Interview: Eleonor Bindman
"I literally could not believe I was looking at original markings by Liszt. There were edits in blue and red ink that you could still see. I had goosebumps, a sensation of awe, a feeling of time travel touching those papers." We recently sat down with pianist Eleonor Bindman to discuss her latest recording on Grand Piano, The Brandenburg Duets.
Listen to Eleonor Bindman and Jenny Lin on Primephonic.
How did you come to own the only published piano duet arrangement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos?
I bought the Max Reger volumes at Patelson’s here in New York and kept them on my piano-4-hands music shelf since my college days, along with the Schubert works and the Mozart Sonatas. The arrangements were awkward and I eventually understood why they were never performed in their entirety by any known piano duo. I couldn’t even find any online videos of students playing them. They were widely published yet not at all useful to pianists.
What do you think Reger’s original intentions were when arranging this music? To read your analysis of his choices, it is evident he was pursuing too much at one time.
Reger was a very busy composer, conductor and arranger. Most of his Bach transcriptions are quite successful but the Brandenburg's ended up differently. Only someone really invested in playing four-hand piano would care enough to do a thorough job with so much material, so I see how this could have slipped through the cracks for him.
You have spoken already quite extensively on the specific rearrangements you’ve made and artistic choices of Reger. When rearranging the music, how did you choose or know which parts were vital and which were more or less superfluous?
Yes, my CD liner notes describe some choices as obvious, and others as less so. First, I put down cello and bass parts that absolutely had to be there unaltered, but I didn’t double them into octaves like Reger did, so they wouldn't overpower the treble. That major change also left one free hand to help out with playing all the treble parts. I then included the solo parts and afterward the “ripieno” (literally meaning “stuffing”) string parts, if there were any available keys or fingers left. Naturally, I had to transpose some parts up or down an octave – usually the recorders/ flutes and solo violins ended up higher and some of the harpsichord part had to be lowered.
My main goal was to keep the polyphonic lines unbroken and clearly presented. When looking at Reger’s score, the Primo part is made of chord clusters and it’s impossible to discern the separate lines. I used the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra’s performances for listening because to me their sound is just perfect for these works. They have a beautiful video series of the six Brandenburgs recorded in a German castle which allowed me to understand which parts were more acoustically prominent.
You mentioned in a previous interview that the time undertaken for your Brandenburg Duets project taught perseverance. What were the trickiest parts of this specific transcription?
The entire project took almost 2 years. I started with arranging one concerto and then I procrastinated because I knew it would be intense and time-consuming and would take me away from my family. But there was this inner voice saying: “You have to complete all of them.” So one day I just took out the orchestral score, numbered the measures of the remaining five concertos and got to work. After entering all the data and at least three rounds of editing, I got to a playable version. Perseverance was required every day, going back and forth between the score and the computer, then between the computer and the keyboard, then between the many printed-out versions and run-throughs and corrections, and then more edits.
I've never transcribed such densely polyphonic orchestral music before. The brain starts short-circuiting after a while, looking at so many parts with similar patterns in a score with 4 different clefs. I often literally had to drag myself over to the computer to keep going. To top it off, all six concertos are scored for disparate groups of instruments, so each one was a new learning experience. Most people won't realize that logistically the trickiest part was figuring out how it would sound in the end. Some intervals sound fine between two violins but terrible on the same keyboard. I tried to get though a four-hand arrangement with just my two hands for the first drafts, going very slowly. I had to have an actual bound score, with lined-up measures, before inviting anyone to come and play through with me for edits. Lots of printing, lining up, cutting and pasting, whiting-out. A friend of mine actually made a short funny “documentary” about what it took to get through this transcription project, you can see it on my website or on YouTube.
For your recording on Grand Piano, you worked alongside Jenny Lin. How did you, or both of you, choose to collaborate on this project?
After I finished the transcription and started approaching American publishers, I realized that having a good recording of The Brandenburg Duets would help. Jenny Lin and I met as young pianists on the competition circuit and I remembered hearing her play the Liszt Sonata in Spain. It was such a vivid impression because she interpreted in such a unique way. I was thinking at the time: "She plays Liszt as if it was Bach", and that sound was exactly what I wanted for this recording. I also knew that since Jenny is such an excellent pianist who plays lots of contemporary music she’d be able to learn a lot of material very quickly. So I approached her and she was very enthusiastic about the project because she is also a teacher and totally gets the importance of this repertoire for pianists. Fortunately, she had a few free days in August of 2017 and the excellent Sono Luminus studios in Virginia were available, so we crunched in only 10 rehearsals, recorded a double CD set in 3 days and that was it!
What is the process you must take to have your arrangement of The Brandenburg Duets published?
I am working diligently on getting more reviews, attention on social media and other publicity for the Brandenburg Duets recording. Reviewers are swamped these days and many of them don’t really care much about the 4-hand piano medium or the educational potential of this new arrangement because the classical music field is so star-driven. Fortunately, the listeners really like it so it’s selling well, and I am getting great feedback about hearing the music in a fresh new way and the wonderful mood the recording puts people in. Now I’m about to approach music publishing houses, chiefly aiming for German/European ones, and hoping they will think this is a worthwhile project to bring to light in time for the 300th anniversary the Brandenburg Concertos in 2021.
You’ve transcribed several pieces of music over your career. Do you foresee more projects like this in the future? Any that you can share about?
Yes, every recording of mine includes a piano transcription, as it turned out. I was always fascinated by the possibility of sounding like an entire orchestra on just one piano and I am motivated by making great music possible for pianists to play. I tried to simplify the Brandenburg Duets as much as possible, so that amateurs and students can play some of the movements. Having taught adults for years, I really value the experience of amateur pianists, not just concert-level performers. Most well-known Bach transcriptions by Busoni, Liszt, Siloti, etc., are virtuosic, so lately I’ve been making shorter and less complicated Bach transcriptions that still sound beautiful.
Do you have any recording projects you look forward to releasing that you can share with us?
Currently, I have about 7-8 shorter new solo piano Bach arrangements (including a solo version of one movement from Brandenburg Concerto #4) and I am adding more for a future recording project. Also, I want to record the Partitas soon – I have played them for years and feel very close to that music.
What is your favorite classical music memory?
My favorite memory comes from doing research on Liszt’s transcriptions at the Library of Congress about 20 years ago. To gain access to them I had to fill out a separate slip of paper for each one and give it to a librarian who then descended into what they called "the vault" and brought them out for me, one after another. I remember sitting in a small private room at that library with those old manuscripts and trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I’m holding the same papers as Franz Liszt once held. I was looking at his original markings: they were so well-organized with different edits in colored ink that you could still clearly see… I had goose bumps, a sensation of awe, a feeling of time travel touching those papers. I still get that sensation, even now when I think of it.
What is your ideal piece of classical music to perform live? To record?
I’ve been performing a lot of Bach lately and that requires the highest degree of focus from me. Beethoven also requires a certain mindset, hard to explain, but he really transports you to a different plane. Performing a Romantic piece, like a Chopin Nocturne, is most “enjoyable,” it’s almost like being propelled through a great emotional wave and listeners are most responsive to that type of music. With Bach or Beethoven, you have to do the "propelling” yourself. As far as recording, to me the repertoire really makes no difference. The constant striving to get a better and better take applies to any piece.
What do you see as the future of the classical music genre?
I'm encouraged by the relatively new presence of classical music streaming. It’s crucial in attracting younger audiences to appreciating the genre. Classical playlists are extremely popular for studying and working because there are no distracting lyrics and people can focus on their work while listening. I look at my CD stats on streaming services and am very happy to see that the percentage of younger audiences listening is much higher that one would think. It’s still a transition from CDs for the older generation but streaming music is so convenient that it will win them over. I have been compiling many playlists, focusing on Bach transcriptions, piano duet music, relaxing music, even music for cooking and they are gaining a good following.
I also think it’s extremely important that we put more energy into creating “real” classical playlists for children. I have been making playlists, tweeting and nagging all over social media about that. We need to build future audiences: all it takes is for kids to start when they are young and open to music without words, and to continue listening. Parents willingly spend thousands of dollars on music lessons but they won't make the effort to listen to classical music at home. Yet listening will have a more lasting impact than lessons on most children’s future – it will feed their brains, hearts and spirits and teach music appreciation for the rest of their lives.