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Czerny's finger exercises are mandatory steps in the teaching of keyboard skills. His Art of Finger Dexterity, Op. 740 takes those skills to great length and difficulty while providing musical pleasures as well. Libetta's awesome technique is a formidable match for Czerny's finger-twisting etudes.
[2006, Stereo, 74 minutes]
Booklet notes by Francesco Libetta:
The fifty brilliant studies that make up the collection known as “The art of rendering the fingers agile” were published with the eye-catching Opus 740. Czerny himself was conscious of the fact the quantity of music he composed was surprising. And he proudly told the Englishman John Ella, when paying a visit to his Viennese house: “I will surprise you even more when I tell you that I was twenty-eight when I published my first work, and that I have written in my life more music that any copyist. In addition I have composed more than one thousand pieces which have never been printed, without ever employing a copyist to prepare my editions.”
It seems that Czerny achieved these remarkable results by an extremely efficient method. In every corner of his studio was a desk with an unfinished score on it: a series of national songs to be harmonized, the symphonies of Beethoven to be rearranged into a four-hand score, a new edition of Bach’s fugues, the composition of a grand symphony. After having finished one page of a score, he would move to the next desk. This was the “work routine” of his life as a musician.
Of this massive body of work, the parts which enjoy most success today — indeed, which are practically universal among young pianists — are some collections of studies that were composed for teaching purposes, and which are in this field unequalled. The depth of analysis of the technical problems associated with the use of the keyboard is not clouded by rhetorical distractions — which in so many have the whiff of hypocrisy. Czerny was a master who, when it came to teaching, sought to distance himself from those who do not write in order to publicize their craft, and who wish to teach only those who are near them. With a singular sort of ethics, Czerny’s desire for clarity and direct language created a system which neither implies, nor claims the right to allude to, anything apart from itself.
Karl Czerny, born in Vienna in 1791 (incidentally, the year of Mozart’s death), earned his living and established his reputation by teaching the pianoforte. He gave lessons to Franz Liszt, whose influence on the art of piano playing was profound in the field of both composition and execution; to Sigismund Thalberg, who was later to make his mark on the “Neapolitan Piano School” as a teacher; and to Theodor Leschetizky, the great pedagogue. Still studied in the conservatories and academies of music, Opus 740 is made up of studies which, brilliant as they were, were not intended for concerts. The public performance of the collection as a whole was even further from the author’s intentions (even though, taken as a whole, it does have a certain structure). However, apart from having the public performance of music as a basis, the concert of that period and the concert of today have little in common. Of the first studies by Liszt also, the lay public (at La Scala, for example) used to complain that one went to the theatre to amuse oneself, not to be educated.
Yet without studying one does not get to become a “virtuoso,” and virtuosity had always been an essential element of musical success in the theatre. While the virtuoso’s skill as a prestidigitator requires much hard work, many find it hard to tolerate that certain pieces are put on show with their price tag (in terms of complexity achieved) still attached. Here too, the trick is to make what one knows to be difficult sound easy, to wear with a natural air a jewel of great value: from Clementi (scoffed at by Mozart) to Alkan (much admired by Chopin and Liszt), the hard work implied by the acquired skill of one’s fingers is in any case ever more in evidence. In a period in which the fashion was to deny music its mystical and expressive side, Stravinsky described Czerny as a “musical thoroughbred.” One senses a certain affectionate irony in this clear-sighted comment, the quotation (from Study Op. 740, N°1, which begins with the most didactic formula that exists) with which Debussy launches the first of his Études. No. 24 is genuinely lovely, while a remarkable Schubertian atmosphere imbues No. 45, and it is also interesting to hear the source of a definite vehement Lisztian sonority in No. 50. The professional quality is incontestable throughout; at all times we are dealing with music of excellent workmanship. To this must be added the merits of a new inventiveness in terms of timbre – not in the individual sound, but in the formulas, which at times form phonic agglomerations that cannot be separated into their constituent parts (No. 47).
Czerny takes for granted the structure (ABA and coda) of the pieces (among the exceptions: No. 12). Thus all the interest, both his and that of the listener, is focused on the piano formulas. In Op. 740 in particular the duration of the individual Studies is well proportioned in relation to the interest of the formula, often fine in itself, but unchanged for the entire duration of the piece. When seeking to enjoy or to explain the mysterious charm of a portrait we must not simply look at it for hours. Beyond a certain limit this becomes hypnosis, the minimalism of a few years ago, perhaps even Zen. And the art of making the fingers agile is different than motorcycle maintenance or archery. It is necessary rather to look about oneself, because our brain functions by comparisons — and Czerny’s system, as we have said, is a closed one. If the performer seeks to enter into the Viennese spirit (like Hummel) of Czerny’s Biedermeier, an unusual expertise is required. Even when one takes account of the heightened need for technical precision required in today’s performances, they do not seem to be suitable for a practitioner of the early nineteenth century either. So as not to scare off those who would set about studying the subject, in the preface to his edition of Op. 740, Emilio Riboli makes a comment of incomparable candor: “The metronome setting indicated by Czerny has been maintained, though we are convinced that it is impossible to put this into practice on a modern piano”. Riboli addresses himself primarily to students, but his words should be borne in mind when listening to Lhevinne’s recording of No. 33; an insuperable performance which scares even experienced pianists. Our appreciation of this performance may be compared to that of an art critic while contemplating the workmanship of a collection of fine porcelain (as in Mario Praz’s writings). In this superficial and idealized grace there is the mystery of midday, as interesting as its night-time counterpart. The sun on the hills of Anacapri is dazzling; and the excess of light prevents one from seeing any detail, as does the most impenetrable darkness.
Czerny writes music with linear structures, free of intriguing complexities, but not for this less intelligent. Just as there is a difference between the complex and the complicated, so there is an important distinction between mastery of a complex subject and the availability of ones resources of intelligence. And if Musil is obliged to point out that there are various types of stupidity, corresponding to various types of intelligence, it is because we humans insiston considering ourselves more intelligent than animals, without a clear notion of what our own intelligence actually is. Our highest praise is reserved for the man whose expression is proud and loyal, consistent with his will, and not for those whose intelligence lies mainly in the management of erudition — consistency by itself being a virtue that costs little. Thus described, we would like the music of the opera 740 collection to seem “something else,” almost a different art — in any case another language (Erik Satie warns: “I would advise against reading aloud a text written in a language unknown to the listener. It is not in good taste and above all the effect is null”).
We believe that the medium of the compact disc removes the strangeness of those composers who are so far from the “orthodox” repertoire as to make one think, when they are performed in certain concert halls, of a ceramic vase displayed in the middle of a collection of coins. Relatively little music is allowed in a concert hall, which is not the only place where it is possible to make music after all, apart from cases that smack of the experimental or have some novelty value, and rightly so. No musica reservata, nor ethnic music. This is not intended to imply a judgement: respect for glorious traditions is also a matter of convenience. Traditions... Mediocre people insult them and are proud to do so. Yet progress never happens because of, but only in spite of the act of breaking with a certain past — and even here the break is not the cause of the progress, but is merely an effect. And we are sure that Czerny, a musician faithful to every rule (the rules that should not just be obeyed, but applied) and conservative to an exemplary degree, will pardon us for having performed his work in public. After all, he himself wrote thousands of works for a primarily exoteric public.
(translation: George Metcalf)
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