Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano.
Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.
Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.
The Brahms Scherzo Op. 4 opens with a delicate and playful theme, then carries us along on waves of emotion swinging from the filigree, to the lyrical, the thunderous, and back to the delicate. Fortunately the numerous recordings of this piece already out there did not discourage William Grant Naboré from making it the lead on his new CD “Johannes Brahms: The Go-Between” (Academy Classical Music 2017). He brings to it a fresh vitality and the rigorous articulation for which he is well known.
Naboré, director of the International Piano Academy, Lake Como, somehow found time to record the Scherzo, plus Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, and the six Piano Pieces (Klavierstucke) op. 118, dedicated to Clara Schumann. In addition to running the Academy, he shuttles back and forth to China, South Korea and Japan to direct master classes for piano-mad Asian students, and stops in Ohio to keep up with his Oberlin Conservatory partnership. Nobody knows how he does it.
His new Brahms is paired with equally fresh CD “ Mozart: Love and Losses” on which he plays one of his favorites, the Rondo in A minor (K.511) with a loving touch imbued with melancholy. It is followed by the F-major sonata (K.280), the C-minor Fantasy (k.475) and the C-minor sonata (K.457), a feast of Mozart’s familiar piece.
It was the Brahms that first attracted me because I was aware that Naboré can claim a direct line of study to Brahms himself. His teacher Renata Bogatti can trace her own training back to teachers who knew Brahms. This gives Naboré the kind of lineage that musicians value. Mlle. Bogatti “taught me how to paint landscapes of the heart and soul in playing Brahms with luminosity and darkness as well,” he recalled for me in an interview (see below).
He named this CD to take note of Brahms’ relationship with both Robert Schumann and his wife Clara. All six of the Klavierstuke op. 118 piece are dedicated to Clara. As Naboré writes in his liner notes, their love lasted their entire lifetime and has tantalized music-lovers ever since. The correspondence will never be complete, however. “He kept his letters, she burned hers.”
Brahms was a master of Lieder and brought the art of singing to his piano performance s well. As Naboré says in his interview, this is the secret of true Brahms playing. “The pianist who wants to play Brahms has to be a great ‘singer on the piano’” Naboré said, “if he wants to play Brahms his way.”
INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM NABORE
Question. You have said that as a young pianist you found the lovely G-minor Rhapsody turgid and opaque. Have you changed your mind ?
Answer. Well, every self-respecting young pianist tramples on this piece in his or her clumsy way. My teacher at the time assigned it to me and I dutifully left my own poor imprints, which were as bad as the others. However, my teacher insisted, and I ended up rather liking it after all. Today even though I still think it isn’t really vintage Brahms, it’s a good piece to start learning the Brahms idiom, so I feel my teacher was vindicated in giving me this piece. I only wish she had given the companion Rhapsody in B-minor, which is much more interesting and of course more difficult.
Q. Does this mean your appreciation of Brahms came slowly?
A. Yes, I was 16 when I had my first revelation of what Brahms could be. I heard the F-major cello and piano Sonata op. 99 at the Aspen Festival. It had a great effect on me. It was performed by that wonderful cellist Zara Nelsova and her partner Franz Rupp, who was also Marian Anderson’s faithful accompanist.
Q. So you were hooked?
A. Well no, not quite yet. At that same festival I heard the Klavierstucke op. 116 impressively played by Artur Schnabel assistant Leonard Shure, and the C-major Trio op. 87 by some students as well. For some reason, I was still not that bowled over. Maybe because I was only 16…
Q. Well, a breakthrough must have come soon after, no?
A. No, not soon enough! It did come, but two years later after my fantastic teacher in Rome, Renata Borgatti, gave me as a Christmas present — the score of Brahms’ Piano Quintet. Op. 34. After studying it in depth and playing it many times with friends, I was truly hooked. I was now 18 and thereafter studied everything of Brahms I put my hands and my heart on. It became my own “private Idaho”, as the saying goes.
Q. Was this the point at which you focused on Brahms’ chamber music?
A. Yes, from that point onward, his chamber music has interested me as much as the solo piano music.
Q. You play both solo and chamber Brahms today. Where is your emphasis?
A. I always felt –and still feel — that chamber music is Brahms’ greatest achievement as a genre. I studied and performed the entire repertoire of Brahms’ chamber with piano in many concerts until I was around 28 years old when I decided to perform the whole cycle at the Conservatory in Geneva. It was a huge success with both public and press.
Q. Did you continue with that cycle?
A. Yes, since then I have performed it many times in many cities in Europe. I learned so much from my various partners including Pierre Fournier, the cellist, the Amadeus Quartet, the Schildloff Quartet, the Munich String Trio, and with Alberto Lysy, Norbert Brainen and Ana Chumachenko, the violinists, among others.
Q. What was the role of Renata Borgatti in your mastery of Brahms?
A. Mlle. Borgatti gave me so many insights into performing Brahms — she had played with the Rose Quartet which Brahms himself had played with three generations earlier, and who had given the first performance of his late chamber music. This tradition of the performance of Brahms’ works that she passed on to me has been invaluable in my approach to Brahms.
Q. Was your study with Borgatti a decisive factor in your “love affair” with Brahms?
A. By all means! Her understanding of Brahms was anything but turgid and opaque. She taught me how to paint landscapes of the heart and soul in playing Brahms with luminosity and darkness as well. However the most important factor in my performance today of Brahms is that I have lived and performed this music for a lifetime and it has given up its secrets, sometimes slowly because of my loving and insistent care. Now its mine!
Q. Wasn’t Borgatti situated in a direct line of Brahms teachers and students?
A. Indeed, her own teacher, Ana Hirzel Langenhan, was an assistant of Teodor Leschetizky, and she played the solo works of Brahms for Brahms himself in Vienna and heard Brahms play several times in public. She told Borgatti, who had become her own assistant, that Brahms himself always played in a grand and noble way almost as he was improvising his own music but with a total absence of sentimentality. Despite his ringing tone as a player he also achieved a beautiful lightness of texture which he always tried to impart to his partners in chamber music. He maintained that French players performed his music best because the lightness of their execution.
Q. Was Brahms critical of those who played his music?
A. Yes, he was often despairing that many musicians played his music heavily awash in bathos, which he hated. Many times his tempos are faster than we hear today. But he was particularly upset with incorrect phrasing.
Q. What do we know about his piano technique?
Brahms wrote 51 exercises that are still an excellent way to learn his piano technique. They are not long — some are quite brief — and they get straight to the heart of the problem that each exercise seeks to solve. These are not only physical exercises but also exercises in mental control and they demand a high level of concentration. Many are devoted to polyrhythms, double notes and the strengthening of the outer fingers of the hand (3, 4, 5). Brahms also advised young pianists to play those old Liszt transcriptions of Italian composers (notably those of Bellini and Donizetti) as a good way to acquire a complete piano technique.
A sample of the Brahms exercises demonstrates their focus.