Mark Isaacs ‘INTIMACIES’ CD Booklet Notes

by Mark Isaacs


My training and deep engagement with classical piano repertoire has been lifelong; I’ve played most of the pieces on this recording for decades (a half-century in the case of the Debussy).

Classical repertoire pianism was not my first or primary ambition in music. At age twelve I decided I was to be a concert composer, particularly of orchestral music, and indeed, I still am that, with over a hundred works under my belt and many more sure to come.

In my mid-teens I added extemporisation and jazz performance to my aspirations, and I have had over four decades of professional career to date in that area, including the honour of recording with American jazz artists who themselves had worked with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

Also in my mid-teens I realised I wanted to conduct, and to write film music, and I’ve done those as well, conducting my own works in the concert hall and the recording studio, with a two-disc compendium of my orchestral film music released this year. I’ve also written songs, including lyrics.

However, through it all, there was hardly a day when I turned my back on playing classical piano literature. Living in New York City at age twenty, trying to soak up the jazz scene and be a jazz pianist, I remember soaring on the Chopin G minor Ballade in my little room with its rented upright piano, feeling in my gut that I was still a classical pianist and would indeed do it publicly. 

I kept up my serious classical piano studies with master teachers until the age of 27, in Sydney, Jerusalem and New York. I discovered that I truly loved practising, and could do extremely long daily hours when required (a sedulousness which has only grown as I have gotten older).

Professionally-speaking, I’d played the solo part of various piano concertos I composed, including on Australian network television when I was fourteen, and in St Petersburg Philharmonic Hall when I was thirty-five.

Apart from my many student recitals, my first public outing with classical repertoire was a short recording for broadcast I made for ABC Radio while still an undergraduate. The producer praised the amount of colour in my playing. That generous feedback fortified my then inchoate inkling that I might have something to offer in this area.  Conversely, an unkind remark around the same time from someone close to me along the lines that it was too late for me to do anything valuable with classical piano also helped invigorate me with a different energy: defiance.   

In my late thirties I recorded a full studio classical recital for broadcast by the ABC, and then in my early forties I booked recording sessions at the Sydney Opera House for what was to be my first self-produced solo CD of classical repertoire. It was an unmitigated disaster. I practised so hard on such difficult repertoire that I injured a tendon, and could hardly keep things together in the studio. Having spent thousands of dollars on the production, with months of full-time preparation, I had nothing to show. Quite a blow.

But in the wake of that travail came an invitation from one of Australia’s most distinguished classical musicians, cellist Trish Dean (whom I had accompanied for an audition years before) to join her in a permanent cello-piano duo. In 2003 I played very little jazz but gave numerous classical recitals and broadcasts with Trish around Australia, later recording with her for disc.

As is so often the case, my “disaster” was a blessing in disguise, as it was then too soon for me to be tackling a solo album at the level to which I aspired. I needed to rehearse extensively with, and get onto stages and into recording studios alongside, musicians who had had far more experience with the public side of classical performing than I.

With still more good fortune, in 2009 I began to perform, tour and record in a duo with another brilliant Australian classical musician, flautist Melissa Doecke, collaborating with her over several years of recitals, touring and a CD release.

And so, sparked by a public solo recital in Sydney in 2017, in 2019 I recorded what you now have in your hands: my debut solo classical album. Yes, I know: age 62 is uncommonly late to be venturing a “debut” of anything, but you must admit I have done a lot of other things in music meanwhile (many, if not most, of which perhaps subtly inform what you will hear).

I’ve always been especially entranced by the deeply lyrical seam in piano literature, and this certainly characterises the menu of Slavic and Gallic music I have curated. In its quiet intimacy, the piano can pluck out its notes with the closeted candour of a troubadour wistfully striking at lute or lyre. Yet in its shattering climaxes, of which there are quite a few in this collection, the modern concert piano soars like an orchestra. And with the rich legacy of keyboard counterpoint hatched in works for its predecessors like the harpsichord, the piano is, of course, irredeemably polyphonic. You can hear Bach in Chopin, and Bach-via-Chopin in Rachmaninov.   

The style of music on this disc is traditionally described as “romantic”. I don’t generally find that term useful and mostly reject it since it seems to limit the discussion to evocations of “carnal” love, typically heterosexual. Tom Ewell’s character, in the 1955 Hollywood movie The Seven Year Itch, was scripted to deploy the music of Rachmaninov – which he strategically played on his apartment’s phonograph – as a key tool in his attempted seduction of a visiting siren played by Marilyn Monroe. And yet, as conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has demonstrated, the melodic cells of Rachmaninov’s music derive from Russian Orthodox religious chant; ecclesiastical, not romantic.   

I believe these masterpieces evoke human “intimacy” in all its forms: sacred, secular, spiritual, familial, fraternal, sororal, platonic, and yes, carnal. Hence the disc’s title Intimacies and its cover illustration of a gender-ambiguous communion which might be platonic, or might not.

Regarding my approach to interpretation it behoves me not to say much, but I might note that in this CD you will always hear a composer-pianist interpreting the work of another composer-pianist, an intimacy in the fundamental constitutions of performer and composer that is almost always absent in modern-day classical performance. These composers surely improvised at the piano too, even if not publicly (Debussy’s piano improvisations in his apartment are rapturously reported upon in the literature, as are Rachmaninov’s given at chic Los Angeles parties).

I don’t self-consciously predispose myself to play repertoire a certain way by virtue of any distinction I enjoy beyond the ambit of the typical concert pianist, but I have found that these words by André Gide regarding what not to do with the performance of Chopin’s music point to what I hope I may achieve in my kinship with all of these composers:

‘[Chopin] seemed to be constantly seeking, inventing, discovering his thought little by little. This kind of charming hesitation, of surprise and delight, ceases to be possible if the work is presented to us, no longer in a state of successive formation, but as an already perfect, precise and objective whole.’

And now some remarks on my textual sources: For the Chopin Nocturne I have always used the Joseffy edition, which has ties in bars 7 & 20 not always found elsewhere, but they make real sense to me. With the Chopin E-major étude my Russian teacher Igor Hmelnitsky imparted to me indelibly the libertarian oral tradition of playing the left-hand octave which sets off the central cadenza in sixths an octave lower than written. My Satie Gymnopédie is played from a facsimile of the composer’s own manuscript, which shows the left-hand octaves that end the two sections an octave lower than eventually published, and also omits the two published sudden fortes in the accompaniment. In the Poulenc Intermezzo I play the bass note at the beginning of bar 39 a tone higher, since I truly believe that what is published is a misprint given the prevailing harmony (if I am wrong, I hope Poulenc and listeners will forgive me this one note).

In closing, I’d like to profusely thank Lachlan Bramble for his skilful and wise guidance throughout what was for me the first experience of having an outside producer across a whole album. Tom Henry is a terrific sound engineer who knew the hall like the back of his hand, and the piano tuning/adjustment father-and-son team led by Geoff Smith took extra special care with a piano known apparently as ‘Audrey’ (after Hepburn?). My wife Jewel’s beautiful cover illustration perfectly expresses in its touching scene what I believe about the music’s metaphoric predilections; I have been enriched for forty years by her uncommonly fine sensitivities and perceptions. Thanks also to Vyvyan Black for his warm graphic design on this, our fourth CD together.

I need to sincerely thank my kind donors who made the recording production possible, especially the particularly generous ones (you know who you are) and I also appreciate the support of the Australian Cultural Fund in auspicing many of these.

I must acknowledge wholeheartedly the enduring debt of gratitude I owe to the teachers who nurtured me through what were the critical years of my classical piano studies – age twelve to twenty-seven – when I was instructed by the great pianists and pedagogues Heather Silcock (1925–2020), Isador Goodman (1909–1982), Alexander Tamir (1931–2019), Igor Hmelnitsky (1920–1987) and David Burge (1930–2013).

This album is dedicated, with love, to my mother, who, labouring me into this world, offered a compass by which to navigate it, conducted my first piano lessons age four, and, sitting at the piano as she so often did (and still does age 83), always played Chopin for me. Even as a small child, hearing the exquisite beauty in Frédéric Chopin’s creations brought tears to my eyes (tears which certainly were not, as she is now wont to claim, provoked by any paucity in the quality of her playing).

MARK ISAACS, July 2020

The Intimacies CD may be ordered here.
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