Recording Nimrod Borenstein’s World Premiere Etudes with pianist Tra Nguyen

Naxos’s Grand Piano is going to release a recording with pianist Tra Nguyen on composer Nimrod Borenstein’s work. For this occasion, Vantage has asked both the composer and the artist to let Vantage’s audience something about the music here.

Notes from the Composer

Nimrod Borenstein | October 2022 | London 

I have always found writing for the piano inspiring.

One of the reasons for my great interest in writing for the instrument is that, in my music, I love to layer many melodies simultaneously, and the piano is one of very few instruments with the ability to do that on its own. I also love the scope of the colours the instrument can provide, and its uniqueness in its great span of over seven octaves (compared to a maximum of three octaves for the woodwind or four octaves for the strings), from the depths of the very low sounds to the extremely high, ethereal sounds.

The ethereal sounds of the piano bring me, naturally, to the first composition in this album, Reminiscences of Childhood op. 54, a set of three contrasted pieces.

Back in 2011, my friend Lucilla Baj told me that a new website for her nursery in London (“The Beehive”) was being built and that she wanted it to be really special and different. She said that, as she loved my music, she wished to commission a short piece that she could use on this new website. I liked the idea of composing a work focusing on the innocence and beauty of early childhood, so accepted the idea on the condition that it would also be a concert piano piece that would have a life of its own, beyond the website. This is the story behind the enigmatic title of the first piece on Reminiscences of Childhood, Lucilla’s Beehive!

Lucilla’s Beehive was written and recorded for the website, closely followed by performances, as several pianists really liked it. In one of these concerts, Lucilla’s Beehive was performed alongside Schumann’s Kinderszenen, and it gave me the idea that it would be interesting to compose a further two pieces to make a cycle. Uchti-Tuchti, the fast, scherzo-like second piece, is about playfulness, and we end with the highly dramatic Melancholic mobile (the type you hang over a crib to entertain the baby), written as if we were looking at childhood in our old age, with regret and sorrow, but also peace and acceptance.

Novelty has always been very important to me. From the time I started composing when I was six years old to now, I have always tried to write something different from all the music already in existence, whilst at the same time being inspired by great masters of the past, be it Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or, closer to our time, Debussy, Prokofiev or Stravinsky. In the case of my Études op. 66 & op. 86 for piano solo, it is my great admiration for the Etudes op. 10 and op. 25 by Chopin that inspired me to write my own.

It all began with a single etude written in 2014, the Ostinato Étude. I immediately thought that I should write a few more to make a small set. The idea seemed popular, and many pianists asked me to write one for them, as did the Hong Kong International Piano Competition, which commissioned my 6th Etude (the Méphisto Étude) as the obligatory composition for its semi-final. I really enjoyed the challenge and eventually came up with the ambitious project of emulating Chopin by writing a cycle of 24 etudes. In my case, these 24 etudes would be four sets of six.

Such a large-scale project brought many challenges. First, I needed to make sure that every etude would be inspired and magical. Another problem was making sure that each etude would sound completely different from the others, evoking a unique world and atmosphere. Finally, I wanted to expand the piano technique and find new, virtuosic ways to write for the king of instruments. Because of all these ambitions, I decided that it would be helpful to compose them over a long period of time. Like this, in between writing the etudes I could write other pieces for completely different instruments (full orchestra, concertos, string quartets etc.) and so could be happy to return to the piano, refreshed every time. I had imagined that it could be a 10- to 15-year project and, to date, I have written 15 in eight years, so well within the plan!

Being etudes, all the pieces are obviously challenging to play; however, they have different sources of inspiration. Some etudes concentrate on a specific virtuosic aspect, as in the Arpeggio Étude (an arpeggio is when the notes of a musical chord are played one after another instead of together), the Half Moon Étude (an etude wherein the left hand constantly goes over the right hand – painting a half moon shape in the air), the Chords Étude (musical notes played at the same time) or the Staccato-Legato Étude (staccato notes are short and separate notes, whilst legato notes are notes played in a smooth, continuous way). Other etudes originated from the desire to explore a musical aspect, as in the Ostinato Étude (an ostinato is a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm), the Toccata Étude (giving my own interpretation of the toccata form) or the Hidden Melodies Étude (melodies coming out from inside a multitude of notes or within the middle voices).

In some etudes, my starting point was a culture, country or myth. In this category you can find the Kangding Qingge Étude (which was inspired by a very well known Chinese folk tune and so is a study of how to incorporate it into my own music), the Méphisto Étude (by chance, the opus number came to be op. 66 no.6, the devil’s number 666), the Tango Étude (the exploration of the feel of tango), the Brazilian Étude (having a look at many Brazilian dances and making them my own) or the Japanese Gardens Étude (being inspired both by the Japanese art and literature of the past but also playing with the Japanese scales).

What all these etudes have in common is my personal use of polyrhythm (different rhythms simultaneously). Polyrhythms can be found in my music in general – as I like how they help me make melodies float and glide above each other or direct them towards a point as if attracted by it – but they are particularly difficult to achieve on the piano (as it is only one person and one brain having to process all these elements at the same time!) and they make these etudes an interesting challenge for the performer.

My piece The Dream (op. 75 no. 1) was premiered in 2016 and I immediately thought that it would be interesting to compose a companion piece to the opus. The thought remained in the back of my mind for a few years, and it was when my friend Anna Marra moved back from London to Venice that the inspiration came to me, and so Water Droplets in Venice (op. 75 no. 2) was written and premiered in 2019. I have always admired the elegance, virtuosity and beauty that permeate Italian culture and, whilst composing the piece, had in mind the beautiful paintings of Venice by Canaletto. A pianist friend of mine told me after performing the work that it could have easily been one of my etudes because of its level of rhythmical difficulty. My music is of the post-modern age and very different in style to the Venetian master Canaletto, but I think that it shares the desire to make virtuosity seem easy.

The creation of a magical world with celestial melodies suspended high above is an important aspect of my piano writing and even my music in general, so I was naturally enthusiastic when I was asked if I would be interested in writing a lullaby. I also had another idea, and when the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center commissioned the work I asked them whether I could create two original versions of the piece – one for solo piano and another for string quartet. I thought that it would be a very interesting challenge, as no sound worlds are more distinct from one another than piano and string quartet. The idea of having different versions of the same piece started in 2015 when I wrote two versions of my Concerto for Alto Saxophone, one with string orchestra (op. 70a) and the other with full orchestra (op. 70b). My Lullaby (op. 81a for solo piano) was composed in 2018 alongside the Lullaby (op. 81b for string quartet). I have now composed several other versions including string trio, wind quintet, and piano four hands!

In the past, I have often talked about two of my strong beliefs in music. The first is the search for an absolute, the exact right notes in the right place so that the music feels eternal, as if it had always existed and could not be otherwise. The second is that I think I that contrast is one of the most important elements in music and art, providing interest and creating structure whilst showing the ambivalence of all things. I also think that there is another important, third aspect that is always present in my music. Whilst music is entirely abstract for me, my compositions have a beginning, a middle and an end, and in that sense tell a story – a musical story.

Interview with the Pianist

Tra Nguyen | October 2022 | Hong Kong

Q . Why did you want to take up the recording project of Nimrod Borenstein’s 12 Etudes and other Piano Works?

It was firstly out of curiosity. The piano has gone through many developments throughout history, and I was curious about how a new set of études could explore the instrument further. However, the main reason was that I found myself completely taken by the music.

Q. What was the most challenging aspect of learning these études?

One would expect that a set of 12 études would, naturally, bring some challenges. But what I did not anticipate was the wonderful new experience that it would elicit. The common expectation when it comes to virtuosity is that it involves a physical challenge with rapid notes, chords and so on. For me this set of études relates to a different kind of virtuosity which requires engagement with tone colour and rhythmical polyphony. This requires a total commitment to understanding, listening and touch.

Q. What were the other challenges involved in learning this project and how did you tackle them?

There are 6 Etudes op. 66 and 6 Etudes op. 86, plus other miniatures on this disc. One aspect that makes all the études very difficult is that they are polyphonic by nature, and the composer then adds another layer of polyrhythm on top so that individual voices each have their own individual pulses for musical expression. The result is that the music is mesmerisingly layered. But this is also the origin of some key difficulties faced by the performer. I usually need to feel and interpret the musical pulses as though they are heartbeats or breathing, but in this situation I have to deal with three or four voices with different pulses, starting at different points. Very often they are irregular, in beats of five, seven or more – and this is made even more difficult in slower tempi than in faster ones! I had to start by learning each voice individually until my body and ears remembered the flow, then work on keeping the pulse of the main time signature deep in my core, and finally let the voices flow on top of it. The key is to understand how they function to serve as musical expression – which is much easier said than done! It took me a long while to work this out.

Q. Tell us more about the Etudes themselves.

Borenstein named each individual étude, and each of these titles relates either to pianistic challenges or musical characteristics which define the particular étude in question. These titles served as helpful signposts to important aspects of each étude which I had to take into consideration while learning and performing them.

To start, the Ostinato Etude from op. 66 comes with ostinato running motifs in the left hand. Apart from the difficulty in dealing with the polyrhythm mentioned above, I needed to have a clear sense of the overall structure of the piece in order to build up the musical tension to the explosive point at the very end of the piece.

The next piece, Half Moon Etude, earns its name from the left hand crossing over to the high register of the piano with a half circle movement. This gives the piece wonderful sonority as we have deep bassline notes as the harmonic root, combined with a rich melodic line in the middle register, which then blends in with the illuminating high register chords executed by the left hand crossing over. An awareness of harmonic progression is vital as it allows the shifting of the musical shading to occur seamlessly.

Tango Etude is rich in warm hues and vivid rhythmic pulses. The challenge is to maintain the tango rhythm throughout and to navigate the melodic line (a hard feat when it is the middle voice) with rapid passages in other voices with different pulses. I approached this in the same manner as I would Bach: learn each voice separately until I can shift between them by bringing out any voices at will at any point (on a good day!).

Our next étude, Arpeggio Etude, can be described as very atmospheric and slow. The featured arpeggios mostly serve as colourful soft swirling air to allow the interaction of melodic or rhythmic narrative to happen in other voices. They then evolve into main features in both hands towards the end of the étude. As it is slow and very soft at the beginning, the most challenging aspect for me was to maintain the clarity of voicing and the narrative of the structure. The key here was to listen intently so one can produce the right touch for refined tone colours, and to understand the relationship of musical motifs so that they can move continuously in slow spaces.

Kangding Quingge Etude is based on a theme of a Chinese love song. It is so atmospheric that one can almost hear the ringing bells triggered by the wind from a distant monastery high up on the mountain. This wind can be as soft as a whisper or as dramatic as a typhoon. The way in to this shifting sound world is to acquire real understanding of weight control for sound production.

The final étude of Opus 66 is Mephisto Etude. This is a Mephisto version from the novel The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bugalkov. The devil is illusive, charming and explosively destructive. One of the challenging aspects here is that the composer very often mixes melodic and rhythmic motifs to build the narrative and it is not always easy to see their indispensable relationship as one approaches the music for the first time. Thankfully, Nimrod Borenstein explained to me thoroughly the theory of his approach so I could gain an insight into how I could materialise it.

The first étude of op. 86 is Staccato/Legato Etude. The name speaks for itself: the contrasting touches are at the heart of this étude. While this requires precision in the sound-execution process, the real challenging musical aspect is to maintain the core simplicity of the musical narrative with almost childlike playfulness.

The Chords Etude is a big, dramatic piece. The obvious difficulty is apparent in the rich chords in both hands, often in fast passages. For me, the greater difficulty was the challenge involved in building the emotional narrative that collides with the musical structure of the composition. For this to happen effectively, a clear view of musical structure is highly important. Although most of the études are miniature in nature, it is not always easy to find the musical narrative because the texture is so rich. Sometimes it can feel like exploring a labyrinth. Which voice holds the leading line? To which voice does the line cross over? Again, I was lucky to be working alongside the composer as this offered useful insights.  Furthermore, I am more than delighted to say that this étude is dedicated to me!

Hidden Melodies Etude is a painting in sound with kaleidoscopic hues and rays of colours. The contrasting moods, colours and textures in this étude require the player to produce clarity in voicing while at the same time maintaining the ability to blend the voices when needed for different sound effects. The contrasting moods of the mysterious beginning and the subsequent appearance of the hidden melodies “like cool and refreshing water” require adept psychological shifting of gears on the part of the performer to be effective. The focal point must be to listen carefully and intently.

Brazilian Etude is a virtuosic piece in disguise. While it appears less dense in texture and less dramatic, the real difficulty lies in staccato, jumping broken octaves in the left hand. There is a real danger that the light and playful character of the piece can be lost if one adds pedal to help with the jumps. Without the pedal, one needs to have Herculean power in disguise to get the jump precisely and at ease. How to execute it well? I am still working on it!

Toccata Etude does not have the usual perpetual motion that one generally encounters in similarly named compositions (notably in the piano repertoire in compositions by Schumann, Prokofiev etc.). The perpetual continuity is more subtly psychologically signalled in contrasting episodes with notes which, while less rapidly executed, maintain the same musical intensity. The key to a good performance? Keep everything strictly in tempo!

The last étude of op. 86 is Japanese Gardens. It is as calming and as mysteriously evocative as the title suggests. One can imagine Japanese scales of Koto playing which imitate the sounds of waves of water in spring. An appreciation of the very special Japanese aesthetic displayed in landscaped gardens, the art of haiku and Japanese music possibly may be as helpful to the performer as mastering the technical challenges posed by the fast passages of this beautiful composition.

All in all, the journey of learning these études was, for me, an inspirational and rewarding one, full of challenges and surprises. It allowed me to explore new timbres of the piano, and to acquire a deeper understanding of the unique musical structures the composer was creating. The études require both virtuosity in physical aspects of playing, and in listening and musical thinking – a continuous journey for all musicians.