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The Composer’s Landscape: The Pianist as Explorer

The Composer’s Landscape: The Pianist as Explorer
By Carol Montparker
Amadeus Press; 248 pages
A review by R. C. Speck

Getting into the minds of concert pianists can be tricky, because when you’ve met one of them, you’ve met only one of them. There is an entire world of nuance that goes into interpreting Classical keyboard music, and pianist Carol Montparker navigates her own way through this world in her collection of essays entitled The Composer’s Landscape.

The book is taken from a number of lectures Montparker has given on the subject of how to interpret the masters. Included are interviews and conversations she has had with famous pianists she knows (or knew) personally as well as apropos quotes and anecdotes from those she does not. Indeed, this is a well-researched and thorough introduction on how Classical pianists of all skill levels can make certain keyboard master works their own. And if you are not a pianist, then it is an engaging and entertaining account of the myriad of ways to listen to and interpret Classical music.

For her subject matter, Montparker does not shy away from the A-list: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. If there were a Mount Rushmore of the Classical keyboard, you’d have a hard time finding anyone else to carve into it. Further, she has no shortage of input from world-class Classical pianists such as Alfred Brendel, Andràs Schiff, André Watts, Anton Rubinstein, and many others.

Most striking about The Composer’s Landscape is how Montparker gets into the minds of the composers themselves. When should one use the pedal when playing Bach? Why is this such an important question? Well, Bach composed on a harpsichord, which has no dampers. So, should one play the piano to make it sound as much as possible like a harpsichord? Or should one interpret the music for the pianoforte? And how can listening to someone as modern as Bartók color one’s interpretation of Bach, anyway?

The Schubert chapter is especially insightful, because of the human terms with which she describes the music. “Fragile” and “spontaneous” are words that can reasonably be used here. But “guileless”? Montparker Describes Schubert’s keyboard music this way because Schubert himself was guileless. She says he was saddest of all in major keys, and briefly describes the man’s life of constant loneliness and heartache as if this should influence a pianist’s interpretation of his music. And it does. Montparker and her renowned colleagues all say so.

How did Mozart imbue his keyboard music with his taste for opera? Exactly how and when should pianists work trills in the works of Beethoven? And why are the Mazurkas the most “poetic and introspective” of all of Chopin’s work? These and many other questions are asked and answered in Carol Montparker’s delightful Composer’s Landscape.

This book review appeared in the spring 2016 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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