Michael Davidson’s The Classical Piano Sonata from Haydn to Prokofiev; Vlado Perlemuter and Hèléne Jourdan-Morhange’s Ravel According to Ravel

Music, among the forms of art, is a rather strange beast. It is ephemeral, subjective, almost completely dependent on interpretation, and, looked at logically, has no intrinsic meaning unless paired with a text (which does not keep us from responding as though it does). It relies heavily on tradition, which can be amplified, explained, and sometimes even changed by scholarship. Two books exemplifying both the value of that scholarship and the value of tradition crossed my desk recently, and each, in its own way, is illuminating.

davidson-sonataMichael Davidson is a pianist and teacher with a long history of study and performance of works in the sonata form, which for the past two centuries and more has been the backbone of the orchestral repertoire. The Classical Piano Sonata, however, is not for those seeking to learn about the form itself. It is a set of detailed studies of individual piano sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Brahms, and Prokofiev. Davidson says quite plainly that the selection of works included in this book is personal and makes little reference to their generally accepted stature in the literature. There are composers and individual works that perhaps should have been included, but for reasons of space and Davidson’s personal preferences were not.

The discussions, as might be expected, center on interpretation and its problems. As I have noted in other places, the earlier the text, the fewer cues for the contemporary performer, but, as is evident from Davidson’s book, even with plenty of evidence, the cues aren’t always forthright. The first chapter gives a summary of some of the problem areas in interpreting the works of the First Viennese School (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert) and their successors. The main areas he examines are differences in the meaning of notations over time — Mozart’s slurs mean something very different than Haydn’s, as a rule, and Beethoven, as usual, had his own idiosyncracies. Tempo is another area that is open to a wide latitude of interpretation — and dispute. Vivace, for example, is more likely a description of mood than speed, and Beethoven’s allegro assai is going to be somewhat more sedate than Mozart’s.

I found Davidson’s comments about choice of instrument to be interesting, as much for the introduction of the idea of the range of keyboard instruments available to these composers as for any other reason. What? you may think, this is all about piano sonatas. Keep in mind that for Haydn and Mozart especially, the instrument of choice for performances was the harpsichord, at least early on. The clavichord was the eighteenth-century equivalent of today’s upright in the parlor, and the fortepiano became popular in the later eighteenth century, eventually becoming the pianoforte of the nineteenth-century concert hall. The key thing here, of course, is that most of these works were written for instruments that could provide touch-sensitive dynamics, which are beyond the capabilities of the harpsichord (even the early Haydn sonatas reveal the composer’s tendency to write for the clavichord, which was the instrument he had most readily available). Davidson does make one observation that I found intriguing: he asserts that the concert grand is most appropriate for “post-Ravel” works and works that require “sonic battle” with large orchestras (and I find it hard to conceive of any less substantial instrument holding its own in the thundering finale of Brahms’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D Minor or Busoni’s massive and sprawling Concerto for Piano and Orchestra), but that it is not entirely suitable for solo music from earlier periods.

The bulk of Davidson’s book is devoted to the studies of individual works. It might be thought to be dry and technical, and yes, most of the discussions are fairly technical, but not really very dry. Of great interest are Davidson’s introductions to the various composers, with biographical sketches that add to one’s general knowledge quite nicely. (You will remember that Beethoven’s childhood was unhappy, and may or may not have known that Brahms was terribly gauche, as well as being insecure). I particularly liked his characterization of Liszt as striding through the mid-nineteenth century “like a knight on a charging steed.” When one considers the profound and fundamental influence Liszt exercised, not only on his contemporaries (Wagner, Bruckner, Berlioz), but on the way music was performed and, as we would term it these days, marketed, it seems more than apt.

perlemutter-ravelVlado Perlemuter’s discussions with Hèléne Jourdan-Morhange on the interpretation of the piano music of Maurice Ravel in Ravel According to Ravel are from a series of radio programs broadcast in 1950 on Radio Française, along with two later interviews on Ravel’s piano concertos. This group of discussions includes musical illustrations (Perlemuter played all the works discussed on the programs) and is rather more narrowly focused. While there are some illuminating exchanges (Jourdan-Morhange had been a close friend of the composer, and Perlemuter studied the piano works with Ravel himself), they are, surprisingly enough, somewhat less personal than Davidson’s examinations. The book actually comes across as more technical than Davidson’s study. While there are some strong hints for those interested in performing the works, and particularly for those interested in insights to the composer’s thinking, I think a set of CDs of the programs would have been of more value — for those whose command of French is less shaky than mine, at least.

Ravel According to Ravel does, however, illustrate the role of tradition in the interpretation of music quite effectively, as effectively as The Classical Piano Sonata illustrates the role of scholarship and history. While neither book is perfect (Davidson’s book suffers from inept proofreading — no one will make me believe that Josef Haydn was born in 1852; Jourdan-Morhange comes across in translation as impossibly effusive), both are of value, even for non-performers.

(Kahn & Averill, 2004)
(Kahn & Averill, 2005)


Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there. You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.

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