Der Erlkoenig
30 Sep 2008
Expressing the inexpressible...?
It's been a long time since I've blogged. I've been too busy somehow with playing, practicing, teaching, and family to get around to it. At the moment I'm in Dublin, and being away from home means I actually have a few more moments to myself to devote to the blog.

I'm here to play a concert with the six other pianists who have been winners of the Dublin International Piano Competition: Phillippe Cassard, Pavel Nersessian, Davide Franceschetti, Alexei Nabioulin, Antti Siirala, and Romain Descharmes, as well as the founder (and chairman of the jury) the great pianist John O'Conor. There are a few two-piano pieces on the program (Antti and I are doing the Lutoslawski Variations on a Theme of Paganini, which I have long wanted to play) and several pieces involving as many as 8 pianos. I'm not sure how those are going to go - our first rehearsals are tomorrow, and I'll have to report back later. I'm not sure if it's going to be a gigantic mess - the potential distance between Steinway D #1 and Steinway D #8 is huge and we might need binoculars to see each other on stage.

Recently in my Piano Literature course, which I teach at Boston Conservatory, we were discussing Schubert. I only have 50 minutes during the whole semester to devote to Schubert, and I felt it profitable to spend 10 of those minutes discussing and listening to Der Erlkoenig, a song that sets Goethe's poem (the recording we listened to was by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau). One of my major points in spending this time in a class presumably about piano (solo) repertoire was that the way to really discover Schubert (and how to play all of his music) is through his Lieder. I can say with some confidence that I learned most of what I know about effectively performing Schubert from listening to recordings of Fischer-Dieskau.

The text for Goethe's poem with an English translation can be found here:
My own additional comments are that, in my view, the "Erl-king" is indeed a figment of the boy's imagination, a sort of stand-in for the Grim Reaper; my assumption (possibly incorrect) is the father is riding very urgently from the outset of the poem (and especially in Schubert's musical setting) because the boy is ill, and needs to get to a doctor, or home perhaps. As the poem says, he doesn't make it.

In any case, reading Goethe's poem is fine, but it is when I hear Schubert's setting of the music it literally makes my pulse race. The music is positively terrifying. It is one of many examples of where Schubert reaches places in the human soul that no one else does. (As a side note, I will be playing a Schubert Impromptu at Patricia Zander's memorial concert in Jordan Hall, Boston, right after I get back from Ireland this weekend).

To me, the Fischer-Dieskau interpretation is the standard by which others are judged, but it is interesting to hear others and compare. I found a few videos on youtube which I'll post here for you to compare.

First, Fischer-Dieskau (with Gerald Moore). He amazes me with his power and with the range of expression he uses for each of the four characters in the song (Narrator, Father, Son, and Erl-king):

Jessye Norman likewise captures so many different characters in the song: I find the boy a bit too "weak" in character but perhaps that is more fitting.

(click on the link to view:

Alexander Kipnis, bass, has a fantastic voice, but what this needs are fantastic voices (plural).

Hilary Hahn makes this transcription seem easy:

I absolutely love this parody by Dudley Moore:

And thanks to Yasuko Sato for sending me this weird Japanese version of the song - I have no idea what the deal is here, but be prepared to scratch your head...
<August 2020>


Beethoven: Concerto for Piano no 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 "Emperor"
Mendelssohn: Concerto for Piano no 1 in G minor, Op. 25
Barber: Concerto for Piano, Op. 38
Brahms: Variations (11) for Piano on an Original Theme, Op. 21 no 1
Schumann: Papillons, Op. 2
Schoenberg: Little Pieces (6) for Piano, Op. 19
Kirchner: Pieces (5)
Bartók: Out of Doors, Sz 81/BB 89
Bartók: Romanian Folkdances (6), Sz 56/BB 68
Bartók: Sonata for Piano, Sz 80/BB 88
Bartók: Rondos (3) on Slovak folktunes for Piano, Sz 84/BB 92
Bartók: Allegro barbaro for Piano, Sz 49/BB 63
Bartók: Mikrokosmos, Sz 107/BB 105: Book 6
Bartók: Dance Suite for Piano, Sz 77/BB 86
Ravel: Concerto for Piano in G major
Beethoven: Sonata for Piano no 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 no 2 "Moonlight"
Dvorak: Trio for Piano and Strings no 3 in F minor, Op. 65/B 130
Rachmaninov: Concerto for Piano no 2 in C minor, Op. 18

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