József Balog Péter Wolf: Wolf-temperiertes Klavier (2CD)
The model for the Wolf-temperiertes Klavier, as the title might suggest, is Johann Sebastian Bach’s keyboard cycle Das Wohltemperirte Clavier. In line with this, Péter Wolf’s collection of 24 piano pieces uses each of the twelve notes of the octave from C to B as home keys (both major and minor) for the movements. It differs from the Bach work in having no fugues, only freely composed praeludia, or as Chopin would have called them, preludes. Péter Wolf is more strongly linked to Chopin and the Romantic and twentieth-century prelude tradition he engendered than directly to Bach, insofar as etude-like virtuoso movements are interspersed with meditative, sentimental pieces in a series that takes us through the world of 24 keys, and the piano technique required is closer to the age of Romanticism than to the Baroque.
József Balog - piano
About the album
Recorded at BMC Concert Hall on 9-12 July, 2018
Recording producer: Zsuzsa Dvorák
Sound engineer: Domonkos Timár
Edited, mixed and mastered by Zsuzsa Dvorák
Artwork: László Huszár / Greenroom
Produced by László Gőz
Label manager: Tamás Bognár
Supported by the National Cultural Fund of Hungary
Péter Wolf: Wolf-temperiertes Klavier – CD1
Péter Wolf: Wolf-temperiertes Klavier – CD2
The album is available in digital form at our retail partners
The traditional narrative of the history of western art music seems to tell of a multi-lane motorway going in one direction, in which brilliant composers speed forward in cabriolet sports cars. A prerequisite for joining the motorway (the toll, so to speak) is the originality of the composer, and the fuel is the desire for novelty.
The highway leads from the invention of musical literacy, through Gregorian chant and the emergence and development of polyphony, to the birth of opera and the Baroque, where the tempo suddenly speeds up. There’s Bach, the Bach sons, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, then come the Romantics, they overtake one another, classical tonal harmony begins to ferment, at the beginning of the twentieth century it disintegrates completely, Bartók swerves onto the motorway with his folk music, and Stravinsky with his Neoclassical re- purposing of the musical past, Schoenberg and his clan with their dodecaphonic rigour, then finally, linked mainly to him, particularly his rigour, come the post-war avant-gardists, Boulez, Stockhausen, and the like. Thus we arrive at the end of the twentieth century, and... where exactly? It looks very much as if there is nowhere else to go. The motorway has disappeared.
For sure, many have already spoken of the end of history (the philosopher and political scientist Francis Fukuyama, for instance), or that the history of western art music has come to an end (musicologist Richard Taruskin, among others, argues this), while the world proceeds, and we see that more and more exciting music is being made. To go no further, right here are these 24 piano pieces composed in 2017–2018 by Péter Wolf (1947). Music history, of course, has not ended in the sense of composers writing no more works. Only in the sense that there is no longer an overarching narrative of the history of western art music. What has disappeared is not the composers; it is the motorway. That particular great narrative, as it happens, overlooked countless composers: those who progressed at a slower tempo along the route, those who idled undecided on the hard shoulder, who didn’t want to go anywhere, or who went in the opposite direction.
The pursuit of novelty and the great narrative has led to a state where today in the case of a “classical” composer it is a more courageous deed to write a piano piece in E major, than to write a piece intended to be subversive, full of dissonances, in no key. The problem is not a new one. In the first half of the twentieth century, Maurice Ravel said to the Swiss composer Frank Martin: “The greatest danger to which an artist is exposed is sincerity. If we were sincere, we should write nothing but Wagnerian music.”
Péter Wolf writes what he hears and feels, and this fundamental attitude determines all of his pieces, regardless of what genre he happens to be composing in. And his oeuvre is highly varied. He set out as a pianist, and was admitted to the choral conducting programme at the Budapest Liszt Academy, but instead he studied jazz piano, meanwhile he drifted along with the current of music life, mainly popular music: he played in bands, supplied backing vocals, saved sound recordings, and was an understudy pianist. He didn’t graduate until 2011, in jazz composition, and while he was at it, he quickly got a DMA too (his thesis was on jazz instrumentation, and he defended it in 2015). He composed hit songs, hit film music, made countless arrangements (through the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra he came across Isaac Stern, for whom he made arrangements of an entire CD’s worth released on the Sony label in 1998) and wrote much “classical” music too: piano pieces, orchestral works, concertos, and so forth. In 2017 he was awarded the Artisjus Prize for Artist’s Lifework in Popular Music.
His music makes intensive use of almost everything that can be used in a given context, be it from the classical tradition, jazz, or pop music. In this regard we might consider him postmodern, yet there’s something that distinguishes him from the post-war postmoderns. The latter indulged in unbridled cannibalization of anything from the musical past (and their contemporary present), but always did so with ambiguous, guileful irony: the quotation was never in doubt, but its meaning and aesthetic judgement was. Péter Wolf’s post-postmodern music never uses “quotation marks”; this music takes itself seriously in the most classical sense of the word. If he gives a nod to Debussy or Chopin in the 24 piano pieces (just to mention two composers whose figures loom large at several levels), he happily immerses himself in the given musical world, and behind his playing with styles one always senses a deep reverence for the composer referred to. And the movements inspired by popular music, brimming over with emotion, are also free from irony. Péter Wolf firmly believes that music is to be heard, and expresses feelings, and as he is a sincere artist not prepared to comply with external expectations, he follows only his own nose (or ears, or heart); his music too, with untrammelled homeliness, wallows in the musical styles of past centuries and current times.
The model for the Wolf-temperiertes Klavier, as the title might suggest, is Johann Sebastian Bach’s keyboard cycle Das Wohltemperirte Clavier. In line with this, Péter Wolf’s collection of 24 piano pieces uses each of the twelve notes of the octave from C to B as home keys (both major and minor) for the movements. It differs from the Bach work in having no fugues, only freely composed praeludia, or as Chopin would have called them, preludes. Péter Wolf is more strongly linked to Chopin and the Romantic and twentieth-century prelude tradition he engendered than directly to Bach, insofar as etude-like virtuoso movements are interspersed with meditative, sentimental pieces in a series that takes us through the world of 24 keys, and the piano technique required is closer to the age of Romanticism than to the Baroque. Chopin was not the first to write a series of preludes in 24 keys.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century one of the most important virtuosi, Johann Nepomuk Hummel published his own series in 1815, but Chopin’s preludes published in 1839 created a veritable fashion for the genre: Stephen Heller (1853), Charles-Valentin Alkan (1844), Ferruccio Busoni (1880) and César Cui (1903) all wrote series of preludes journeying through the entire tonal universe, and though Claude Debussy also composed 24 preludes (between 1909 and 1913), in his atelier the keys of traditional tonality were no longer meaningful.
In the case of contemporary pieces, writing liner notes like these is usually a herculean task, in which one has to explain to the listener not only the peculiarities of the musical language used by the composer, but also how this particular musical language guarantees the expression of the mood or idea indicated in the titles of the given works. In the case of Péter Wolf’s piano cycle there is no need: the decoding of the moods, images, and characters indicated in the movement titles will pose no problem to listeners acquainted with western art music (or jazz, or pop). I have already mentioned two composers referred to in the cycle (No. 15, “Bonjour M. Debussy” [G major]; No. 22 “Chopin & George” [B flat minor]), but the presence of Bartók can also clearly be felt in several pieces (No. 7 “Get up” [E flat major]; No. 13 “Whirl” [F sharp major]). Some movements give the impression of having been fashioned by a deft hand into an artistic piano prelude from a pop music hit (No. 6 “Sunset” [D minor]; No. 18 “Aquarelle” [G sharp minor]).
Péter Wolf’s deft hand not only guides us steadily through a kaleidoscopic cascade of styles, but also vouches for the extraordinarily colourful pianism, and at times dazzling virtuosity, which is at least as important a feature of the Wolf-temperiertes Klavier as the musical ideas themselves. The piano textures of Chopin and Debussy, along with Gershwin’s pianistic ideas, must have been key impulses when the pieces were written, but the true source of inspiration was in all likelihood József Balog, who first played and recorded the works.
He premiered Péter Wolf’s piano concerto in 2013, and now with breathtaking technique and musicality he raises the Wolf-temperiertes pieces into the rich centuries-long tradition of preludes for which Johann Sebastian Bach served as the starting-point.
The closing piece, “Epilogue”, in B minor, seems to encapsulate the three most important music history references: at the beginning of the movement we hear the accompaniment alone, to which a melody reminiscent of Chopin’s nocturnes is added, then finally densely packed colorful B minor chords, redolent of Debussy, close the first section. This time the form is not ternary, as in the majority of movements (this A-B-A form was typical for a good many nineteenth-century character pieces too); rather, without any manner of bridge passage, there follows a varied repeat of the first section. In the repeat, the “nocturne” melody is adorned with ornaments worthy of Chopin, and the Debussyesque chords sound clearer the second time round. As the harmonies descend ever slower from the heights and come to rest on a long-held B minor chord (in which there is also a C sharp and an E), one has the feeling that we have arrived at the end of the movement, and of the entire series. But then four chords in a low register are heard – an epilogue to the epilogue, and in the uppermost voice of the consoling, tender harmonies, the listener can discern the motif B flat-A-C-B natural, spelling B-A-C-H.
Translated by Richard Robinson