Studies in Rhythm and Sound: Matthew Bengtson Plays New Piano Works of Roberto Sierra
Feature Article by Robert Schulslaper
Matthew Bengtson, “a musician’s pianist,” whose recordings of Szymanowski (with violinist Blanka Bednarz) and Scriabin have been the focus of previous Fanfare interviews by Maria Nockin and John Bell Young (Fanfare 41:3 and 38: 6 respectively), has recently been championing music by Roberto Sierra, first with an exemplary recording of the composer’s music for cello and piano—the centerpiece of my conversation with him, cellist John Haines-Eitzen, and the composer (Fanfare 41:5)—and now with a no less outstanding offering of the solo piano music.
When we last spoke, you had just released Roberto Sierra: Works for Cello and Piano. Were you aware at that time of the three collections of solo piano music you’ve since performed on this new disc?
That recording of Roberto’s cello and piano music on Albany was a project from over a number of years, but it was released in 2017. The piano works on the new recording date from the years 2017–20. Roberto had asked me to have a look at his solo piano music, and I sampled a good number of them using scores and MIDI performances. He and his publisher Subito Music have posted many high-quality MIDI renditions of his pieces on YouTube, which you can easily browse online.
Did Roberto play them to you as he was composing them? Did he work with you as you developed your interpretations?
The majority of these pieces would be too difficult to give even a rough performance without substantial practice! I got to know them for the first time as MIDI renditions. I wouldn’t say that the MIDI performances especially shaped my interpretations, but they are a good enough guide to tell if you want to learn the pieces or not. Since the music is usually tough to read, I’m sure that’s how they were intended.
That subject is interesting enough for me to expound at some length. The renditions of the dynamics and rhythms on the MIDI are always very literal, of course. On the one hand, that’s really helpful, because Roberto’s scores are quite liberally marked with specific indications (both of exact dynamic levels and of relations between the parts), and if you hear the MIDI, you can easily notice dynamic distinctions you have overlooked or underestimated in your practice. On the other hand, the MIDI dynamics and tempi can sound artificial. For one thing, acoustic instruments sometimes just can’t make such extreme distinctions in such a short time. Also, some of the speeds played by the MIDI aren’t really attainable, I think, although other pianists are certainly welcome to try them.
So, I will listen to the MIDI in the beginning and then mostly ignore it, except occasionally to use it as a reality check to get some ideas; but in the end, I tend not to like the MIDI renditions as musical performances. Humans are still ahead of AI in that arena. What might be surprising is that, when I began to study the Estudios rítmicos y sonoros, I had expected the MIDI to help me to perform the complex polyrhythms accurately, particularly the first one that moves from 6:6 to 6:5 to 6:4, and later 7:6 to 7:5, 7:3 to 6:3 to 5:3, etc. Curiously, in that respect MIDI was practically useless for me, because just hearing it doesn’t really help you that much, even at a slower tempo. Ultimately, it has to become a physical sensation. Anyone who has tried something like the Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu knows that you have to try the independent parts on their own, and in order to get the polyrhythm right you have to just let the two hands run like cars at their different speeds, make a guess how fast they will be, and adjust as you go, until you get the hang of it and they line up where they’re supposed to.
The other point I want to make here—one that might surprise a pianist looking at the scores and wanting to take up this music—is that for Roberto, the precision in dynamic relations is usually more important than the precision of the complex rhythms. Because the rhythms are daunting, they take up a lot of our attention in practice, but in the later stages of the learning process, we have to obsess less and less about that kind of precision and think more about the pacing of parts and the exact scale of dynamic relationships. Those factors are more important in communicating the piece to the audience.
To answer the second part of your question, yes, Roberto did provide feedback on my playing. Ultimately, if I played it in a concert at Cornell, where he taught for many years, he would respond to the performance mostly along the lines I have described above. More distinctive to this project, however, was our method of working. I learned the pieces well enough to make home recordings of works in progress, and I shared them with him online. Remember that this was a pandemic project, and that isolated environment lent itself strongly to this approach. I think it was an ideal way to work, since I needed not only feedback and confirmation but also the experience of playing the piece at home for my recording device, which is a reasonable substitute for the pressure of in-person performance. Roberto has, by the way, since retired from Cornell as a distinguished Professor, and this CD project ended up being his swan song there.
Was your experience with the cello/piano music, which you’ve said is also quite difficult, helpful in preparing you for the Estudios?
Yes, of course, from getting to know Roberto’s musical style, and from my experience of working with him directly. Performing only as a single pianist might seem limiting compared to what two performers can bring to the table; however, it can be liberating, because you are in control of your own pulse. You are relieved of the anxiety of lining things up, which is really difficult even for very good musicians when the rhythms are that complex. I was reminded of this phenomenon when, just this January, John and I performed a new set of cello/piano pieces, Cuatro Piezas, which Roberto wrote for us after our studio recording. The ensemble needs to have a lot of anchors in place in order to hold everything together.
The three collections are very different from one another, but each is intriguing in its own way. Did those distinctions influence the sequence in which they were recorded?
Yes, we considered the balance carefully in choosing the programming, and we think the combination is satisfying as a listening experience. The Estudios are really at the very pinnacle of pianistic virtuosity and musical sophistication, and of course they were from the start the album’s raison d’être. When I first heard the MIDI rendition, I was blown away by their sheer energy and inventiveness. I was sure from hearing them that “somebody really needs to take on this music,” even as I had some doubts that they would be playable at all! The opposite extreme is the Album for the Young, which is intentionally written in a simpler style. While Roberto claimed that I could probably sight-read the whole collection, that is really only true for a few of them. Some of them are on the challenging side, and require a bit of practice, albeit nothing at all comparable to the Estudios. I feel that most would indeed be quite agreeable for an intermediate level player. On the whole, the level seems comparable to familiar collections by Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and others. The music is well worth playing and listening to for its charm and its natural beauties; one doesn’t play the piano merely to impress or overwhelm the listener. The third collection, Piezas líricas, lies between the two extremes; it doesn’t call attention to either its difficulty or its simplicity. Rather, it’s the unusual compositional technique that catches one’s attention and makes for a unique experience.
One of the things I find fascinating is the variety of expression they reveal while being obviously by the same composer.
Yes, that’s very true! The variety of expression comes naturally from his desire to create very different musical experiences, but his stylistic consistency, I think, can be broken down into certain categories. On the level of genre, Roberto likes to combine elements of Latin popular music with elements of Western European and avant garde music. On a rhythmic level, you have these Latin American rhythms, but there are also the polyrhythms and complexity, and a certain love for the very fast contrasted with the sustained and lyrical, and the very complex contrasted with the simple. On a harmonic level, Roberto’s music is based on a symmetrical scale of nine pitches arranged half-half-whole, half-half-whole, half-half-whole. From this scale one can find major and minor triads, augmented chords, dominant and diminished sevenths, and more dissonant collections such as the hexatonic scale. Roberto likes this palette of combinations and delights in creating a wide range of musical experiences using these sonorities. Perhaps it’s on the level of instrumental writing and pianistic texture where the three works are most distinct from one another.
You’ve referred to Roberto as a Romantic. Why?
Yes, that’s right, but it might be more accurate to say “traditionalist” or “old fashioned,” in the sense of one who values traditional craft over music that is avant garde for its own sake. Perhaps I know this most clearly from conversations with him and from my experience of knowing what he values in musical composition and performance. For instance, when he worked with composers recently at the University of Michigan, he wanted to know clearly what form they had in mind, and how they would describe their harmonic language. Form and harmonic language: traditional values. I think in the Album the traditionalism is easy to hear, and in the Piezas líricas, his focus on the form of the whole can be easily felt. But in the Estudios as well, the pieces are logically put together; you can usually detect specific processes or alternations between contrasting ideas, and how they play out in the course of a piece. Regarding Romanticism per se, I won’t go into too many details in this space, but I know that he wants his music interpreted not literally (like the MIDI!) but with Romantic spirit. I could suggest a few specifically Romantic features in his style: the importance of instrumental virtuosity, a demonic element, and the physical pleasure in performance (quite like Liszt); the frequent appearance of lyrical, dreamy, timeless moods (rather akin to Schumann’s Eusebius); and more generally, a desire to elevate Latin American elements. Perhaps that is an outgrowth of local folk elements that were valued in the 19th century. Finally there is the great importance of harmonic and textural color, which should create something beautiful.
Previously, you’ve told me that the Estudios are among the most difficult, if not the most difficult pieces you’ve ever played. What makes them so challenging?
I’ve played a lot of hard music, and I don’t usually think so much about how different pieces rank according to their difficulty, but these are the kinds of pieces that invite one to indulge that habit. Perhaps it’s a measure of how much practice and repetition is required to get to a level of comfort. I liken the difficulty of playing these pieces to trying to drive a race car as fast as possible, in irregular rhythms determined by difficult formulas you have to compute even as you are driving. The sheer recklessness is somewhat akin to veering on and off the race course a few times, intentionally, just to save a few split seconds. I can give a few examples. Estudio No. 6 pushes the possibility of sheer speed to its physical limit, and in the coda you can hear how he shifts the rhythmic divisions and then throws in tricky cross accents at this breakneck speed. After that the arpeggios come cascading down one on top of the other and land with a loud THUD! This is one of the most satisfying pieces to end with, if you are programming a small group. The high speed returns again in No. 12, but thank goodness the physicality of those two pieces is very idiomatic to the keyboard, like Liszt, falling for the most part into patterns that the hands can manage well.
In spite of the speed, and their function as closers, neither 6 nor 12 would rank among the most demanding ones, in my opinion. The most difficult Estudio from the physical standpoint for me is certainly No. 11, which I am playing in that recording as fast as I can manage it, but it’s still a fair amount under the printed tempo. It is brutally difficult; I welcome any other pianists to give it a try if they like! There are some passages with repeated thick chords, each marked with a very specific dynamic, flying up and down the piano, maybe a little like Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, but faster and more dislocated and irregular, with caution thrown to the winds. The main part of this piece features very strict repeated chords, accented irregularly, while the other hand inserts its spiky accents against the pulse with extreme and sudden shifts of dynamics. To top it all off, there are several episodes featuring those nine-note scales, hands together, played at the fastest possible speeds with massive crescendi. I needed very specific four- and five-note finger groupings to make this possible, like turbo-speed chromatic scales, but obviously because the fingerings are so precise and there is no time to think, it takes a lot of practicing to master it. I saved that one for last in the recording session so I could use up whatever energy I had left at that time. Another one of the tough ones is No. 8, with a standard syncopated salsa rhythm in the one hand. Ultimately, you have to focus on keeping that very strict, but the contrasting rhythm of the right hand makes it awfully hard to focus on the left; it is always accenting against the beat, with, say, triplet eighth-note figures entering on the last accented sixteenth note of the pulse, dislocating the entire pulse in the other hand. All this is in fact playable, but it takes a long time to get it into your system. Finally, there is No. 1, the most complex rhythmically (as I described above), with illusory phasing rhythms in some parts and flying punchy jazz chords in other parts. But this first Estudio is such a magnificent creation, I think it’s very well worth the trouble and is one of the pieces I really enjoy trotting out when I get the chance.
How does Roberto emphasize sonority and rhythm in these studies?
In many different ways! That is what I marveled at when I heard the collection for the first time. Each piece seems to offer something quite original, and while listening, you wonder when you are going to start hearing the same devices, but he manages to come up with new ideas and very different contexts in which to use familiar ones. Just a few examples of sonority include long pedals with many different dynamic layers swimming around; sharp attacks with the pedal catching only the after-resonance; sostenuto pedal tricks, and “ghost tones” (non-struck after-resonances and even harmonics). As for rhythm: the sense of rhythm is very strong and includes some infectious toe-tappers like No. 3. But there are myriad novel devices such as cross-accented polyrhythms, illusory rhythms, rhythmic fades-in and fades-out, very fast vs. very slow rhythms—you name it!
You’ve written that, “I am convinced that this collection deserves to hold a special place in the virtuoso piano repertoire of our time.” Have you made any efforts to alert your fellow pianists to “the kaleidoscopic variety, innovative spirit, compositional logic, and sheer energy” of these pieces?
Yes, for sure, these are my words in the liner notes! When I find a pianist or a teacher who might play, teach, or share this music, I want to encourage them to take the plunge. I was fortunate that my live performance premiere of the Estudios came out well, and I have the video up on my YouTube channel. I paired this set with the first six of Albeniz’s Iberia in that concert. I had the feeling before the concert day that this performance might be something special, so I invested in a high-quality live recording, and you can find the whole thing on my website and YouTube channel—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9sXu-uiIVV4. I continue to program these pieces whenever I can, and I talk them up and have reached out to concert presenters to offer their audiences the opportunity to hear new music by an exceptional contemporary composer.
Of course, I am only a performer and not an agent or publicist, and I don’t run a series or a piano competition, so it may be up to others to launch these pieces into the mainstream, if they hear them and agree with me. I am also a Piano Literature Professor at the University of Michigan, one of our top music schools, so I include these in their repertoire lists and recommend them to students who want virtuosic or contemporary music, but so far nobody has yet bitten on it. At top schools and at piano competitions many people can play difficult Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Prokofiev, etc., quite impressively, but it seems that the number of pianists willing to tackle the most complex and demanding repertoire of the last 75 years is still relatively limited. But if one is motivated to do something uniquely one’s own, I am confident to say, these pieces are as good a place as any to start.
The Piezas liricas and the Album for the Young no doubt present other challenges, although I suspect they’re more of an interpretive nature.
It’s interesting to talk about the challenges of the Piezas líricas. They are indeed quite demanding in their own way and required more practice than I had anticipated. I described the phenomenon in the liner notes. Essentially, when playing the piano one can think of an idealized dialogue between a conductor who sets the tempos and shapes the transitions, dynamics, and moods, and the “orchestra musicians” who execute their parts as they are directed. While the Estudios are clearly virtuoso pieces for the executants, the Piezas líricas is a virtuoso set for the conductor, because there are so many changes of tempi, dynamics, and moods, in such a short space, and it’s really essential to get them all right, because as the piece evolves, it’s quite clear how the various motivic ideas relate to one another, so they should be identifiably the same tempo and mood whenever they are played. But often in performing, one might be breathless from rushing in one tempo, but will have only a split second to shift into a trance-like state in a pianissimo dynamic, and then back. To get this right, there needs to be technical control but also a well-developed sense of the whole from having lived and relived the piece over a period of time, to the extent that the exact characters have taken clear shape and can be anticipated when they arrive.
How would you compare the Album for the Young to similarly intentioned collections by other composers: Schumann, Kabalevsky, Bartók, et al.?
It’s very much in that tradition, yes. Perhaps the difference is that Bartók’s Mikrokosmos is conceived pedagogically, with titles referring to musical devices, and with a clearly graded, gradually increasing difficulty level. In Schumann’s Album for the Young there is also a movement from easier pieces to much more difficult ones. In this set there isn’t any such organization, but rather a musical flow from beginning to end, with the first piece somewhat expository in character, and the last one clearly a Finale. In that respect it’s maybe more like Kinderzenen or Bartók’s For Children. One can go in and select the pieces one likes or that suit one’s playing level. Rather like Schumann, there are clearly some pieces with “childish” or naïve feelings, and others that are intended more for adults musing nostalgically on the world of a child.
In your booklet notes you draw attention to the “cubist” architecture of the Piezas. Does that description refer to Roberto’s comment that “I composed a series of miniatures that become fragmented and can suddenly appear in the middle of another miniature, or can interrupt or be interrupted by other miniatures”? Were you also alluding to the Cubist period in the visual arts?
Yes, Roberto’s description says quite literally what is happening; there are a series of threads and ideas in these pieces; they are quite fragmented and can appear at a moment’s notice completely out of context. It is a musical equivalent of the technique in the well-known cubist paintings where the parts of an image are divided up and appear in many different places across the canvas. The set is dedicated to the memory of Stravinsky, who pioneered a similar technique, most clearly in his Symphonies of Wind Instruments.
How do audiences react to this music? Do you play selections from each group in concert or an entire collection?
The audiences are usually very excited to hear it! As for programming, with Piezas líricas, of course, one really must perform the entire set; I suppose you could conceivably excerpt a few of them but they are very short, so I don’t think that would be very effective. In the case of the Estudios, playing it all in one go is quite the tour de force. I usually play a group of them, as few as three or as many as six, and once I played eight when the allotted time was sufficient. I would expect that most people would prefer to play them in small groups like this. Because I play all the Estudios, I usually opt for a group of consecutive pieces, but you could equally well make your own group by jumping around and just picking your favorite ones. With the canonical sets of Études, too, that is the norm. You occasionally hear a full book of Chopin or Debussy for example, but more often you hear shorter groups or just individual ones mixed with other shorter pieces.
Besides recording and promoting Roberto’s exciting and absorbing compositions, in your “other” career as a professor of piano literature you’ve created an ambitious online survey of the piano sonata throughout history.
This is to date my biggest project in the piano literature field, and I’m proud of what we accomplished with it! It’s available from Michigan Online via Coursera at https://www.coursera.org/specializations/exploring-piano-literature
The course was published in spring of 2022. The series is divided into three parts: “Origins to Mozart,” “Beethoven and the Romantics,” and “Russian and 20th-21st Century Composers.” It’s a multi-dimensional introduction to piano sonatas, including their theoretical and historical contexts, the musical instruments one would have used to play them in their day, stylistic trends over time, and introductions to landmark works. There is a nice article about the series at this link and a promotional video at this link. The Massive Online Open Course series (MOOC) is aimed at amateur music lovers and aspiring music students, and offers something for just about anyone wishing to explore this subject in depth. Thanks for having a look at it!
(This article appears in the July/August issue of Fanfare Magazine. Reprinted with kind permission.)