Interview By Bradley Bambarger
The classical prelude is a genre bred from improvisation, as early 19th-century performers — keyboardists, especially — would extemporize a kind of rolling introduction to another, composed work. The practice evolved as composers wrote formal sets of preludes in each of the major and minor keys, so that the pieces would be available as possible intros or, ultimately, standalone pieces. More than any other composer before him, Frédéric Chopin (1810–49) instituted the prelude as a work unto itself, an ultra-concentrated instrumental drama, especially with his cycle of 24 Preludes, Op. 28, published in 1839. Several of these preludes hint at other Chopin specialties, from nocturnes and elegies to etudes and mazurkas. Schumann, a great proponent of the Polish composer, was struck by the abrupt emotional dynamism of these 24 miniatures (with seven of them less than a minute long and only three longer than three minutes), describing their sound as that of “ruins” and “wild confusions.” Yet, along with the long-limbed, emotive beauty of bel canto melody, Chopin was deeply influenced by the sublime order of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, in which seemingly improvisational preludes lead to intensely intricate fugues; among other elements, the counterpoint within Chopin’s preludes is a legacy of Bach’s example. Chopin himself proved a rich inspiration to later composers, of course, from Fauré to Scriabin. Busoni and Rachmaninov even wrote elaborate sets of variations on the Polish composer’s Prelude No. 20 in C minor, the tolling chords of which make it feel like, if not a funeral march, then perhaps the memory of one.
Another 20th-century composer inspired by Chopin was Claude Debussy (1862–1918), who wrote his two books of Préludes between 1909 and 1913, with a dozen works in each. Schumann’s character pieces were another key influence on the French composer, who applied famously evocative titles to each of his Préludes, such as Des pas sur la neige (“Footsteps in the Snow”) and La cathédrale engloutie (“The Submerged Cathedral,” which references a legend wherein the bells of the flooded cathedral of Ys continue to reverberate under water). Debussy conjures sonorous magic in these pieces, with hints not only of church bells and snowflakes but also wind and water, fog and fireworks, clowns and cakewalks, Spanish guitars and even a Dickens character. In the best performances of Debussy’s piano pieces, the music feels summoned, as if welling up from the piano rather than dictated by the fingers. The composer supposedly said that he aimed for the instrument to sound as if it didn’t have hammers, less like a percussion instrument than a dream factory. Further, Debussy reportedly told one of his teachers that, in composing, “there is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.” It’s something to keep in mind when encountering music of any kind.
Pianist Taka Kigawa — whose repertoire ranges from Bach to Boulez — is an ideal artist for encompassing the beautifully concentrated sonic and emotional worlds within the brief preludes of Chopin and Debussy. He shares some thoughts on the works before performing them at (le) Poisson Rouge.
BB: When did you first hear the Chopin Preludes? And how did they strike you?
I think the first time I encountered Chopin’s Preludes Op. 28 was when I was 8 or 9 years old, at the elementary school I attended. There was a bunch of classical vinyl LPs there, with one of them Maurizio Pollini’s interpretation of the Chopin preludes. At that very first hearing, I was intrigued and fascinated, sometimes even a bit bewildered. Some of them are very short, ending abruptly, almost fragments. I’ve been obsessed with this elegant, mysterious opus for a long time.
BB: Tell me about aspects of the preludes in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier that are present in the music of Chopin.
I believe that Chopin’s Op. 28 is his homage to J.S. Bach, especially The Well-Tempered Clavier. Chopin composed 24 preludes, for each major and minor key, just like in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. You can find quite many similarities between these two collections, such as the improvisational feel, the clarity and conciseness of the music, the experimental elements, etc.
BB: How do you strive to make each of the Chopin preludes a miniature drama while also conveying the sense of an over-arching journey with the cycle?
That’s one of the hardest parts when it comes to performing the Op. 28. When I perform the cycle, I always aim not to forget that each prelude is one of 24. And around the ending of each prelude, I try to envision what’s coming next. So even as one prelude finishes, the big picture of the music continues, as with a scene in a film.
BB: The genre of the prelude was originally one conceived in improvisation — do you keep that in mind when playing Chopin? Can you impart that improvisational quality while remaining true to the score?
I absolutely keep that in mind. When you play Chopin, I think controlling the tempo is very important. I am not talking about an obvious ritardando or accelerando. What I mean is something more subtle, such as when and where you push the tempo, when and where you hold it back. When I play other Chopin — the etudes, the ballades, the scherzi — I decide on the tempo changes for those pieces in advance. But when I play preludes, I don’t decide. I leave that to the live performance, on the stage. So I suppose my performance of a prelude is subtly different each time.
BB: Do you have favorites among Chopin’s 24 Preludes?
I like all of them! That said, I particularly love the A Major prelude. It’s so concise and exquisite — one of Chopin’s best.
BB: How are the preludes of Chopin and Debussy related?
Debussy was a huge admirer of Chopin, of course, and he also appreciated the music of J.S. Bach. If there had been no Well-Tempered Clavier, there would be neither Chopin’s preludes nor those of Debussy. Also, both collections of preludes stand as probably each composer’s most audacious, forward-thinking opuses. There are a few sections in Chopin’s preludes where the tonality is quite ambiguous, and there are places in Debussy’s preludes where the music is almost atonal. In the Debussy, the rhythmic processes are also so innovative compared to his other works, or to those of other composers of the time.
BB: Debussy supposedly said that he strove for the piano to sound as if it were an instrument without hammers. How important is this effect in his preludes?
Extremely important. To play Debussy’s Préludes, as well as his Images, achieving various effects of timbre and color is crucial. In his Préludes, probably about 60 percent of the dynamics are in piano or pianissimo. So you need to make listeners forget that the piano is an instrument with hammers inside. Interestingly, I learned the ideal of “Le piano sans marteaux” technique from Pierre Boulez. That came from him coaching me on his Second Sonata, especially that surreally beautiful and very Debussy-like coda of its last movement.
BB: Which interpreters of Debussy — live or on record — have inspired you most in the performance of Debussy’s Préludes? How do you think they made the sonic “magic” in Debussy come alive, technically?
Probably the recordings by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. His color palette on the piano seems unlimited, like an infinite rainbow. I used to listen to a vinyl LP of his Debussy’s Préludes so much that the grooves of the record seemed to disappear! And if you see the video of Michelangeli playing the Préludes, you can immediately tell that he employs many different touches and techniques in order to create that sonic magic. It’s just amazing to me.
BB: If you had to pick just one among Debussy’s Préludes to live with, which would it be? What makes this one special to you, as a listener and as a performer?
Again, this is a tough question, just as with Chopin’s 24 Préludes, because I love them all! But, if I had to pick one from Debussy’s two books of Préludes, it would have to be Feux d’Artifice, or “Fireworks.” This prelude is like a summary of all the preludes. The rhythmic processing, the modes, the colors — together, the effect is dazzling. It’s one of Debussy’s most advanced compositions, too, with a few measures nearly atonal. Within this piece of less than four minutes, the musical ideas seem to be immeasurable.