Talking Schubert with Phillip Kawin


By Jerry Dubins


A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Phillip Kawin studied with Alfred Cortot's long-time associate Jules Gentil at the École Normale de Musique in Paris; in New York City with Howard Aibel (assistant to Rosina Lhevinne); with John Perry; and with Dora Zaslavsky (who had studied with Wilhelm Backhaus and Harold Bauer) at the Manhattan School of Music. As recitalist and soloist with orchestra, Kawin has performed throughout Australia, China, Korea, Italy, Russia, Spain and the U.S. He has an exclusive recording contract with the Master Performers record label; a Steinway artist, his debut album—featuring works of Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, and Prokofiev—was received with critical acclaim when it was launched in 2008 at Steinway Hall in New York and rereleased in 2011.


Kawin has given masterclasses at the Moscow Conservatory, Saint Petersburg State Conservatory, Tel-Hai International Piano Masterclasses, Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Seoul National University, and the Van Cliburn Piano Institute, among many others. As a much sought after artist-teacher, Kawin has developed a highly individual pedagogical approach. His concepts evolved through an eclectic background of training that combines a variety of artistic and aesthetic influences. His students have won top honors in the Young Concert Artists Auditions, as well as in the Martha Argerich International, and other prestigious competitions.


Kawin's upcoming engagements include appearances at the Busan Music Festival (South Korea), International Academy of Music (Italy), PianoSummer Festival/Institute at SUNY New Paltz, New York (2016), Euro Music Festival and Academy (Germany), Summit Music Festival (U.S.), the Beijing International Music Festival (China), and a masterclass at Harvard. His discography includes his recently released all-Schubert CD, and five DVDs for Excellence in Music, Inc., recorded live at the World Piano Pedagogy Conferences. They include masterclasses and such original lecture titles as: Sound Principles and Principles of Sound, Cultivating Pianistic Command, and Assimilation: The Key to Unleashing a Student's Potential.


You've just come out with your all-Schubert disc, containing the composer's A-Minor Sonata, D 845, and Three Piano Pieces, D 946. What led you to choose these particular works, and are there any specific connections between them?


The A-Minor Sonata, D 845, is a great work that has never gotten the same kind of recognition as the B♭-Major, D 960, or the big A-Major, D 959, sonatas; yet this work is equally deserving, due to its diversity and originality. When the sonata was first published, the Leipzig newspaper Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung of March 1, 1826, wrote: "... so free and individual, so boldly and at times so strangely inspired"—truly equal in stature, I think, to the greatest Schubert essays in this genre. Likewise, the Drei Klavierstücke are works of genius that to this point have been previously overshadowed by the opp. 90 and 142 Impromptus. The Anhang (from the first edition) in the first piece of the Drei Klavierstücke is one of the most hauntingly poignant, beautiful, and intimate of Schubert's creations. Both of these works have great merits and are unhackneyed pieces that absolutely deserve to be heard every bit as much as his more commonly known works for piano.


Schubert has always struck me as being one of music's few natural "geniuses," a word that's used too often, too freely, and often inappositely, in my opinion. There have been many great composers who were not natural geniuses; they struggled to perfect their art. For Schubert, Mozart, and a small number of others, music came to them unbidden, or to quote Shakespeare, as "the gentle rain from heaven." What makes Schubert's music special?


Franz Schubert was really not a commercial composer for the public. He was a composer for the pure sake of music itself. Schubert did not dedicate his piano works to barons or countesses, unlike so many other composers of his time. Often, there is an unmistakable feeling of isolation, loneliness, and underlying sadness. Through his pain, he arrived at his own spiritual truth in the music. He wrote in his diary: "All I have created is born of my understanding of music and my own sorrow." I believe that Schubert's mission was to remain true to himself and to music in the highest sense. That is perhaps why his music expresses such depth and a tremendous range of emotions. It resonates of intimacy, sincerity, sublime inspiration, vulnerability, poignancy, and defiant spirit.


If I may reference it, you speak in another interview with Richard Wenn, reprinted in the CD booklet, of the uniqueness of Schubert's irregular phrase structure, and of course his extraordinary approach to harmony and modulation. A college professor I once had said that Schubert's modulations were like a beautiful woman slipping suggestively out of her negligee. I'll never forget that. But to me, one of the more interesting aspects of Schubert's harmony is how he will often undermine a fairly simple melody by shifting the key or modality of the underlying chords in such a way that what sounded sunny and untroubled one moment suddenly turns dark and disturbing. I like to call it "souring the milk." It's pervasive throughout Schubert's music, not just in his large-scale major works, but in many of his German dances, Ländler, and Écossaises. What does this say to you about the nature of the music and the man who wrote it?


I see it differently. There is no composer that uses harmony in a more personal, adventurous, creative, and original way. The melody is a direct outgrowth of the harmony. One thing that I find to be extraordinary is that we can turn around and put the melody back into the harmony to deconstruct and better understand why he wrote that way. Schubert's modulations and harmonic language are highly idiosyncratic and encompass exotic keys that are so characteristic of his language, such as A♭ Minor. Mozart, for example, did not write anything in A♭ Minor for piano, at least not in the piano sonatas; Beethoven likewise rarely composed in this key.


In terms of the technical demands he made on the player and the mechanical demands he made on the instrument, do you feel that Schubert pushed the envelope of piano music and the piano itself in the way that Beethoven did?


Yes, I do believe that Schubert added a new and significant dimension through his contribution to the development of piano music. Although there are similarities in terms of expressiveness, his writing is very different, pianistically speaking. From the instrumental side, the music of Beethoven is more organic and readily accessible, while the music of Schubert is more unconventional and somewhat awkward pianistically.


What are some of the specific technical challenges Schubert's piano writing presents? Can you cite some examples from the works on your new Schubert album?


The left hand has extended figures that are relentless and somewhat unpianistic in the outer movements of the Drei Klavierstücke. The sonata requires precise control of tonal balances, sophisticated voicing, and independence of the different voices. In the finale of the D 845 Sonata, there are disjunct (wider) intervals in the right hand that combine with contrapuntal lines in the bass, consisting of mostly conjunct intervals (neighboring tones). These two elements must be synchronized exactly.


That brings me to an interesting, and possibly touchy, subject. You are, of course, a Steinway artist, and you perform on some of today's very best pianos. But the instrument Schubert was writing for was not today's concert grand. A few pianists—Jörg Demus, Andreas Staier, and Paul Badura-Skoda, for example—have recorded Schubert's sonatas on period instruments, but we don't encounter Schubert on historical instruments as often as we do Haydn and Mozart. Do you think that's because Schubert, like Beethoven, made greater demands on the capabilities of the instrument in terms of range, tone production, and sheer volume, and had grander expectations of its possibilities?


This is a question that comes up often with J. S. Bach as well. The range of subtlety and inflection are so demanding in the solo works, coupled with the fact that unlike in Schubert's time performers nowadays are often required to give concerts in a wide range of venues, including mid- to large-size concert halls. This has resulted in the need for an instrument that is fully capable of projecting myriad colors, a highly diverse and wide tonal palette, as well as a vast dynamic range. For these reasons, the period instruments are perhaps more suitable for small-scale chamber works, such as Lieder (vocal) repertoire and string/piano duos.


Leaving Beethoven aside, and comparing Schubert to a number of other close chronological contemporaries who wrote for piano during the Classical-Romantic transition period—for instance, Carl Maria von Weber, Carl Czerny, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and Friedrich Kuhlau—how is Schubert's piano writing different? What distinguishes it both technically and musically from anyone else's?


An excellent and important question! I find Schubert's writing to be less pianistic than the other composers of his epoch. The reasons for that are difficult to describe in a succinct fashion. To be specific, there is a preponderance of unconventional figures in the bass that do not lie under the fingers nearly as comfortably as in Mozart, Hummel, Beethoven or Czerny. There are also wide stretches, particularly in the left hand between the fingers, challenging repetitions that often times must be played very softly, and lesser use of Alberti basses compared with other composers of this period.


Would you care to speculate as to why Schubert never wrote a concerto for piano? Personally, I tend to see Schubert as a composer who was more comfortable performing his own works in settings more intimate than public concert halls. Yet, some of his writing—and not just for piano—can be quite showy and virtuosic. I'm thinking, for example, of the two violin and piano works, the Rondo in B Minor and the Fantasie in C Major, he wrote in the last year of his life for the virtuoso Czech violinist, Josef Slavik. Still, these are both duo works, suitable for performance in the salons of the period. What were the circumstances, both personal and professional, that prevented Schubert from making that leap to the concert stage?


At the core, Schubert is basically a more introspective than an extroverted personality. He was ultra-sensitive and, as such, extremely vulnerable from an emotional point of view. His personal life was never fully revealed to the public. From the professional side, there are clearly elements of virtuosity in his works that perhaps he did not desire to flaunt in an overt fashion; thus, perhaps he did not feel the need to compose a piano concerto. The "Trout" Quintet for example is highly virtuosic and as demanding for the pianist, as are many other piano concertos.


Wrapping up, what near-term projects to do you have in the works, and what longer-term projects would you like to take on? Are you committed for now to the solo piano repertoire, and do you see yourself in the future branching out into chamber music?


Given the right opportunity, I would certainly not rule out the exploration of chamber music; however my strengths artistically and instrumentally seem to be more fitting to the solo works of Schubert, which I find have many common aspects with the chamber and vocal repertoire. Schubert's monumental output of solo works encompasses a variety of divergent elements, including chamber-like intimacy, vocal melodies that are akin to Lieder, instrumental timbres, orchestral sonorities, and at times symphonic textures. When performed at the highest level, it is the best of both worlds.


SCHUBERT Piano Sonata in a, D 845. 3 Klavierstücke, D 946 • Phillip Kawin (pn) • MASTER PERFORMERS 15 001 (69:41)


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