Recording is a problematic and dubious activity ? musical performance exists in the moment: there is a communication between player and listener that is immediate, spiritual, personal. By its very nature, little more than a trace of the original experience can be preserved, no matter how good the recording technology.
Yet we gravitate to recorded performances, we crave even a trace of that something real that happened at a particular moment in time, especially when the artist in the recording is no longer with us. Look at the immense popularity of YouTube, with its video treasures of great masters of the past from whom we continue to learn so much.
Attempting to capture that elusive, alive something in his studio recordings, Kemal Gekic has transformed the whole recording process. In his youth already a pianist of unparalleled brilliance, he avoided instant stardom because he had the courage (or hardheadedness!) to stand by his convictions, to give us performances that were individual, true to his creative nature, instead of going the easier route of trying to please the greatest number of critics. With a horror for the maudlin and the commonplace he would engage in risky and daring performances ? not to provoke but to fulfill his need to plumb the deeper levels of meaning in the music. The power of the intellect will enrich a performance only if it is given full enough rein to encompass not only the polyphonic, melodic, harmonic and structural aspects of a work but also the emotional tone these elements combine to convey.
Gekic’s artistic development is fuelled by his constant effort to transcend the limits of what is possible ? never to rest on his laurels but to see in each new achievement the seeds for yet another stage in his musical evolution. Gekic’s physical prowess at the keyboard is a wonderful gift, something that he could easily take for granted but never does. He is always developing his hands further, demanding of them new subtleties of organization and ability pushing the envelope of what’s possible for these very necessary tools to his creative spirit. And he demands even more of his intellect ? he brings an impressively wide-read mind to the musical task at hand. But it is the combination of these two primordial forces in Gekic ? physical transcendence and intellectual rigor - that produces a third: a philosophical and emotional experience of music that leaves the listener deeply moved, transported, even stunned.
The seed of another advancement
“In the opening measures of Chopin’s C major prelude, why should I play the tonic and dominant harmonies with the same pianistic colour? I don’t feel those two harmonies the same, so why should they sound the same?” Perhaps it’s an oversimplification to say that this modest idea alone led to the flowering of this version of the Chopin Etudes, but there’s a grain of truth in it. Following this simple line of thought created huge problems for Gekic, because once one takes it upon oneself to play with that degree of sensitivity, to open oneself to that level of nuance, every page of music holds literally thousands of inflective possibilities. One cannot possibly rehearse them all, so one tries out as many as one can in practice and then in performance lets inspiration guide the spontaneous unfolding of the composition in that particular moment on that particular day.
Gekic has succeeded in bringing this spontaneity into the studio by changing his whole approach to recording. Instead of being limited to a particular repertoire requested by the recording company, he simply has at his disposal a hall, a Steinway and a team of engineers ready to put on tape anything he might feel like playing. He intentionally goes into sessions ‘unpremeditated’ ? instead of killing his interpretations with over-rehearsal, he pays little attention to the proposed compositions immediately beforehand (the real preparation has been going on for years, decades) and lets appear whatever comes out on the day. The result: a flowering of inspiration, freedom, whimsy, beauty, subtlety, delicacy, power, willfulness and sheer genius that I have never before experienced.
For these etudes he often played more than ten takes, occasionally as few as five, sometimes as many as fifteen, not because he needed that many to create a clean version but to expand what’s possible in terms of interpretation. Gekic lets his subconscious run rampant in the recording sessions, and through a series of takes you can hear an organic interpretation actually taking shape on the spot as he tries out this or that harmonic colour, phrase inflection, rhythmic emphasis to see which one most touches the deeper dialectic ? the hidden genius of each unique work waiting to be unlocked. Our job in the editing room is not to clean up the takes - we have the happier and much more daunting task of gleaning the riches created thereby ? to choose which one of many interpretive possibilities deserves to be captured and set down, and through this process to create an interpretation that most reflects the dramatic, emotional philosophical-expressive content of the music. We function like a conductor in front of an orchestra, trying to sense where an interpretation wants to go rather than deciding how it ‘ought’ to go.
But why record these works yet again, when there exist already between 80 and 100 complete sets of the Chopin Etudes in the history of recorded performance? What could possibly justify yet another recording? Is there anything that has not been said yet?
Gekic writes, “To answer this question, we need to go back to the source ? the pieces themselves and their composer. An etude is a study ? but a study of what? A bit of common sense and a casual glance at the score already show that each of Chopin’s etudes is dedicated to a specific pianistic problem, the solution of which seems to be the object of the ‘study.’ For most, this answers the question - hence the titles (none of them original): ‘Octave,’ ‘Thirds,’ ‘Sixths,’ ‘Black Key,’ etc. Just to master the figurations for each etude is already an act of high proficiency at the keyboard.
‘But a closer look reveals that things are not quite so simple. Besides the ‘problem’ figuration, there is also a counter-theme, usually assigned to the hand not busy with the ‘problem.’ This counter-theme complements, opposes, comments, illuminates and gives life to the figuration. Often it is more complex and harder that the ‘problem’ itself. Finding the ideal balance between those two parts (figuration and counter-theme) is one of the most difficult things to accomplish. Just a little too much counter-theme and the etude becomes dark, heavy, pedestrian…. too much figuration and everything turns mechanical, shallow, superficial. Neither is there one global solution, no one ‘ideal’ balance that can be discovered and then kept throughout. At some points, the figuration must dominate, at others, the counter-theme must be more prominent.
‘Finally, there is a third level of difficulty, which pre-supposes mastery of the previous two. Assuming that the problem figuration is fully mastered, and the question of balance between it and its counterpart is solved, one is tempted to ask: ‘Why? What purpose does all this serve?’ The answer reveals the multi-levelled greatness of Chopin’s conception. Each etude is a distinct musical entity, a character, a personality. All the technical issues are subservient to the higher purpose of bringing out each etude’s inspiration, mood, and atmosphere, the unique characteristics of each such as rhythm, rubato, colour. Yes, they are studies in mechanics, in orchestration, but ultimately and most importantly, in Interpretation.
‘It is written that it was impossible to form a correct idea of Chopin’s music from the score; one had to hear him in person. His pupils maintained that his pieces don’t really sound the way they look on paper. The subtleties of Chopin’s own playing, his rhythm, his tonal perspective, his distinctive national flavour, his coloring, his breathing, could not be expressed through the relatively primitive and simplified notational means of five lines, seven notes, six dynamic markings etc. One has to go beyond the printed score to grasp and convey the true meaning and inspiration of these etudes.
‘This is the goal of this recording and the justification for its existence. Most of the above-mentioned 80-odd complete recordings sound more or less the way the pieces look on the paper, but this one does not. It does follow the score, sometimes even more faithfully than most of the standard performances (for example, note that the only two etudes marked Presto ? Op. 10 #4 and Op. 25 #2 ?maintain this tempo in relation to the other Allegro etudes, and the Etude Op. 10 #6 is taken at the proper speed indicated by the composer: a dotted quarter note at MM=69). But it also attempts one further crucial step, back to the source of the composer’s inspiration. As we discuss the etudes individually below, we try to mention something of what I felt to be each one’s underlying raison d’etre.”
12 Etudes, Opus 10
It still amazes one that Chopin began composing the Etudes Opus 10 when he was still a teenager. Such youthful exuberance, such mature genius! Gekic brings both these qualities to his interpretations, hitting the mark right off the bat with his monumental reading of the C major Etude Op. 10 #1 that sets the tone of things to come. I remember him years ago showing me the chorale melody hidden within Chopin’s sprays of arpeggiated 16th notes, and here that chorale sings in all its glory. In the session takes, you can hear him edging closer and closer to this alchemical fusion of three elements ? the brilliant 16ths that sound really well only when they are played at tempo, the inner chorale melody, and the bold bass foundation. This three-dimensional interpretation manifests the content of Chopin’s composition in a way that’s simply not possible in a more conventional reading.
The A minor Etude Op. 10 #2 that follows is fiendishly difficult: the right hand must twist this way and that as it navigates the chromatic upper running line while also dealing with the harmonic underpinning. This etude more than any other suggests that Chopin’s hand must really have been like a snake on the keyboard. A pianist who simply plays all the notes at speed is already highly accomplished; Gekic adds harmonic and phrase colour to give his reading real personality, in his words, to guide us through “this labyrinthine maze of Chopin’s chromatic harmonies and modulations.” It was difficult to choose between versions where all the 16th notes were not only audible but well-defined, even chiseled, and versions where Gekic’s touch on the 16ths was lighter, more fluid, more faithful to the piece’s evanescent character and less amenable to clear definition. It’s a fine line to tread! In the recapitulation, Gekic re-introduces Chopin’s early version where he notates the right hand chords legato, to beautiful and original effect ? once again shifting the balance in musical importance from the apparent technical difficulty to the underlying counter-idea.
Several of the Chopin etudes are slow and lyrical in character ? the E major Etude Op. 10 #3, is one of his most popular compositions, verging on banality for some listeners. But Gekic refreshes the work by bringing out its contrapuntal elements. Without reducing it to a Baroque-like austerity, he shows that there’s much more to this than a pretty melody. In his words, “Op. 10 #3 proves that with Chopin, although the melody reigns supreme, the texture can consist of several horizontal lines unfolding simultaneously to create an edifice of surpassing beauty.”
The C sharp minor Etude Op. 10 #4 that follows breaks the trance ? and how! Gekic romps at breakneck speed in a performance that that always threatens to disintegrate yet remains coherent. He writes, “In Op. 10 #4 we have a figuration that rushes furiously only to be stopped every 4 bars or less, modulating into various keys, not being allowed to develop the forward motion, until finally on the last page it releases all that accumulated energy in an explosive outburst of passion.” At the recapitulation, just when you thought it couldn’t get any wilder, Gekic pushes the throttle another notch forward, taking the opening theme even faster than first time around, accumulating even more pent-up energy for that final cathartic release in the coda. Perhaps this is the moment for me to swear on a stack of bibles that there is absolutely no time compression here or in any of the etudes on this record ? he really did play it that fast.
Gekic’s performance of the Black Key Etude Op. 10 #5 shows once again how much freshness lurks in even the oldest of warhorses. Here he combines incredible lightness of touch with a rhythmic plasticity that capitalizes on this work’s humorous possibilities. “In Op. 10 #5 we have one of the very few Chopin creations that is really witty, jovial, almost deliberately superficial in its fluttering through the happier, higher regions of human emotion as the right hand part flutters on the black keys only in the higher regions of the keyboard.”
After which the E flat minor Etude Op. 10 #6, the second of Chopin’s slow etudes appears ? this one stark and lonely, in complete contrast to the pastoral, familial E major. “Op. 10 #6 is unique in its mood of utter desolation and dejection. Wagner would have been proud to have used some of its chromatic modulations which were well ahead of their time. And the beautiful 4-part polyphonic texture shows Chopin’s veneration of another great master, Bach.” But Gekic doesn’t go the usual route tempo-wise ? he plays it at Chopin’s indicated speed (much faster than we’re used to) and still manages to impart to it a bleak sadness too painful to even bring tears…
In the C major Etude Op. 10 #7 Gekic focuses on the elegant, charming left hand figures ? the right hand with its difficult combination of chords and repeated notes trundles along, always present but slightly in the background. After all, the technical difficulty isn’t what the piece is about, is it?
Gekic-Chopin’s sense of witty, exuberant energy is felt nowhere more strongly than in the F major Etude Op. 10 #8. The two hands seem to be competing as to who can be the most amusing ? just when the left hand’s jovial dotted rhythm seems to have won you over, the right hand hares around the top of a run and back down again with so much verve and pixie-like humour that one just has to laugh. It’s a tour-de-force, but one never gets the impression that Gekic is showing off ? he is so clearly living the character of the music ? these always remain the Chopin, not the Gekic etudes.
“In the F minor Etude Op. 10 #9, I give the tenor melody that shadows the soprano a more prominent role, according to the composer’s wishes, who writes it over long bass pedal points for most of the time. These two characters surge upwards, fall down, go in a parallel or opposite motion, but sadly they never meet.” When we edited this etude the opening theme posed a problem ? there were several versions with a relatively normal voicing and just one where Gekic brought out the left hand thumb tenor melody while leaving the upper lead voice in the background. We finally chose the darker version because of the stronger contribution it made to the story ? this etude is painted in gloomy colours, perhaps even a sped-up version of Op. 10 #6, and Gekic’s veiled statement of the opening theme sets the stage for Chopin’s eventual dialectic of desperate, passionate outbreaks alternating with whispered utterings of desolate hopelessness.
When I first heard Gekic play A flat major Etude Op. 10 #10 in the late 80’s, he was the only pianist I knew who actually did all the articulations Chopin marked. For those articulations to be heard, they need to be overdone ? Kemal had the fingers to do this and also the intelligence to know it needed to be done ? the subtle, intricate play of polyrhythms and legato-staccato alternations is what makes the piece. Twenty years later, he’s taken the dialectic that much further ? the play of colours given to us by the articulations (child’s play for him) is now a play of lovely emotions as well. There is exuberance here but also tenderness, a joyous sweetness ? a miracle of pianism in the very best sense of the word and one of my favorites of the set.
Chopin waxes even sweeter in the ‘other’ Harp etude, E flat major Etude Op. 10 #11. It’s as if he wants to bathe us as richly as possible in all life’s tenderness and intimacy before he sweeps it all away in the Revolutionary Etude Op. 10 #12. Here Gekic waxes both heroic and tragic, never letting the tension drop between the furious, forward-surging left hand and the singing, ever-broadening right. He will tell you that an interpretation like this evolves naturally if you simply allow yourself to feel what’s possible in this music and then have the courage to really orchestrate, to really let phrases breathe and shape themselves… “Op. 10 #12 alone would suffice to immortalize the composer’s name. Over a desperate, storming, surging left hand figuration, the right hand octaves and chords scream and weep. This is a study in musical declamation at its best… Interestingly, Chopin even at his most dramatic and inspired is the master of his thought and his craft ? the top 3 notes of the LH figuration are reflection in diminution of the right hand theme.”
Trois Nouvelles Etudes
The three new etudes are not virtuosic in the brilliant sense of the word but pose real problems to any serious pianist. To play two notes against three or three against four is not difficult but to create phrases that aren’t handcuffed by this musical constraint is another matter! And each of these has a personality, a strong emotional tone that demands expression. There are musical problems aplenty to be worked out, and Gekic’s performances reflect this. The basic problems of sonority and control of musical elements are always present, and these performances show that when they are fully addressed, even ‘simple’ pieces can be played masterfully.
“The first in F minor explores the idea of an endlessly spun out melody long before Wagner expanded on it. In the second in A-flat major, it is hard to say where harmony stops and melody begins. In a mood of Arcadian bliss, Chopin succeeds in realizing more than one Baroque ideal ? not only a melody which is both generated from the harmonic movement and encased within it, but also harmonies which themselves result from melodic movement. The third in D-flat major is a diatonic re-make of Op. 10 #2, with its chordal accompaniment, detached middle part and legato upper line. Though far in mood from a bravura etude, it is nevertheless technically tricky, especially when you take all the detache middle notes with your thumb as I do. This makes it more difficult but also has an interesting effect on the sound, allowing the good-humoured delightfully capricious character of this work to emerge more completely.”
12 Etudes, Opus 25
As we edited these works, Kemal repeatedly expressed his awe as to Chopin’s genius as a composer. “Just one of these alone would set him head and shoulders above the others”, he would exude… The set of Opus 25 is more varied, far-reaching and even more experimental than Opus 10. Chopin sets himself stricter and sometimes more complex compositional tasks, still limiting himself to one figurative formula throughout an etude, but coming up with inventive, unusual and even quirky repetitive patterns replete with inner voicings (#3), or hidden appoggiaturas and articulative variations (#5) that can change the sound and meaning of a passage without ever changing the notes. There is an even greater diversity as well, if it can be believed: three etudes use variation technique (nos. 3, 4 and 5) and two have extensive Trios made of new thematic material (nos. 5 and 11). In Chopin’s compositional process here he seems to set himself a strict constraint and then use that limitation to stimulate his creativity to ever more inventiveness, and so rising above the constraint to create another masterwork.
Gekic’s interpretations bring out the ingenious and unusual aspects of the set. He writes, “The Aeolian Harp Etude, Op. 25 #1 shows how in a simple structure, every layer of the functional harmony has the potential for an independent, expressive melodic line. The apparent simplicity of a broken-chord figuration conceals no fewer than 7 or 8 horizontal lines developing simultaneously at any given time. The expressive, shading possibilities of this material seem to be endless.”
As always, a masterwork is suffused with the emotion that fuelled its creation, and Gekic takes Op. 25 #1 at an exceptionally slow tempo to unlock the work’s potential for poetical, heartfelt, intimacy of expression. The peculiarly poignant, searching character of the F minor Etude, Op. 25 #2 isexpressed in its insistently repetitive hurrying chromatic turning figure that subsides only in the eerie, half-modal final cadence. Gekic’s touch is so gossamer light that we don’t notice the technical difficulty at all but instead are submerged in the strange, almost indefinable mood of this polyrhythmic mini-masterpiece.
“The task in the F major Etude Op.25 #3 is not to mix up the various lines of the four-part writing while effortlessly gliding through modulations to its polar key, B-major and back. In the recapitulation, the figuration reveals itself in its simplicity, only to flutter away at the end of this little mirage.”
The little A minor Etude, Op. 25 #4 sounds deceptively easy. Gekic not only masters the incessant leaping of the left hand with seeming effortlessness but also manages to bring out many of inner voices that lend their commentary to the beautifully shaped upper line.
“In the E minor Etude Op.25 #5, Chopin dresses a simple idea in several different guises. At the beginning, the theme plays hide-and seek, being written out in the shortest note values concealed within a figuration we can never quite decide is harmony or grace notes. Later the theme becomes more and more prominent and increasingly independent from its grace note counterpart. With its mazurka-like rhythm the piece has a distinctive Slavic charm, the Slavs being people who rejoice in a minor mode and grieve in a major mode.”
The Double Thirds Etude, Op. 25 #6 might more aptly have been dubbed the “Winter Wind” than the A minor #11 ? its ghostly harmonies and hauntingly expressive countermelody suggest a nightly sleigh ride through windswept snowdrifts. Again Gekic’s reading diverts our attention away from the perceived difficulties of the right hand, instead captivating our fantasy with the suggestively desolate moaning of the underlying theme.
The C sharp minor Etude, Op. 25 #7 is slow and elegiac, one of Chopin’s most poetic utterances. The technical difficulty presented is not so much the running decorative passages of the middle declamatory section, but keeping the singing, expressive melodic line sinuous and rhetorical instead of pedantic, and avoiding the nagging tendency of the repeated chords to sound repeated instead of flowing, melting imperceptibly into one another.
Two relatively light and blithe etudes follow: first the Double Sixths Etude Op. 25 #8 thatreflects a happy and carefree gentle emotion. Although this etude is technically difficult, compositionally it is one of the most straightforward; one of the few in which the other hand remains basically an accompaniment instead of offering a real counterfoil to the tricky legato double sixths figuration. The well-known Butterfly Etude Op. 25 #9 is another ‘simple’ etude with a straightforward left hand accompaniment, and cheerful lightness of articulated play in the right. But these two are but a breather, a brief respite before the monumental final three of Op. 25. The Chopin etudes offer us a kaleidoscope of expressive worlds, everything from charming miniatures to expressions of poetic depth and intimacy to hell-bent-for-leather explosions of passion and manic intensity, but Chopin saves the best for last, at least in terms of epic grandeur. Each of the last three etudes of Op. 25 is huge, an entity unto itself, and Gekic’s performances seem to reach the higher goal of expressing something far more fundamental even than Chopin’s own soul ? the mysterious animating, creative force that first moved Chopin to such acts of genius so many years ago.
“The Octave Etude Op.25 #10 is a force of nature, a hurricane expressed in typically Chopinesque legato octaves. To make sure the octaves are played with finger-technique and predominantly from the wrist, he invested the texture with additional trumpet and trombone motives amidst the octave storm. There is a small but significant difference in color between octaves played thus and typical staccato octaves from the elbow. The enharmonic wildness of this etude seems to come straight from Hell whose gaping jaw-like gates close at the end with three resolute chords.
‘The Winter Wind Etude Op.25 #11 vies with its two neighbours for the title of the Grandest Chopin Etude. Following the mysterious introduction (an afterthought by Chopin, whose first version starts directly with the wild passagework), the long and adventurous journey begins. This study is very dramatic, grand in its design, and harmonically rich, especially in the development section. The right hand cascades in a zigzag pattern, falling from the treble to the bass register and then ascending again to the treble in a sinuous line, while the introduction’s fateful theme now clamours in the left hand, a tragic, war-like trumpet call. At the key structural points the relationship of the hands changes: at the beginning of the development part the trumpet call moves to the treble, and before the recapitulation the two zigzag passages oppose each other in a contrary motion. The grandiose coda releases its accumulated energy in the principal theme written out in fortissimo chords followed by a scale traversing the whole keyboard, as if the composer wished to annihilate the tragic landscape of this tone-poem.
The C minor Etude Op.25 #12 is often called the Ocean Etude (its composer was blissfully unaware of this characterization) on the account of the superficial similarity of its ascending and descending passages with huge ocean waves. To accept this reading would be to underestimate the many finer characteristics of this unique piece. Written in the ‘tragic’ key of C minor, it has a far deeper import?that of human tragedy, heroism and posthumous glory. Its Paganini-like batteries of sixteenth notes contains so much more ? a poignant, very human chorale, the bell-like answer in the treble and the roaring bass line.
The passagework has multiple functions: of ‘resounding’ or echoing the melody notes through the registers of the piano, of invoking a spatial illusion, of energizing the texture. It is not, as one often hears, just a crescendo and decrescendo line in every bar (which Chopin never marked in this score), but a whole complex of dynamic possibilities, which stem from the harmonic-melodic and emotional context of the piece. It is a story of the evolution of tragic feeling, ever increasing, until it reaches its final apotheosis.”
Years ago Kemal Gekic set himself the goal of playing the piano better than it has ever been played before. An audacious challenge indeed, but not an arrogant one: done not in the spirit of competitiveness but of simply discovering what’s possible, it becomes the ultimate form of service. I have seen him exultant in the moment of triumph, when we finished an edit that sounds better than our wildest dreams. I have seen him abject in moments when the goal seemed unreachable. These performances reflect the humility and the devotion of one man to his art ? they inspire because they are the result of all one’s artistic capacities being fused in a catalytic converter of creative intensity. These etudes were recorded in only two days in which he played over 250 takes. It doesn’t seem humanly possible, and yet it is this willingness to meet the challenge, to demand far more of oneself than it is fair to demand, that led to this fusion of technique, intellect and emotion in performances that often seem to transcend the boundaries of our known pianistic universe.
Alan Fraser, November 2009