Seven Liebestod questions for Christopher Mokrzewski

On Saturday February 2nd as part of the Opera Exchange colloquium on Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, with a nod to the composer’s bicentennial, pianist Christopher Mokrzewski will be playing Franz Liszt’s transcription of the liebestod for piano solo.

Christopher Mokrzewski

Pianist Christopher Mokrzewski

Mokrzewski has had a huge role to play in the preparation of the COC production, acting as repetiteur for this, an opera he loves very much.  Later this winter, Mokrzewski will be back with Against the Grain Opera.  But in anticipation of his performance Saturday, I asked a series of questions about the pianist and the transcription.

1) what do you like to play on the piano; what do you like to listen to?

Such a tough question, right at the outset! The fact of the matter is that my interests, passions and tastes are ever-changing. I can state this outrightly: I’m not particularly interested in playing standard piano rep — except when I am!

Fundamentally, I spend most of my time and energy upon operatic and art song literature. I do, however, frequently occupy myself with other pastimes. These days, I’ve been practicing a lot of Schubert (a recent obsession… I’ll be performing one of the sonatas in April) and learning a good deal of chamber music. It is both a blessing and a curse that my work/performance schedule has become quite a serious beast to contend with and it is increasingly difficult to spend time on repertoire that is “non essential” at any given moment.

For brevity’s sake, here’s what I’ve been listening to: a ton of chamber music (with and without piano) by Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Schubert and Beethoven; some Schubert and Schubert, Schubert and some more Schubert; a bit of Mozart (everyday), a fair amount of 20th-century French piano music as well as lots of Bill Evans (to prepare for an upcoming recital); and an insane amount of contemporary music, with a particular emphasis on Morton Feldman (a Peter Sellars recommendation). But yesterday, I fancied listening to a bit of Schicchi, so I’m really all over the map every day!

2) can you comment on how difficult this is…? IS it something you struggled to learn? are the technical challenges of this composition comparable to anything else you’d mention?

There’s so, so much to say about the Liebestod transcription and about Tristan in general. I learned Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod nearly a decade ago, when I was 18. I was preparing my graduation recital at Eastman, the main event of which was the Liszt B minor sonata. At that point I was seriously challenging the assumption that had ruled my entire musical existence up to that point — that I was meant to be a solo pianist. Through Tristan, a piece I had fallen in love with as a youngster, I had gradually become a proper opera fanatic and, by the time of this recital, was considering making a fairly dramatic move to the much greener pastures of the collaborative field and into conducting. I reckoned that the Liebestod would serve as a lovely companion piece to the Liszt sonata and considered it a symbolic segue into my musical future.

That was all well and good in intent, but the learning of the thing was another matter entirely. I don’t remember exactly how this came to pass (chalk it up to being an irresponsible and cocky teenager) but at one week away from the recital I had not even cracked open the score. I don’t know how I learned it and I choose not to remember the number of hours I spent in a basement practice room in those last few days, but I can happily report that it went over quite well at the recital and it has been a personal favourite ever since.

3)What’s especially difficult about playing this piece? Playing a transcription are you simply playing the piece or are you aware of the orchestral original, and the resemblances: do you care how it sounds vis a vis the original?

First a story! When I was working at Calgary Opera earlier this season, I attended various rounds of the Honens piano competition. One evening there was a fellow who came out and played Stravinsky’s Trois mouvements de Petrouchka — an incredible virtuoso showpiece. I confess: yes, it was repurposed and re-crafted as a solo piece for Rubinstein by Stravinsky himself; yes, it is a transcription of sorts, but one designed with virtuosic effects for concert hall performance. It’s a piano piece in this form, but more importantly, it is a piano piece that is derived from a great orchestral masterwork! The fellow made it sound as though it was some newly unearthed version of Islamey, not by Balakirev, but Debussy. It wasn’t badly played by any means, but it was clear that he had never taken the time to listen to the actual piece. How could you not want to recreate the orchestral magic of that piece on a piano? What’s so great about the sound of a little solo piano in comparison to the woodwind section, a battery of percussion or a blasting and bopping trumpet??

All pianists love the piano — we spend too much time with it to feel otherwise — but our situation with the instrument is much akin to the second year of many romantic relationships: we’re always trying to change its fundamental character into something it is not, which we think might be better for the relationship.

Horowitz (his often brutal sound notwithstanding) always spoke of his aim to emulate the human voice when he played. Ditto Rubinstein. Numerous famous pianists have spoken this way, or have spoken of emulating the orchestra (Liszt was always going on about that!). The business of piano playing is smoke and mirrors: make a mechanized action — hammer-hits-string-sound-dissipates-immediately — sound natural, human, bowed. It’s not easy!

All this is to say, in the instance of playing transcriptions or reductions, we ought really to start with the orchestra. When I play the Liebestod transcription, or any of Tristan for that matter, I HEAR the orchestra in my mind and ears and then replicate that sound on the piano as best I can. In a way, it’s not piano playing at all!

4) do we miss the singing voice from the equation?  should we hear it in our heads as we hear you playing Liszt?
5) how would you compare playing this now… When wagner is famous
vs when wagner was unknown and liszt”s versions were like youtube, helping to popularize this unknown composer. Which would you prefer?

  • Then(when your pianism is like an evangelist spreading the message of unknown music)
    or
  • Now (when you are playing a version of a well-known piece)?

 (I’ve provided one long answer for two questions at once!)

Piano transcriptions, as you mention, no longer serve the purpose that they once did. We can hear performances of Tristan on record, on film, on the internet on demand. The evangelical thrust of a transcription is gone. On the surface, playing the lesser incarnation of a musical entity is pretty pointless nowadays. But I think there’s more to be discussed on the matter of transcriptions, especially concerning Liszt.

The fellow transcribed everything for piano: Schubert songs, all the Beethoven symphonies, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and, of course, all kinds of Wagner (we’ll not speak of the music atrocities known as the paraphrases!). Yes, Liszt sought to popularize these works in an era when there were few others ways to do so. But he was also known as an egregious egotist and it seems he sought to conquer these pieces in the arena where he was the undisputed champion gladiator: at the piano. That’s all a bit of fun speculation. But we pianists (some other instrumentalists too) spend too much of our early years in solitary confinement learning our craft and cannot be blamed for our psychological quirks!

I do think, in all seriousness, that playing transcriptions these days is much more of a personal act. It’s no longer a meaningful convention, and it likely serves no higher purpose. It’s simply an act of wish fulfillment. I learned the Liebestod transcription (and others) all those years ago because I desperately loved that music and, as I cannot play any role in a performance of the piece as an orchestral instrumentalist, as I cannot ever get up on stage and sing one of the roles (what a nightmare that would be for everyone!), I must satisfy my urge to act as a vibrant participant in this astounding music in a smaller way, at the keyboard.

When you hear this transcription, any transcription (or if you happen to be sitting in a piano rehearsal of this opera), of course you miss the orchestra. Tristan cannot be the all encompassing, life altering experience that it was intended to be without all of the elements working together to form the crushing totality.

Listening to this transcription, in comparison, is a more intimate affair. It’s an unrequited love affair, it’s love letters sent from great distances, but it isn’t The Real Thing. Perhaps there’s something beautiful about that.

6) do you practice?

As a youngster soloist, I practiced all the time. Ten hours? No problem! These days I probably spend as many hours (or more) at the piano each day, but the projects I devote my time to are many and diverse in nature. I do not think I’ll ever have time again to practice in the concentrated, monastic manner I once did. Now I always feel pressed for time, oppressed by time even, and I want to learn every little bit of music that I love so much. It’s a ridiculous and privileged complaint, to be sure. I am very lucky to be able to spend every single day devoted to the works I am most passionate about (what an indescribable joy and privilege it has been to be a part of the preparation of the Canadian Opera Company’s upcoming production of Tristan!!!). For the entire month of December I happily rose before dawn to tackle the score. I live in a very open-concept loft, so it was a relief that my fiancée also loves Wagner and didn’t mind waking up to it every day!

7) Who sings your favourite Liebestod (soprano) performance?

You never forget your first love! I’ve already mentioned how important Tristan was in my musical development. The first time I experienced this opera, and the Liebestod in particular, was through the live from Bayreuth (1966) recording conducted by Böhm and sung by Birgit Nilsson. I’ve heard many a lovely recording since then, but this one will always be my favourite.

I’d like to add, however, that Tristan is a piece that is meant to be lived, and no musical experience I’ve had in my life as yet has compared in impact to the performance (and it was only the dress rehearsal!) at the COC the other night. The cast is outstanding, Johannes and the orchestra are superb and Peter Sellars and Bill Viola’s production is a marvel. To anyone who hasn’t already gotten a hold of tickets, you would not be wrong to resort to any means necessary to acquire them.

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4 Responses to Seven Liebestod questions for Christopher Mokrzewski

  1. Can’t wait to hear Topher play this on Saturday morning – when I heard him perform it at the RBA last year, it was a pretty transcendental experience.

  2. barczablog says:

    I missed the first one, glad to have a second chance…!

  3. Pingback: Appropriate (the verb) | barczablog

  4. Pingback: (Q + A) x 300: questions and conversations | barczablog

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