Interview with Alexandra Sostmann
"Bach, Byrd, Gibbons & Contemporary Music" is the title that the pianist Alexandra Sostmann has given her new album in which she set out on a fascinating musical journey that took her as far as Cambridge in the Renaissance era.
- How did you come to choose these particular compositions? I'm interested in the connections between different epochs and their polyphonic structures. So obviously there was no way that I could ignore Johann Sebastian Bach. However, I considered what to combine with his Ricercares a 3 and a 6 from The Musical Offering. First I thought of William Byrd, as I knew that polyphony and contrapuntal style were important to him, despite the fact that he was almost 150 years older than Bach. I began with vocal polyphony and arrived at Orlando Gibbons and virginal music, which I wanted to combine with contemporary music. And then the search began... - … the ricercar, as 'search' means in Italian... The term "ricercar" comes from that word: it is an early form of fugue. And from its letters Bach made a play on words: Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta ... - … in English that means "the theme given by the king, with additions, resolved in the canonic style"... … exactly. Bach travelled to Potsdam in May 1747, three years before his death, where his son Carl Philipp Emanuel was a musician at the court of King Frederick the Great of Prussia. However, the King was apparently not very impressed by the elder Bach and wanted to test him. And so he played him a complicated "Royal Theme" from which Bach should play a fugue ad hoc . Arnold Schoenberg, by the way, didn't believe that the King himself was skilled enough in counterpoint to have invented such a complicated musical figuration – the descending seconds, for example, this chromaticism that makes counterpoint application so difficult! Schoenberg suspected that Bach's son composed the theme. - Whoever invented it, Johann Sebastian Bach improvised a three voice fugue or ricecare from the theme ... … and everyone was delighted… - … "not only His Majesty was pleased to express his appreciation but all those present were amazed", as the Berlinische Nachrichten reported on May 11th 1747. Yes. As a result, the King asked Bach to play a version with six voices. Perhaps he wanted to provoke him. Bach was at a loss to fulfil this wish spontaneously but promised to deliver the commission later and to use the theme "to write down a proper fugue on paper and then have a copperplate print made". – What a difficult task that must have been, to have cost the greatest composer ever so much time. I feel that it was impossible for anything to follow this six voice Ricercare. The work stands at the end of Bach's life, giving a glimpse into paradise. A miracle! It is extremely complex, entwined with phenomenal counterpoint. But despite this, the music emanates unbelievable serenity, calmness and beauty. And it is profoundly emotional, though not in a "romantic" sense. - I wonder if Johann Sebastian Bach knew the works of William Byrd (1543-1623). No-one knows. But Bach had an unbelievable hunger for music. As a teenager, he spent his nights copying all the scores he could find in his brother's cupboard. - It was because of Byrd that you travelled to the world of the English Renaissance and to Cambridge... ... The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It is the most comprehensive historical collection of English cembalo music in the 16th and early 17th centuries in England. - How long did it take you to discover the piece with 'catalogue number MB52' among the collection of 297 pieces; the airs, variations, fantasies, toccatas, pavans, galliards, allemandes und courantes? You mean, of course, the Pavan & Galliard by William Byrd dated 1590. The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is kept in the reference library. It is an impressive, large book, bound in leather. After some discussion, I was allowed to study it. That was very thrilling. I was given a special parchment, in order to browse through the pages. Before I began, I had to wash my hands, of course, so that no bacteria would be transferred and destroy the valuable parchment. At first I couldn't find Byrd's Pavan, not only because he spelled his name in different ways, sometimes with an i, sometimes with a y. - And the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book has not less than 220 folio pages... That might not sound like a lot at first but they are all filled with tiny notation. Sometimes there is just a double bar and a new work begins right away. Byrd was named the 'Father of Music' and was sponsored by the Queen as 'Gentleman of Her Maiesties Chappell'. He was even allowed to use paper that was very valuable in those days. But his works were not given any more space than the others. They are almost illegible. At the same time, the cramped notation shows the polyphonic structure immediately, which greatly impressed me. A very special picture is created. - About the notation ... ... I spent a lot of time studying it – especially the complex English art of ornamentation in the 16th century. One could spend a lifetime studying all the "single- and double-stroke ornaments" as they were called in England at that time. Through Bärenreiter Verlag and the Musikhochschule in Essen, I came across Desmond Hunter, organist and Renaissance specialist. He is over eighty years old and lives in Northern Ireland. He was a great help to me and repeatedly told me how I should play the music. Without him, it would have been much more difficult for me to understand its structure that sounds different from bar to bar. I often wanted do forgo one or two ornaments but Desmond admonished me politely – "It‘s just a suggestion" (laughs). In the end, it's precisely these ornaments that give the music its rich, colourful character. - What about 'The Lord Salisbury his Pavin' by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), the man who was described by contemporaries as "the best finger of that age"? Some of Gibbons' works are found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book but this work, consisting of pavans and galliards and composed as funeral music for Lord Salisbury, is printed in the Parthenia (1613), another very important collection of virginal music that is preserved in London. In Cambridge, I stood within the ancient walls of the college where Gibbons became Bachelor of Music in 1606. He entered the King's College when he was 13 years old. To stand on that spot was a very moving experience for me. It is a unique world, very British. - What does Parthenia mean? The word is derived from the Greek word parthenos that means maiden or virgin. In the museum, by the way, there was also a beautifully painted sewing box. It is said that the instrument was so-named because "it sings like a virgin with a soft, sweet voice". Other scientists claim that the name is derived from 'virga', which means 'thorn' or 'rod' and refers to the 'quills' of the instrument. - With 'Prayer bell sketch' by Oliver Knussen (1952-2018) you take a huge leap in time... ...but stay in the Empire because he comes from Scotland. I found his music interesting, a mixture between Messiaen and Debussy, but then again, not in the least. This is also funeral music for a friend, the composer Toru Takemitsu, who died in 1996. Many years earlier, during a rehearsal in London with the pianist Peter Serkin, Takemitsu told Knussen that he was planning a new composition for Serkin called 'Prayer Bell'. When Knussen asked him, some years later, what had become of the work, Takemitsu admitted that it had been too difficult to translate the sounds of bells onto the piano. After his death, Takemitsu's relatives commissioned Knussen with a musical obituary... - ... Which explains why it is called Prayer Bell Sketch... ... Knussen thought of the work as an 'attempt'. But it's a fantastic work with very interesting notation regarding the optics, but highly complicated rhythmically. At the beginning, both hands act like a pendulum, like the ringing of a large bell and its resonance. It's a great challenge to produce this sound. One has to do a lot of things simultaneously, when, for example, the middle voice has to be louder than the outer voices or the fourth finger plays mezzo-forte and the fifth pianissimo. The ringing of bells is sometimes almost inaudible but one can sense it buried inside and in the rhythm. One has to internalise and understand this musical shading. My recording engineer, Bernhard Hanke, said that in some passages I was the only person who could know how the work would continue. – Which church bells inspired Knussen. Our European bells or the Anglo Saxon change ringing, where sixteen bells are rung? Probably the latter, but sometimes Knussen's music sounds Buddhistic to me. Hardly surprising as Takemitsu was a Japanese composer. - Sir John Tavener (1944 - 2013) was a very spiritual person. With his long hair, he looked like a messiah ... ... although some say maliciously that he only composed kitsch. I don't agree at all. - When asked why he composed, he answered: "I hope that my music resembles sound icons, in which I use tones instead of colours. For me, music is a sound window to the divine world." Yes, that's right. During a creative crisis, he encountered the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in England, who became his mentor. In 1977, he converted to this church, which he felt was more encompassing, cosmic and profound than other Christian denominations. Later he was drawn to Buddhism and Islam. His music became more severe, pared down, so to say, reduced to the essential. - Tavener became internationally famous with his 'Song for Athene' that was played at 'Lady Di's' funeral in 1997. However, you have chosen miniatures that last for two to three minutes... ...Yes. I was attracted by their polyphonic structures. The Lord’s prayer was originally written for choir; a commission for the Tallis Scholars in 1999. - You have also included Tavener's funeral music, this time for animals. In 'memory of my two cats' (1990) ... ... Nimrod and Daisy, as he wrote in the score. A bit weird and very English. - For Tavener, cats have a mysterious aura. He believed that they possess a wisdom to which we have no access ... ... maybe. This music sounds a bit like Arvo Pärt. It is very reduced, very simple but very effective. - John Tavener's penchant to mysticism may explain why he was interested in the horoscope. For the birth of his second daughter in 1997, he wrote 'Zodiac' ... ... another short, simple piece but at the same time very complex and notated on just a single page. For Tavener, the combination of notes symbolizes the tree of life, sun and moon, heaven and earth. - From Tavener's mysticism to John Adams' minimalism. China Gates is a short piece for piano that he wrote in 1977 for the seventeen-year-old pianist Sarah Cahill. Because he composed this work in connection with Phrygian Gates, which is named after the Phrygian Mode from the ecclesiastical mode, I searched for a direct reference in China Gates. But I couldn't find one, neither to Chinese music nor to a specific ecclesiastical mode; he plays here with different modes such as the Mixolydian, Aeolian, und Locrian. Adams said that he had composed the work during the rainy season in North California: eight descending notes symbolize the rainfall. Maybe a quote from Adams himself can explain things best: "The formal idea of my music is: something appears on the horizon of events, becomes more important, starts to dominate the scene and then disappears again". And he called China Gates a "perfect palindrome". - So if one played the piece forwards and backwards, it would always make the same sense. Have you tried it? I haven't tried it yet. Adams seems to have constructed it symmetrically from the centre, it mirrors itself. - Last but not least: two pieces that were written for you. I'm a great jazz enthusiast and wanted to include an additional style. I asked Markus Horn to improvise on Byrd's Pavans. We have known one another for a long time, he has written several pieces for me. And then Piece after Byrd was born. - Did he write it to suit your fingers? Quite the opposite! I found it rather difficult. It is the piece that took up the most recording time: completely different aesthetics, and the touch has to be somewhat harder than in classical music. The constant rhythm demands drive. The hands have to master very complicated rhythms and act independently. - Xiaoyong Chen's Diary VI is just as complicated. We too have known one another for a long time, he commutes between Shanghai and Hamburg. He calls all his piano works Diary. Diary VI is made up of four parts: Prism, Swishing, Reflection and Echo. Everything proceeds quietly, one has to sound a gong with the pedal and listen to the reverberation. Then another tone is usually added, the music is like a sculpture in space. It only changes if one moves around it and looks at it from a different perspective. The use of the pedal in the work is notated literally in centimetres. - How is that intended? There are so-called instructions for the feet, for the exact use of the pedal: such as one and a half centimetres down for forte, three centimetres for mezzo-forte and so on. A most interesting effect that demands a lot of discipline. Here I profited greatly from Steinway's new muting system. - Your third solo album was once again sponsored by Startnext, the largest crowdfunding platform in German-speaking countries, on which more and more artists promote their projects. I'm very grateful for this support with which I could cover most of the costs for the recording, such as rent for the hall and grand piano, piano technician, recording engineer and editing. I paid the rest myself. - Going back to Bach the elder: he distributed most of the 200 copies of the 'Musical Offering' "gratis to good friends". The rest were sold for 1 thaler each. (Laughs) I wonder how much a thaler is worth today. © 2019 Teresa Pieschacón Raphael