Mar 8th 2020

When Granados meets Scarlatti, musical sparks fly

by Michael Johnson

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.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

 

It was a strange and beautiful alchemy that brought Domenico Scarlatti and Enrique Granados together in the mind of pianist Jean-François Dichamp a few years ago. In our interview (below) he recalls strolling along the boulevards of Barcelona one evening humming Granados’ music when a Scarlatti sonata took over. In a flash, he realized how much they had in common.

Building on that experience, Dichamp has produced a fascinating “opera for piano” suite linking specific Granados pieces to Scarlatti sonatas where he found echoes and resonances.  He has captured the beauty of both in his new CD “Granados Goyescas” (Goya by Granados), from the Brilliant Classics label. The Granados pieces are each inspired by a Goya painting.

Both composers, Dichamp writes in his excellent historical liner notes, produced an oeuvre of “refinement and elegance”. To me, the connections of Spanish tradition, contrasted to Scarlatti’s 18th baroque style, make musical sparks fly. Dichamp’s keyboard touch is masterly, covering the full range required by these two opposites – the rich, blinding Iberian colors of Granados and the somewhat arid feel of Scarlatti’s harpsichord creations.

 

Excerpts from the CD are available here:

 

 

Although the two composers were from separate musical cultures, the Italian Scarlatti was not entirely alien to Spain. Indeed, he composed his 555 sonatas while living in Portugal and Spain and he studied flamenco in Seville. Eventually he became musician to the Royal Court in Madrid.

I met Jean-François at the Barcelona School of Music (Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya) a few weeks ago where he teaches piano. Our conversation began informally and we followed up with a more formal interview by email. An edited account of our verbatim transcript follows:

 

 

MJ Dicamp
Jean-François Dichamp by the author Michael Johnson

Question. When did you have the idea of matching up Scarlatti and Granados ?  Was this a long-term interest or was it a flash of lightning?

Answer. It was an accident. When I started to learn the Goyescas, I recall that during a walk in town I was humming a phrase from “Fandango de Candil”. And a few seconds later, unconsciously, I found myself singing Scarlatti’s sonata in D minor, K 141. I have no idea why these two themes came to me, but they did. Maybe it was because of the very Spanish character of the Scarlatti sonata. It had been in my repertoire for several years and now I realized these two pieces could be played together, with Scarlatti pieces between the Goyescas. I read all the background I could find, and listened to many recordings.

 

Q. What were you looking for in the Scarlatti works?

A. Sonatas that reflect a dancing quality, a refined elegance. I needed pieces that I loved passionately because my idea was to create a marvelous imaginary journey to the Court of Madrid during the Golden Era. And so I discovered Scarlatti’s sonata in G minor K. 8, a slow, funereal sarabande. It fit perfectly, programmed after the ballade “El Amor y la Muerte”.

 

Q. It seems you wanted to create a feeling of opera?

A. Yes, I realized that incorporating these little Scarlatti marvels into the Granados cycle, I was getting closer to the idea of an opera that developed in Granados’ time – a grand theatrical work and after each act an intermezzo from another era, not so far removed from the spirit of the Goya characters that Granados intended. We can even surmise that in the salons of the time, the Scarlatti sonatas were included in programs.

 

Q. You have a Paris background. What do you bring to Granados to ensure Spanish flavor? Delicacy? Momentum? Singing and dancing undertones? Rubato?

A. First, I am profoundly European. I have tried to apply the “French touch” to the Granados style. I have found in his work a great deal of influence from the 19th century masters.  In “Los Requiebros”, for example, I hear echoes of Schumann’s “Carnaval”. In "Coloquio en la Reja" et "El Amor y la Muerte" there are the chromatic passages and something of Wagner’s intensity, or sometimes even Franck. I attempt to bring a delicacy of touch but also an illumination of tone. I seek a “sunny” but also refined pianism – Romantic outbursts but also retention and the nobility of a pasodoble (two-step dance). One finds this fascinating duality in Spanish dance in which a partner seems to say, “Take me, but don’t touch me.”

 

Q. You first trained as a dancer.  Was that an important first step for you in the arts?

 

A. I studied classical dance from the age of 7 to 12. I loved the dance. I had already played the piano in public but the magic of dancing onstage was something completely different. I had to stop my ballet lessons in order to accept the Mozart role – I had to make a choice. I remember crying a lot when I had to give up dance. This worried my parents. I cried a great deal when I was a child, not from sadness but because I had an emotional nature.

 

'Q. How did dance affect your piano style?

A. Dance training helped me enormously in my piano work, to keep a certain suppleness and flexibility. When I play “Goyescas”, for example, I think of my ballet scenes, my movements of arms and legs, always seeking that supple quality.

 

Q.  Why is this superb Granados music so rarely performed ?

A. The Goyescas cycle in its entirety can sometimes intimidate a musician in recital, and the public might find it overly intense and not sufficiently varied. These pieces are rather improvisational in style and there is always the chance of getting lost. It’s very difficult to memorize. Themes appear, are transformed, and reappear in different form. Of the pianists who have recorded the suite, very few have run the risk of playing them in concert. 

 

Q. What are your favorite recordings of the Goyescas?

A. Alicia de Larrocha et Nikita Magaloff did them magnificently, including in recital. Their versions are my favorites. I remember as a young student working with Magaloff on a Schubert piece when, at the end of our lesson, he sat down and played “Los Requiebros”. It was magic. I still have a vivid memory of that experience.

 

Q.  You indicate in your notes that you have done other pairings with unrelated composers.

A. True, I like to create connections between composers from different eras, to show the parallels. And I ask the audience to hold their applause until the end. I have always felt that one hears a work differently when comparing it to the music that precedes it. It’s a way of inviting the audience to seek and find the esthetic connections. And they are more frequent than one might think.

 

Q. What other pairings have you discovered?

A. I sometimes play a program that compares Rameau and Chopin, or another that matches Couperin and Schumann. Presently I am at work on another one using the Chopin Polonaises and a “mysterious” work by Scriabin. I’ll say no more at this point except to add that it might be the subject of a future CD.

 

Q. You have been known earlier in your career for your Chopin and Liszt.  Are you in an Iberian phase of your repertoire expansion now?

A. Not really. I am a passionate admirer of the Romantic repertoire for piano, and Las Goyescas is a great romantic cycle. The themes, the character, the lyricism, the fevered bursts, the harmonies, the writing --- everything is Romantic in this work. Albéniz and Falla sought the very essence of the Spanish soul, but Granados turned his attention to the past, the splendid heritage of the 19th century.

 

Q. You spent four years under the direction of Maria Curcio in London. What did you learn from her?

A. I lived four years in London for my studies with Maria Curcio and I continued working with her for several years afterward. What I learned from her was that music, for her, was a source of light, and she projected this light around her. I remember that in our lessons she would demonstrate a passage on the piano and at the end would raise her head and, with a marvelous smile, would say, “How beautiful that is.” Her face was illuminated with pleasure and by the beauty of the music. And she had the power to transmit these feelings magnificently.

 

 

Q. Was she a tough, no-nonsense teacher, like so many seem to be

A. Well, she was quite demanding behind that smile. She insisted on adopting a composer’s style – the Chopin tone, or the Mozart tone. Emotional commitment was also at the basis of her teaching. She would devote a lot of time to a student, sometimes several hours in a row. I don’t think teachers like Maria exist any more. Today, everything must be accomplished very fast.

 

 

Q. You played the young Mozart in a celebrated French TV series some years ago. How were you selected for the role and what did you learn from the experience?

A. I was 12 years old when a school friend showed me an ad in a newspaper calling for applications to play the role of Mozart in a television film directed by Marcel Bluwal. He wanted applications of 8 and 12 years who could play the piano. We had to send in a photo and a CV. At the age of 12, you can imagine the CV! I played part of the Mozart Concerto No. 23, which I had been working on, and he said to my mother he liked the way I sat at the piano. The next day we were surprised that he called us and asked me to come back and read for the part, a serious scene and a light one. When he finished, he gave me a kiss and said, “I have my Mozart !” The adventure began, and what an adventure ! The shooting continued over several months in France, Hungary, Austria and Italy alongside such great cinema artists as Michel Bouquet and Jean-Claude Brialy.

 

 

Q. Where did your acting career go from there?

 

A. There were no interesting offers for more cinema, and as I grew up I was no longer the little Mozart. Soon after, I entered the Paris Conservatory for serious piano study. Something new had begun.

 

 

Q. What is your impression of young players in general? Has the level of playing evolved over the past ten years or so? We hear so much dark speculation about declining enthusiasm for piano studies among the young.

A. My impression is that today’s young musicians are a reflection of society in general. Everyone wants to go very fast because it’s possible to do that now. I remember as a student that when I wanted a particular recording I would go to a record shop, perhaps order it specially and wait several weeks for it to arrive. But this waiting period was also part of the pleasure, and when the record arrived it was a big event! Today there is no waiting. Everything is just a click away. Is the pleasure the same? I don’t think so.

 

 

Q. What has been the effect on young people’s psychology?

A. I would say that in the young musician there is a sense of disillusionment – that great pleasure is unattainable. Of course each student is different in his or her enthusiasms but one thing is clear – learning to interpret music demands a lot of time and maturity. It seems the new generations are not prepared for this kind of patience.

 

END

 


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