Is piano sonata the best genre?

My former student, current friend, and Classical Gabfest “official unofficial intern” Joseph Vaz has just recorded the piano sonata I wrote for him and I can hardly get my head around how amazing this performance is.

I’ve listened to this recording several times since he recorded it last week, and there have been times when I’ve gotten so engrossed in his performance that I’ve literally forgotten that I wrote the piece. It’s as if I’m listening to a sonata that Joseph composed that I just happen to know and like.

I like to think that part of this successful music mind-meld thing is due to the fact that I wrote the piece for Joseph, but that’s giving me too much credit — I could say that I tailored the glove to fit his hand, but its more like he refashioned his hand to fit the glove. Or, to use a less strained analogy, it’s like I’m the gardener and he’s the chef.

I’ve never had a performer of Joseph’s talents and musicality devote their entire virtuoso apparatus to a large, complex, challenging piece like this — he recorded the piece from memory for heaven’s sake — and the unalloyed success of this project also has me reexamining my thoughts about the relative potential of the various genres and forms of classical composition.

Let me put it this way: I’m an orchestra guy, and I’ve always felt that when it came to instrumental music, the symphony is the end-all-be-all of musical genres. But now I’m not so sure. A symphony is a beast, but it requires the total commitment of 60-100 people in order to achieve its effect. Yes, a sympathetic conductor can go a long way to achieving that goal, but it’s an awfully heavy lift.

But a piano sonata? There, you just need one talented, committed interpreter to bring it to life. It’s really only one step away from a novel, which goes directly from the brain of the writer into the brain of the reader. (In the case of the communication from composer to performer, it’s exactly the same.)

Of course, the piano lacks the coloristic possibilities of the orchestra, but it’s not exactly bereft of them either. It retains an awful lot of the grandeur of the orchestra, and what it lacks in size it makes up for in incision. I don’t know, I just think it’s pretty great. I still want to write symphonies, but now I am also very enthusiastic about writing piano sonatas, and piano music in general, which used to inspire tremendous fear in me, not being a trained pianist myself.

(One thing worth mentioning is that Joseph helped me tremendously to overcome my phobia of piano writing by teaching me one simple fact, namely, that Claude Debussy never marked pedaling in his scores. Pedaling notation was always a major hangup for me — as far as I’m concerned, it’s an issue best kept between a pianist and their foot!)

Joseph and I discuss the piece, the process, and the genre in more depth on this week’s Classical Gabfest, which also features discussion of some equally fascinating recent projects that my co-hosts have been involved in: