Monday, March 30, 2015

Two historical re-enactements of Kotzwara's "Battle of Prague"

If you happened to catch last Monday's blog, you know that I spent it introducing one of the silliest pieces in the piano literature, a piece called "The Battle of Prague." And while it is not, shall we say, one of those pieces that will have a lasting impact on your soul, or that will make a rewarding musical travelling companion through life, nonetheless, I ought to at least let it speak on its own terms, and in this respect, I think I may have given you the wrong impression. You see, I am a professional pianist, and...

I professionalized it.

Having spent all of those hours practicing scales and arpeggios, learning to play quickly and cleanly, tackling thorny passages with ease, naturally I gave the "Battle" the kind of treatment it would get from an experienced soldier of the piano. But that isn't how you would have been likely to hear the piece played in its day.  Most of the people who bought the music were amateurs, and probably not even very gifted ones at that. They would have struggled over the repetitive left hand figures and rush through some of it, only to drag in other places. The worthlessness of those figures, taking many notes to say very little, got short shrift in my account, where I flew past those bits of formulaic triteness so that your ear may not have had enough time to sufficiently digest the complete lack of musical nutrition. In other words, I may have inadvertently oversold the piece.

My Battle was over in 12 minutes, and I actually enjoyed it. Perhaps you did also. But I think you will enjoy this entry as well. It is from a gentleman in Poland, on an upright piano in his home. The tempi are much slower, although since he skips the repeats, his version is only a minute and a half longer than mine. He misses notes, gets tangled up a few times, and makes the piece seem more daunting generally. But I'm not linking to his video to make fun of him. Far from it. I think you will enjoy his version. For all the "battle fog" it's really much better than most of the performances you would have heard in the 19th century even from a technical standpoint, and it will give you a more genuine sense of what the piece would have sounded like in the hearing of most people, since, I am sure that most concert professionals never played it, and most people don't own seven-foot Steinways, to say nothing of their complete non-existence in 1790. All the more, having visited this gentleman's Youtube channel, complete with videos of his grandchildren and snow and holidays, I couldn't help getting a warm feeling from this fine family man who enjoys life--family and food and music.

What's more, he has taken the trouble to label each of the parts of the score so you can see what is written there as he begins each section. This is much less intrusive, I think, than yelling them out in performance.

At the complete other end of the spectrum is a video from a professional ensemble, performed impeccably by strings and piano. Several passages have had additional parts added to them which is quite an improvement. You'll want to listen to the piano in this recording--it is a real "fortepiano," the kind of piano that would have been around in 1790, before pianos got steel strings, metal soundboards, and grew to such proportions. It has a very different sound.

If you happen to survive all three performances, mine and the other two, you will have invested over a half-hour doing battle with this strange piece, which is still much less time than someone who was actually in the Battle of Prague itself, and I'm sure the results will be much less fatal.

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