Album Leaves from Brazil: Sergio Monteiro Plays Henrique Oswald
For many around the world—even those who follow classical music's unending search for unsung masters and masterpieces—Henrique Oswald's may not be a household name. So why have listeners played a recording of the composer's miniature "En nacelle" over 9,000,000 times on one streaming service alone? Thank pianist Sergio Monteiro for that.
A Steinway Artist and the Director of Piano Activities at Oklahoma City University's Wanda Bass School of Music, Monteiro champions the music of his native Brazil. His all-Oswald album, released on Grand Piano in 2015, has won over millions of listeners.
ArkivMusic asked Monteiro about his perspectives on Oswald, Brazilian music history, his activities as an artist/advocate/educator, and more! Read on and discover Oswald: Albums and Etudes today.
ArkivMusic: Your recording of piano works by Henrique Oswald was trailblazing—one of the first albums dedicated to his music! Could you tell us how it came to be?
Sergio Monteiro: I have always been interested in the Brazilian music of the last decades of the 19th century, and in particular the piano music of Henrique Oswald, certainly the most prominent composer in Brazil before Villa-Lobos. His work became undeservedly neglected after his death in 1931, and the few pieces performed seemed to me insufficient to represent the importance of this composer.
When I first made contact with [Grand Piano] and the producers asked me which ideas I would like to present, it seemed very natural to propose a recording entirely dedicated to Oswald. Fortunately, an important part of his works was not yet in the catalogue, and I was pleased to be able to register pieces such as the three Etudes Op. 42, the Etude for the left hand, the Pagine d’Album Op. 3 and the pieces Op. 33 and Op. 36, works of major importance within Oswald's pianistic universe and among the best piano music ever written in Brazil.
AM: Your performance of En nacelle, a short character piece by Oswald, has over 9 million streams on Spotify, with more each day. Which other selections on the album would you offer to the public as examples of Oswald’s special gifts?
SM: Oswald's music is elegant, subtly polyphonic, colorful, and sophisticated, like a true watercolor. His somewhat nostalgic character, the floating harmonies, and the particular balance of the [genres of the] Berceuse and the Barcarolla—so often found in his music—are perhaps elements that cause admiration for En nacelle, a small musical pearl. I believe that these same elements can be found in the slow pieces of the Albums Op. 33 and Op. 36, as well as in Il Neige, perhaps his most famous piece, winner of a competition organized by the French newspaper Le Figaro in 1902.
AM: The album begins with a Preludio mostly constructed from a single gesture, repeated with different harmonies. It’s a bit like Bach’s C major Prelude to The Well-Tempered Clavier in that respect. Can you tell us more about Oswald’s interest in the Germanic compositional tradition?
SM: Oswald had great compositional skills, and his exquisite modulations and counterpoint are exemplary. His Italian training with Buonamici, himself an admirer of the German school, brought a great influence of the Germanic instrumental music, which can be seen, for example, in Oswald’s interest in chamber music. The two suites written in the beginning of his compositional career (Pagine d’Album Op. 3 and Six Morceaux Op. 4) both reflect a great influence of [Robert] Schumann and [Felix] Mendelssohn: mastering of the short forms, restrained sentimentality, subtle melodic counterpoint, and a skillful treatment of the piano.
Although very much influenced by the harmonic language of the early romantic generation, these works already have a voice of their own. The expansion of his harmonic language in his piano literature occurs at the turn of the century, in pieces such as Il Neige. In these works, one may find a more French (Fauré) or Russian (Glazunov, Lyapunov) harmonic flavor.
AM: Your album covers a number of pieces in what a music historian might call “salon style.” Please tell us more—what elements of salon style should we listen for in this music?
SM: [Oswald] had a very unique way of writing for the instrument; his music is always sophisticated, even in moments of absolute simplicity. In the lineage of the best pedagogical tradition of Chopin and [Robert] Schumann, his pieces demand of the performer great attention to details of balance, voicing and pedaling in order to reveal the true beauty of the works.
AM: Oswald was naming collections of pieces “albums” or “album leaves” well before the idea of an album of recordings came along. Do you hear connections to earlier music with this sort of title, for instance Robert Schumann’s Albumblätter?
SM: Undoubtedly Henrique Oswald had a great affinity with the short piece, and he often put them together in collections called “Feuille d’album” or “Albumblätter"...The choice to gather short and pleasant piano pieces in groups is found not only in the late Albumblätter op. 124 by Schumann, but also several other Romantic composers, such as Grieg and Tchaikovsky. In my view, Oswald’s short pieces are independent works, and can be performed according to the discretion of the interpreter, either alone or in groups, in the order suggested by the composer or not. I personally don’t see any intention of the composer in unifying these pieces as big cycles. Oswald's short pieces seem to me self-sufficient, and can be performed separately or together, such as Brahms'sKlavierstücke or Schubert’sMoments Musicaux.
AM: What were some of the specifically pianistic, technical challenges of learning this music?
SM: Oswald always presents contrapuntal challenges, harmonic inventiveness, a preoccupation with different textures, colors and a nuanced use of the pedal. The pianist must have a certain amount of mastery in playing with overlapping hands, often in quite unusual positions, a very unique trademark of the composer which often brings new sound possibilities.
Doubled notes and polyrhythms are also widely used, in addition to a certain predilection for keys with more than 5 flats.
AM: Have you continued to learn more of Oswald’s music, or that of other Brazilian composers? If so, what and whose?
SM: Always. I particularly want to record his chamber works—Oswald is perhaps the most important Brazilian composer for chamber music using piano and strings—in addition to his two works for piano and orchestra (the Piano Concerto Op. 10 and the Variations on an Original Theme). I continue to be very interested in Brazilian music, and in 2023 I will record the complete Sonatas and Sonatinas of Francisco Mignone, some of the highlights of 20th-century, Latin American piano repertoire.