what a trill, what a thrill

by pieces of moments


{Beethoven & Verdi…in case you’re wondering, the addition of floral adornment is called “having fun” at  From the Top}

First off, I’m wondering how many Trekkies got routed over here – be warned right now, this is not about a planet with “predominantly purple” oceans (yes, I just looked that up on Wikipedia), this is about Beethoven, among other things.


I’m hard at work in the middle of writing some program notes, and one of the pieces on the big line-up is the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4. As a pianist, I am very familiar with this piece, so I thought I would poke around on YouTube and listen to a bunch of interpretations (I know, it’s become an unofficial Theme Of The Week around here) to see what new things jump out at me. Gotta keep the music fresh, kiddos, even the preserved stuff.

So, I’m clicking here and clicking there and then I hit the jackpot: Krystian Zimerman and Lenny Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic. Now that’s my style of a UN General Assembly.

I have to listen to Krystian Zimerman recordings alone, or in a soundproof room, because his skillz literally make me add my own soundtrack of delighted squeals.  It’s ridiculous, people. But I can’t help it. Talk about interpretation. If I ever get to see him live, I’m going to have to hold my hand over my mouth the whole time just to keep from causing a disturbance (after the ushers successfully revive me from my fainting spell brought on by over-excitement, that is). Am I alone here? Other Zimerman fans?

Also, don’t you just love Lenny’s swashbuckling swagger up there on the podium? Genius stuff. I especially adore it in contrast to Zimerman’s regal ways. It’s like the Polish statesman meets the American cowboy or some such, right? Now that’s a great show.

Okay, that aside, let’s talk about trills – Beethoven’s trills specifically. Fast forward to 3:47 on part III down there. Okay, now let it play through to about 5:25.

Isn’t that insane?! Dear Beethoven, I love you because you are insane in yo membrane. I mean, who writes a mini cadenza that is primarily trills? That man was just crazy for his trills (kinda like how he was nuts about never-ending endings). I mean, just listen to the “Hammerklavier “ sonata when you have a chance some Saturday morning whilst you enjoy your pancakes (or, if you’re dying to right now, get an example from 3:00 to the end of this awesome Brendel recording…and note how he has always had the most awesome glasses in the music business…so glad I caught his farewell tour last year! And, what a dismount at the end there, eh? It’s akin to slaying a wild beast.)

What else is interesting to me is how nutty people are for trills in general, well, researchers, anyway. During my undergrad days I can remember drowning in the corner of the library, plodding through article after article in music journals about how to properly perform trills, or article after article arguing with other articles about how to properly perform trills (usually the Baroque enthusiasts, naturally, since trills were more free form and somewhat less regulated/codified in those days).  Curious? Get a load of this. That’s just scratching the surface, there. I mean, it’s interesting, and I’m glad someone is getting a kick out of exploring the options, but honestly, it doesn’t keep me up at night. I’m not as obsessed with the execution as I am wondering why it was put there in the first place. Big Picture, people, think Big Picture.

Okay, enough about trills. How about those thrills?

I would imagine that many musicians have a moment they can look upon, or a performance of a particular piece of music, that kind of signals the start of their life-long love affair with music. Mine was the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2. I don’t think any 12-year-old has sat more frozen in her seat than I when I first heard that piece live. I was convinced I had stumbled into some paradise that might evaporate if I dared disturb the air with any fidgeting. It changed my life. For Martha Argerich (another one of those pianists I need to listen to in isolation/sound proofing), it was actually the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto you (hopefully!) just listened to a little bit ago. She says in the documentary, Evening Talks:

It was probably the strongest musical impression in my life. I was six, I remember. It was Beethoven’s 4th Concerto…It was astounding. It was Arrau playing. My mother always took me to concerts. They started late in Argentina, when I was a child. I was sleepy. But, when I heard those trills in the second movement it gave me chills! That concerto really marked me. It was the first strong musical impression I ever had. I already played piano, but it hadn’t done anything to me. It hadn’t had that shock, that electric shock…I was dozing off and then suddenly that! It was extraordinary…an incredible feeling.

She continues:

But I don’t play that concerto. I’m afraid to. I don’t know what would happen. It’s so important to me.

I can understand that sentiment. I do own the score to the Brahms, but I have never learned it myself. I think there is often an “anxiety of influence” that plays a huge role for artists when another piece performed by someone else has meant so much, which, brings us back to our glorious Theme Of The Week: interpretation. My former professor, and Chair of the piano department, at NEC, Dr. Bruce Brubaker, noted his own experience in a recent article on his own blog, Pianomorphosis: “Several years ago, in my essay Exorcising Volodya, I described my efforts to remove, from my performances of Chopin’s Polonaise-fantaisie, details from Vladimir Horowitz’s 1966 recording — details I imitated even though I didn’t like them.”

There’s always that danger, isn’t there?

Okay, back to work. Oh, but you really should listen to the whole Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto. It’s pretty awesome. Here, I’ll even get you started. But, be warned: even the opening chord alone is squeal worthy. You might want to clear the room or at least put a handkerchief over your mouth to muffle (you can tell everyone it’s to avoid H1N1 if you’re embarrassed).

Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4