buy that 100 percent, but it’s more true than not.

Q: I was impressed by the long quote from Busoni. It reminded me of a much shorter comment by Bill Evans that music “is part of the universal overmind,” that “when one is creating music, either as composer or improviser, he temporarily taps into the universal consciousness.” Yet I’ve always had a problem listening to Busoni’s compositions, which I hear as more contrived than inspired. I was much more impressed, emotionally, by Busoni’s recordings of other composers’ music, and I also enjoy his piano arrangements of Bach and Liszt (one of the latter being in your live recital). What are your thoughts on this?

A: I find Busoni an extremely attractive figure: composer, pianist, thinker, librettist, aesthetician, writer. His circle was wide; it included a great assortment of people, quite international for the time; many non-musicians, including bohemian types, dilettantes, and navel-gazers. He’d play games with some of them by mouthing nonsense so as to see if they’d repeat it to others. Schnabel once complained to him about this, and he laughed and referred to them as “insects.” He’d keep them around, though, so their presence must have comforted him in some way. He thought of himself as a great man and had tried to make peace with a world that wouldn’t give him credit for anything other than piano playing. He actually had to play the piano to subsidize the performance of his own works.

Yet the introductory eight minutes of Doktor Faust is some of the greatest music ever written by anyone; I’m always moved by it indescribably. The supernatural world hovering above and below our terrestrial existence is evoked in such a manner as to elicit shivers from the most jaded materialist. The Sarabande and Cortège from the same opera is also fantastic, wholly original music. There are sections of Die Brautwhaul that are extremely effective. As stage work Busoni’s operas are unfortunately problematic, to put it kindly. Moreover, Busoni died prematurely and never finished the last scene of his magnum opus. If you’re a late developer it’s heartbreaking to die before your time.

You know, in Riddley Walker, the visionary novel by Russell Hoban (who just died a short while ago), the figure of myth asks of a sage (and I paraphrase), “How many changes must I undergo?” The seer replies, “As many as required.” And then, “ Yes, but required by what?” And is answered once more, “By the idea of you.” “And what is the idea of me?” “That we don’t know until you go through all your changes.”

This is the lot of the artist. If you don’t recognize those longings, and the sense that you must fulfill them somehow, you can’t be an artist. Busoni was not allowed to undergo all of his changes. His kidneys gave out.

Actually, if you’ve never “gotten” Busoni, the Piano Concerto is a good place to start. His artistic physiognomy is quite evident even at that point, but he fulfills his true self only at the end of his life, and then only touches it at moments.

The Busoni Piano Concerto is a concerto only in the sense that it brings manifold forces together to make its effect. The piano is essentially another color of the orchestra, only at times bursting out of its obbligato role, and the chorus is likewise meant to be an indivisible part of the total affekt , a final purification of its pantheistic all-embracive spirit. Many who regard Busoni as little more than a pasticheur have said it begins as Brahms. Alex Ross just repeated that sentiment in the New Yorker . The orchestral dress is Brahmsian, true; but Busoni establishes C Major in the first cadence, modulates to D Major in the second, and by bar 12 he’s in A Major. Brahms just doesn’t do things like that at the outset of a work. In fact neither does anyone else I can think of off the top of my head. One doesn’t have to accept it as a masterpiece (which I do) to see that it has some remarkable, indeed unique aspects to it. It is also extremely well put-together, particularly given its scale, and the staggering variety of its emotive landscape.

Q: Listening to your performances, both from the studio sessions and the live concert, I was struck by what I heard as a slight difference of approach. In the recordings, I heard much more in terms of rubato, subtle tempo shifts within phrases, and even deliberate changes in the written tempos of various movements (particularly the Beethoven sonata), whereas in the live concert I heard a somewhat more flowing, less detail-adjusted approach. Is this due to a change over the years in your own aesthetic approach, or do you play somewhat more “directly” in style during live performances?

A: In live performance there is the element of adrenalin. You’re under lights, you sweat; sometime you tremble a bit; hopefully not too much. I don’t experience that in recording. Flow is very important to me; sweep, directionality, intent. The Adagio of the “Moonlight” Sonata, as I conceive it, and as I hope to project it, has all that. It’s not dreamy and serene like so many versions. It’s an adagio but it’s alla breve . It’s a soul in pain, trying to find it within him/herself to come to terms with some unknowable suffering, to accept it. That’s my reading of it, and that’s a good way to connect it to the finale, wherein the triadic triplet of the accompaniment reappears in quickened quaternary time. It’s the same character at a different stage of life. If you play the first movement as a serene adagio , and the last as Lisztian, you’ll harm both the formal unity and the narrative concept of the work. Sonatas—particularly large-scale 19th-century sonatas—require both. Incidentally, if the form of a work is tight as a drum, I cut myself a wider berth interpretively. If the form is somewhat diffuse, I restrict any liberties.

Q: Regarding your artist’s statement on your webpage, I was wondering if you apply the same aesthetic as strictly to music as you do to visual art, working from the point of view of a work’s inadequacies, or if you feel that truly great music is perhaps less flawed, less inadequate?

A: When you write something you risk confusing the reader. I was writing about working on a painting. The fact that I’m working on it already testifies to its inadequacy. If I felt it was not lacking something, then it would be over and done with. In other words, if I raise my hand, and find nothing that requires adjustment, no point of entry, then I’m paralyzed in a sense. I’m sometimes asked, “How do you know you’re finished?” That’s how I know; I can’t see in it “what to do.” The picture has “arrived.” It is realized.

About 60 years ago a young woman named Ruth Hageman said to the artist Milton Resnick, “You just painted yourself out of the picture.” It caught on with the Abstract Expressionists—especially the more famous Willem de Kooning—and was bandied about to the point where it even found its way into some publications. It was a useful metaphor for viewing the picture plane as a barrier or seal. An aestheticized object has been removed from the flow of time and motion. And isn’t that what we say of a masterpiece? That it is “timeless”?

When it comes to a finished musical composition written by an old master, I’m a bit at a loss to think of it in terms of perfection, or as being less than perfect. If I love something, I accept it with a full heart, including any weakness that strikes me. I wouldn’t be necessarily more attracted to a “perfect” work than a flawed one. Perhaps less so, actually. I feel the same way about people. And it’s interesting to imagine fragments of masterworks standing alone. For instance, I’ve always listened to the G-Major Piano Concerto of Ravel with pleasure, but as lovely as the first movement is, I always wait for the Adagio assai. It’s easy to imagine it standing alone as a self-enclosed musical entity. Call it “Summer,” or “Poème,” or even “Barcarolle”; it doesn’t need to be flanked by anything else. Listen to the classic Michelangeli recording from EMI; you float lazily down that endless melodic river; you feel the summer heat on your skin; the timelessness of a lazy afternoon; without a care in the world, you sense the infinite joy of just breathing in the air, the sun impressing its after-image on your closed lids. You are not conscious of technique, or tone, or the perfect means that brought the sound-image into being. What more do you want? So in a way you could say that slow movement is perfect, right? What does that say about the whole concerto, though? Or take Clair de lune . The Suite Bergamasque is lovely, but that morsel doesn’t need any sisters. The other day I heard it played live by a fair pianist on a truly rotten instrument, and I relived it as when I was a child! My god, what a perfect gem; not one extraneous note. Even an adequate performance can bring a tear to the eye. If Debussy had just written that and dropped dead, he would still be a sovereign.

The old-timers took liberties with what they deemed the less-than-perfect. Moiseivitch removed the bombastic introduction to the finale of Chopin’s B-Minor Sonata. He just drew the heroic theme quietly out of the silence. Pianists did things like that on occasion. Busoni presented the Adagio, Largo, and Fugue of the “Hammerklavier” as a complete piece more than once. People would be apoplectic about that now. Yet look what they put up with in the staging of opera!

Q: In reading the article on your artwork in the Brooklyn Rail, I have to admit being confused by some of the terminology, which seemed to me “insider language” among art buffs. What did he mean, for instance, when he wrote that your “pictures seem to be constructed out of a negation of anticipated action, a struggle to maintain the creative momentum by proceeding in the most unexpected rather than expected ways”?

A: Every discipline has its shop talk. And it’s a little unfair to ask me to explain what a critic (James Kalm) wrote about me. Those are not my words. On the other hand, what he’s talking about is not necessarily nonsense, even though his language may seem a bit strained. Suffice to say, your brain is an animal brain in some respects; it tends to form patterns, especially in response to given stimuli. These patterns will save your life in a pinch and they are part of you because they’ve always worked for you. That’s why you’re still alive. Evolution has sewn them into your nervous system over eons. When faced with danger, if you’re strong you’ll fight; if you’re fast you will run; if you’re voluble, you’ll talk; if you’re smart you’ll even smile; when challenged you’ll do what is required based on your innate capacities. You’re not even conscious of making these decisions; your body makes them for you. It’s an electric current, the animal part of you.

Patterned behavior doesn’t serve you well in art. It’s biological, and hence predictable, like Pavlov’s dog. In art, predictability slips into formula and capsizes into cliché in fairly short order. It’s Hollywood; it’s Madison Avenue. A healthy art has to resist patterned response. Even in a highly structured system, patterning must be toyed with and broken not a little. In high school we were taught that Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, but anyone with any sense knows that Shakespearean prosody breaks that pattern all the time and in multiple ways. Otherwise it would be unbearable. Examine even the most straightforward of the sonnets and see if I’m not right. Any actor understands that instinctively. Art is a species of play; in theater you “play” a part. What are you in? You’re in a “play.” You play an instrument, as well. All forms of play have rules, certainly, especially in athletics. But within those rules, you have play, that is, “give.” Otherwise why bother?

Q: Viewing your artwork online, I felt that most of your paintings tended toward warm colors—reds, yellows, oranges, etc. Only a few seemed to be composed largely of cool colors, although I liked those few very much. When you begin a painting, do you have a specific color range in mind?

A: My brushes are dirty from what I’ve been working on. I soak them in thinner, and wipe them on the new canvas. When you begin a picture, “arbitrary” serves perfectly well. I have nothing in mind other than what I don’t want. And what I don’t want is another version of what I just did. I resist this idea that a professional just does variations of the same thing. It’s an insult to your humanity. The grand unity of your art is something you just rely on; you don’t insist on it by making versions. I was given intense color theory in art school; the professor was right from the Bauhaus, the real one in Berlin. You gather it up, you digest it, and then if you’re going to amount to anything you throw it right in the garbage. It feeds into your propensities, your inclination toward patterned response—you know—to balance an orange with a blue, a violet with a yellow. It becomes a systematic way of working. Once that enters your system you’ll never go any further. You might as well close up shop.

Q: When you play a piece of music, do you see or hear the music in your mind in terms of color as well as structure?

A: Every musician does. And the piano is deadly without coloration. If you’re a pianist performing a Bach fugue for the public, you have to project it. Imagining yourself as a small ensemble can be helpful at times.

Q: I was intrigued by the comment in your artist’s statement that “transition is everything in art, both from a formal and psychological point of view.” Do you, therefore, view musical transitions as analogous to transitions in painting? Do you consider some of them, as you put it, “inadequate,” or at least less adequate as an artistic expression and more in the nature of a formal device, a mechanism by which the composer moved from point A to point B?

A: I like this question. I was referring to painting in that statement, but how you move from A to B is really going to determine your caliber as a musician as well. I don’t care whether you’re talking about a Schubert Moment Musicale or an epic work like the “Hammerklavier”; the transition from one state of mind to another is almost invariably the most penetrating moment. That’s when you establish your bona fides as a musician, and it may not necessarily require you making a sound; it may be something as fugitive as the character or length of a silence. This is especially true in 19th-century classical music. Transition must be charged in some way, subliminal, suspenseful, or perhaps a sudden interruption of mood; the composer may give the performer a clue to help him, or leave him to his own devices. But as an artist, you have to give real thought to what you want to do at such points. The audience has to feel the force of your mind at work. You have to attach them to your active brain. Pianists who practice one section, then the next, and present them in performance as merely adjacent, are simply not going to pull an audience into their world. In Beethoven’s op. 10, No. 3 in D, how you pull the third movement out of the funeral march is critical. You can’t just say to the audience, “Well, part 2 is over. So here’s part 3.” Same in the G-Major Concerto at the end of the second movement; you have to conceive of the last two movements in some sense as a binary unit. But this is not just about movements; it applies exactly the same within continuous pieces like, say, Chopin nocturnes. Before you begin those trills in the recapitulation of Chopin’s op. 61, No. 2, you have to prepare the audience for this magical moment. If it’s just, “and now come the trills,” you’re hopeless. There has to be a presentiment, a sense of anticipation; you have to set the stage psychologically. It just doesn’t matter how even or light your trills are if what I’m talking about is not present. Movements on separate tracks in a recording may sometimes destroy this aspect of music-making. Mastering is important.

Q: I’m sorry to say that I am not familiar with Natan Brand or his playing. Was his style similar to yours, or if not, in which ways did it differ?

A: If you or Fanfare ’s readers have never heard Natan Brand’s recording, you’re in for a treat, and I envy you. I’m not sure a re-creative artist can be a literal genius in the sense of a Cézanne or a Beethoven, but there were elements of genius at play when Natan Brand sat at the keyboard. We’ve talked about resisting the pattern a bit. You can argue with his interpretations, God knows, but the man’s playing cast a spell; that can’t be denied. It’s bewitching stuff, even when you mean to resist it. A siren’s call. His Kreisleriana has been matched only once in my experience, by Cherkassky, live in London in 1969. But Cherkassky never had Brand’s red blood. Brand’s Bach C-Minor Fantasy will have you up and dancing. He could turn a phrase as well.

He looked for the rhapsodic element in music, perhaps to a fault. And I’m susceptible to that, I admit. So yes, I think there’s a kinship. But the sounds he elicited, and the interpretive and technical daring, the swashbuckling aspect of performance, no one really has that now. I think I’m a bit more analytical, less the ecstatic than he was. But then so is everybody else.

Q: How do you feel about repeats in earlier music, let’s say Beethoven? I know of several pianists, some of great renown, who disdain playing them because they view many of them as merely a means for Beethoven to repeat a melody in an era before mechanical reproduction existed. In other words, some are observed when they seem to add to the structure of the music, while others are ignored; nor is this procedure consistent. Different pianists choose to observe, or omit, entirely different repeats. What is your view on this issue?

A: I take them in Beethoven. I can’t say whether it’s choice, habit, or tradition. It’s just when the pianist doesn’t repeat the exposition in a Beethoven sonata, the proportions seem out of whack to me. And my experience is almost everyone does the repeats. I do have a 1975 live performance of the “Hammerklavier” with Lazar Berman in Milan, and he does go straight into the development. Perhaps he felt the piece was long enough without taking the repeat. I don’t know. I do think, though, that every piece has to be considered anew, including the question of whether a repeat is needed. I well might omit it in the B-Minor Sonata of Chopin. I’m not entirely sold on it in the “Funeral March” sonata, either.

Glenn Gould was taken to task by Sviatoslav Richter for not taking the repeats in the Goldberg Variations . For many years I sort of sided with Gould on that question. You don’t want it to be interminable, after all. How does that serve the cause of Bach? But then I heard Ekaterina Derzhavina’s recording. She takes all the repeats, but she is so inventive—she so varies the stresses, the rhythmic play, the dynamics—that she actually has you waiting for the repeats. After hearing her, I’ve shelved Gould. She does so much more with it, truly.

The worst on that score was Schumann’s Symphonic Variations as performed by Ivo Pogorelich in Carnegie Hall. All the posthumous variations with everything repeated exactly as initially played. “You just heard it? Well, here it is again”; totally canned music-making. I thought I would pass out from boredom. In fact, I imagined he was almost defying me to pay attention.

Q: I did have some specific questions about your performances. Of all the pieces on the three discs, I really felt that your interpretations of Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt were really spot-on, that they brought out the spirit of the composers’ inspiration. Do you approach a piece by a particular composer based on that composer’s overall style, meaning his approach to not only the mechanics of composition but also his or her aesthetic values and sense of rhythm, or is each piece an individual entity for you, to be considered in and of itself without reference to other works?

A: A bit of both. Every work of a composer is both part of his/her oeuvre taken as a totality, and also a unique work in its own right. Very much like any creature, from your dog to your cousin Jim. All life, all phenomena—or at least that part of it available to your senses—has that double aspect, that of being unique and yet part of something larger. In his little book on piano-playing, Josef Hofmann writes about the need to remain aware of what is atypical in a composer’s work. Great composers eschew formulas. On these discs I perform Schumann’s Humoreske and also the F♯-Minor Sonata, the latter in live performance. A very great pianist told me that I breathed more like a singer in the Humoreske . Perhaps so, but there’s more opportunity to do so in that work. The sonata only has a three-minute movement where the lyric element is at the forefront. The rest is very rhythmic, dynamic, and masculine. It should become progressively more intense or it’ll fall apart. The Humoreske is not like that. In some ways it is an anti-sonata. It is almost a mosaic, where you hear elements you think you remember but they’ve been transformed somehow. The patterns are always changing. You’re not moving toward something; you’re wandering among seemingly familiar but altered states. The two compositions relate to each other in that they’re both Schumann and recognizably so, but they’re quite unique creations. Being an effective exponent of the one may not help you play the other as much as you might think.

Q: Much to my surprise, I heard several splices in the last movement of the Beethoven sonata, yet did not hear splices in any other movements of other pieces. Was this, perhaps, due to a change in your approach to certain phrases within that movement?

A: Please don’t be too surprised. I had the piano and auditorium for four days. Because it is a public institution, we couldn’t leave the mikes in position overnight. Every morning they had to be repositioned. This took time, so we didn’t begin until 10: 30 a.m., and by 3 p.m. I was shot. It wasn’t all piano-playing, of course, but also listening to various takes. The Humoreske was recorded on a Tuesday, the Chopin Fourth Ballade and Polonaise-Fantasy on Wednesday. The Rachmaninoff D-Minor Sonata and two Beethoven sonatas were recorded in part on Monday and completed on Thursday. There is unavoidable acoustic variation between Monday and Thursday; it will occur even though tape marks the floor where the mikes and piano legs go. That may be responsible in part for your noticing splices. As for tempo changes within a movement, I do fluctuate within limited parameters, but that is deliberate. I don’t want Beethoven to seem like a perpetuum mobile.

Acoustic is so important, you know, although as an artist you don’t want to admit it, in part because there’s very little you can do about it. In his book Piano Notes, Charles Rosen writes of recording in a hall where they had put up just a few curtains that hadn’t been there when he had recorded previously. When he heard some playback he was sufficiently upset that he just walked out in the middle of the session. He blamed himself, which we all tend to do when things go wrong. He thought that perhaps he hadn’t prepared sufficiently. When the curtains were taken down, he once again heard something acceptable. I had the same experience. I was originally going to record in a recording studio, a midsized room with low ceilings. When I heard the takes, I thought, “What ever gave me the idea that I could play this music?” It was very depressing, but I’m not easily discouraged. I found a different acoustic environment and I was able to get a lot done.

Q: Are there any particular pianists, other than your teachers and perhaps Busoni, whose style you admire and/or learned from?

A: I thought you’d never ask. I’ve been a pianophile for 45 years. I became aware of pianists such as Josef Hofmann and Alfred Cortot when I was just 15 years old, and they had been long dead. I’m not talking about those lousy piano rolls, either. I was rapt. I devoured the literature in two years. I heard everybody. And the live concerts back in the 1960s were something else. On one Manhattan weekend: Michelangeli, Larrocha, and Horowitz, and all in their prime. And I heard some real old-timers, like Robert Goldsand and Edward Weiss, a Busoni pupil. Unfortunately neither of them could play well anymore.

As for Busoni himself, there’s just too little on record to be helpful. Perhaps the abbreviated lassan from the 13th Hungarian Rhapsody. He will have to remain a somewhat mythological figure, a latter-day Liszt. His piano rolls are some of the worst. He didn’t even bother editing them.
I love so many disparate artists: Clara Haskil, Marcelle Meyer, or Ignaz Friedman; Gilels, Levy, or Perlemuter; Arrau and Sofronitsky. It’s all so rich and absorbing and it’s unending. I cast a wide net. I listen to orchestra, chamber, and Lieder, as well.

But as to learning something, something that I can make use of, I mean, that’s something else again. What are you going to learn from Ignaz Friedman? He was a law unto himself. You’re not going to be able to do anything he does, in any case. He’s almost on another planet. One thing that I take away from him, though, is that when he plays a Chopin etude, you can feel the sheer joy and exhilaration of his playing. He has so much fun, and naturally that is infectious to the listener. So it’s not really the technique or workmanship, which is in any case astonishing but perhaps not so unusual, especially nowadays. Rather it’s the serendipitous approach. The work that went into such playing seems to be missing, which is doubtless an illusion Friedman means to create, but remember, in the realm of artistry if you can make an illusion seem real, then for all effective purposes, it is real. Of course, fabulous deftness doesn’t suit everything. And in any case, I can’t do anything with it except drop my jaw in astonishment.

Hofmann and Petri have been the most instructive to listen to. They have their flaws and they are in some ways opposites, but they have a lot to offer the attentive listener. With Petri it’s the drive and sweep of his vision, and that vision is overpowering at times, especially in music he cares about. His flaw is that when there are fewer notes to play he is often less interesting. He can be a bit prosaic and impatient at times. He doesn’t always give long notes their due. He reminds me of Friedman in only one respect, as someone who didn’t over-practice but could just do it . Virtuosity came as naturally to him as breathing to us. I like that quality very much.

With Hofmann, either in his test pressings or in his concerto collaborations with Barbirolli and Ormandy, the employment of a delicate rubato that essentially leaves the pulse unaltered has been very instructive. Yet he doesn’t adhere to that approach all the time. Hofmann’s highly crafted detailing, his leggiero fioritura , the slender highly refined sound world that he made his own, is not something that I can make use of. I wish I could, believe me. The only one who has been able to do that was Shura Cherkassky, really.

In the “Moonlight” Sonata, Hofmann’s rubato is out of place. At one point in the Adagio’s development he accelerates to a speed 75 percent faster than that of his opening tempo. I’m quite strict comparatively, yet I’ve deluded myself into imagining that I’m playing that Adagio à la Hofmann. The truth is, it’s just me. It sounds just like the way I play, as does the whole album. People who know my playing tell me that it sounds just like me. That’s for the best, really. I have no desire to sound like someone else. I’m comfortable in my own skin, which is good because I’m bound by it in any case.

Q: I’m curious about something that isn’t really stated outright either on your website or in interviews with you. Have you ever given lecture-demonstrations tying visual art to music? I did notice that you reproduced one of your paintings, Sublimus, as the cover art for your three-CD set.

A: No. I’m not sure I would know how to do it.

Q: Are there any other things you would like to add, or elaborate on, at this point?

A: Well, I’d like to put in a brief word about the gargantuan works in this set, the Rachmaninoff D-Minor Sonata and the Liszt-Busoni “Ad Nos” transcription. I’ve lived with the Rachmaninoff First Sonata since 1993. There’s a live performance of mine of the first movement on YouTube that is almost 20 years old now. Unfortunately, it’s split onto two clips. I think the piece is the quintessential Russian Romantic sonata. It’s built out of very simple cells, an open fifth and a second. Rachmaninoff pulls this into myriad shapes using inversion, retrograde, augmentation, and diminution. His rhythmic combinations are awesome to behold, and by its end he has built an immense edifice out of these small blocks. John Ogdon made a wild recording of the work more than 40 years ago. Why so few play it, I don’t know. It is extremely demanding technically, of course, but that doesn’t stop pianists anymore. People are playing Godowsky etudes and Sorabji gargantuai that were thought unplayable in the past, so that can’t be it. Everyone plays the Rachmaninoff D-Minor Concerto, but no one plays the D-Minor Sonata from the same period. Go figure.

The “Ad Nos Ad Salutarem Undam” is built from a theme from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète. Liszt conceives its two cadences as raw fodder for the whole piece. It is a tripartite work lasting a half hour. It has some stupendous dynamics. I altered the very end to rid myself of the tremolos that Liszt is attracted to. We’ve talked about formulae earlier, and I suppose this was meant to simulate a timpani roll. It’s a device that has dated poorly. I like the piece. I will not perform it again, but I’m pleased the microphone was on.

(End of interview)

19th-CENTURY MASTERWORKS • Geoffrey Dorfman (pn) • MILL HILL 1100 (3 CDs: 176:23) Live: New York 9/18/1992 1
SCHUMANN Humoresque. 1 Piano Sonata No. 1. 1 Fantasiestücke, op. 111: No. 2. CHOPIN Ballade No. 4. Polonaise-Fantasy. BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 14, “Moonlight.” RACHMANINOFF Piano Sonata No. 1. Etude-Tableau in e, op. 39/5. 1 LISZT-BUSONI Fantasy and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam”

When my colleague Peter J. Rabinowitz reviewed a CD by Geoffrey Dorfman in Fanfare 22:2, he declared that his technique was fully up to the demands of the music, that he used pedal very sparingly, and that he emphasized a “chiseled clarity” rather than a legato line. I would agree to all of that, but also add that Dorfman occasionally changes the written tempos of some movements to bring out those details that he considers of interest.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. As I said in my review of Edith Picht-Axelfeld’s recording of Bach’s English Suites, sometimes playing very complex music at a slightly slower tempo allows the listener to hear details that, if not smudged, often fly by the ear so quickly that they are not always picked up except through many repeated hearings. Such is the case here, although I admit that I’m a little uncomfortable with Dorfman adjusting the tempos in various movements of a sonata up and down. I feel that one should either play the entire sonata faster, if that is your choice, or slower, but to ramp up parts of it and slow down others creates, to my ear, a structural imbalance.

The most obvious example is the one most familiar to listeners, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14. Dorfman, quite naturally, wishes to dispel associations of moonlight by bringing out the first movement’s ineffable sadness and moments of darkness. Part of his solution is to play the movement somewhat faster than written, to emphasize the harmonic structure that is broken up into slow left-hand triplets, and to make those triplets sound dark and moody rather than regular and pretty. Dorfman certainly achieves this, as does John O’Conor in his recording of the sonata, but Dorfman’s tempo is considerably faster than the written one, being q = 68 rather than q = 52. The second movement is played at dotted h = 64 rather than dotted h = 56. So far, well and good. But then the last movement is moved down in tempo, from h = 88 to h = 73. Dorfman certainly makes his point, and it is indeed interesting to hear the textural clarity of this usual whirlwind of a finale, but I would rather he had slowed the first two movements down as well. That is exactly what Solomon did in his legendary 1950s recording of the sonata, one that, I daresay, made more listeners think of the dark, brooding quality of this sonata than any recording that preceded it.

Be that as it may, there are certainly many good things to say about this massive three-CD set, and even the Beethoven sonata is one of them. In the first movement, despite the quicker tempo, Dorfman does not ignore rubato or the slightly irregular rhythm that is an essential component of this music. The second movement is played less delicately than it usually is, and I for one appreciate that. Dorfman’s reading of the third movement does indeed, as stated in the liner notes, bring out the dissonant qualities of the left hand with much sharper relief than normal. I also note, in the recording of this movement, a couple of splices at odd moments.

I will compliment Dorfman, however, for including this familiar work in his album as a guidepost to what one could expect in other, less familiar pieces, such as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 1. The notes suggest that it was written under the influence of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, but that its feeling of structure and overall cohesion are entirely Rachmaninoff’s. Not being a fan of Bruckner or familiar with this sonata before hearing it, I cannot say one way or the other, but being familiar with Rachmaninoff’s own playing in his own concertos and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and also in the violin sonatas of Beethoven and Grieg that he recorded with Fritz Kreisler, as well as being familiar with his Second Sonata (in the original 1913 version) as played in concert by Van Cliburn, I’d say that the Russian had a more headlong rush to his playing than I hear in Dorfman’s performances here. In other words, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this sonata, too, has had its tempos adjusted downward slightly in order to bring out more structural details. Although this approach minimizes to some extent the headlong rush of Rachmaninoff’s music, it does indeed bring out structural coherence and moments of rhythmic and harmonic interest quite well.

Certainly, by applying this modus operandi to Schumann’s Humoresque, the results are not only fascinating but wholly appropriate. Here, Dorfman’s playing with tempo and phrasing brings out the inherently quirky character of Schumann’s music, in which themes are sometimes abruptly juxtaposed rather than developed, and in fact imparts an even greater excitement to the individual pieces than one usually hears—again, because of the great structural clarity of his approach. Also, I cannot say enough about the way Dorfman plays the Chopin Ballade No. 4, bringing out the melancholy qualities of the music without suffocating the listener in pathos and bathos. Only someone who has lived with this music for some time, and who has thought long and hard about its qualities, plays it thus—quiet but not dreamy in the soft passages, suddenly exploding abruptly in the more dramatic ones, all the while maintaining a long view of the piece. By contrast, his interpretation of the Polonaise-Fantasy is upbeat, in some ways sounding like a triumph over adversity. A polonaise for our times, perhaps? Whatever the case, it is an absolutely bracing performance.

The live recital, recorded almost 20 years before the studio recordings on CDs 1 and 2, has much greater continuity and flow. Here, although it is apparent that Dorfman has put a great deal of thought into these works, he lets himself go with a headlong rush that is occasionally missing from the later recordings. These performances bristle with the excitement of someone who has just discovered fire. Dorfman is completely wrapped up in the Schumann sonata, although, to be fair, he seems less adept here at projecting a tender mood in the Aria . His interpretation of this sonata reminds me of William Kapell’s incendiary version of the Chopin Polonaise-Fantasie. In the Liszt Fantasy and Fugue, however, the Adagio is played with very tender expression, so this side of his interpretive nature is not altogether missing in the live set. Still, one cannot help but wonder if the difference in style is due to a maturation process or whether he tends toward a less complex interpretive mode when performing live.
This is, most certainly, a fascinating recital. Except for my quibbles regarding the Beethoven sonata, which are simply my own personal feelings, I can recommend this set wholeheartedly. Lynn René Bayley

 

This review is from: Classical Editor newyorkcitysearch.com/September 1998
Fans of high-powered piano playing would do well to check out "Geoffrey Dorfman, pianist," a new recital disc in which the pianist plays one of the late, great Beethoven sonatas and show his chops with works by twentieth-century composers/virtuosos Sergei Rachmaninoff and Ferruccio Busoni. The program gets off to a good start with Busoni's rarely heard "Indian Diary" - four microscopic tone poems depicting life among Native Americans. From the hopping rhythms and cascading scales of the "Corn Blossom Song" to the tender longings of "the Bluebird Song", Dorfman shows technical expertise while bringing out the warmth and humanity in Busoni's complex music. Rachmaninoff was one of the last great pianist/composers. Here he is represented by a selection of preludes - most notably the sonorous no.10 in b minor and the delicate and refined no. 5 in G major. Although Dorfman seems less comfortable playing the Rachmaninoff - the music doesn't flow as naturally from his fingers as it does elsewhere on the set - these are noble performances. Finally, Dorfman tackles one of Beethoven's notoriously difficult late sonatas, his 109 in E Major. The two tight, densely constructed movements whiz by, with Dorfman doing his best to prove the relationship between this oddly shaped sonata and Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier." In the final movement, a long set of variations, Dorfman plays with lyricism, grace, and a sense of form. All in all, an impressive recording from a pianist worth investigating. Paul J. Pelkonen,

 

This review is from: Peter J. Rabinowitz, FANFARE Magazine November-December 1998
  Although Geoffrey Dorfman had taken piano lessons as a child, he had a substantial career as a painter before he returned, a decade ago at the age of 37, to a serious study of the instrument. But you'd never guess, from these performances that he was more or less a latecomer: this is authoritative playing, both technically assured (nothing on this challenging program seems to strain his fingers) and interpretively individual. What's most notable is his chiseled clarity. Although he's apt to employ the kind of generous rubato usually associated with a rich sound, he's sparing of the pedal and chary of legato, producing dry and sharply articulated readings that fasten on the music's rhythmic details and textural balances (try the play of voices in Rachmaninoff's op.23/6) rather than its timbres and harmonic colorations. Thus, for instance, in the snappy reading of the second movement of the Beethoven, his left hand provides clarity and definition rather than weight; and while he's surely sensitive to the impressionistic qualities in the last movement of Busoni's Indian Diary and to the sparkle of the second variation in the finale of the Beethoven, he sometimes contracts the music's dynamic range in pursuit of vertical clarity. This approach has the most striking consequences in the Bach-Busoni Chaconne: eschewing the full, organ-like sonority preferred by so many pianists, Dorfman chips away at the music, providing a spiky surface that lays bare the music's intricate contrapuntal workings. Except for some overload, the sound is good: and the pianist's sometimes bizarre liner notes are not a serious detriment. Well worth your attention.