Saturday, March 17, 2018

Mundane Musings of a Muddled Musician...

"The jury is out" - this is the status of a rather bewildering phase of my consciousness  these days:
As a musician, I find myself at a loss about the status and nature of what we call Greatness, as I listen to the leading pianists of the present period.
With the exception of the Israeli-Argentine pianist Daniel Barenboim and the  Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, whom I have  long considered   great musicians who happened to have chosen the piano to prove their  point, I have attained a position of a new form of confusion, as it pertains to my senses when I confront the other pianists whom I listen to almost daily.
There is no question as to the stature of the keyboard techniques the eminent pianists of our day possess.  For me, I am witness to the playing of the piano at the highest level of brilliance I have ever heard. These pianists  have achieved dizzying powers of performance that may well be unprecedented.  When I hear or see teenagers plow with relative ease through a number of the Horowitz transcriptions; or, pianist after pianist virtually incapable of playing a wrong note while whittling one of the last three Beethoven sonatas down to a new size - when I watch Juja Wang dispatch the Prokoviev Toccata as if  she  were cavorting through  a Clementi Sonatina - when I take note of pianists in increasingly large numbers showing such little effort in handling the most challenging knuckle-busters in the piano lexicon, then I realize just how far the technology of pedagogy has traveled this past generation.
Which leads to the issue confronting my senses today - has the very nature of  what is defined as 'greatness' in playing altered in some arcane manner because of the stultifying levels of technical achievement in our time? Or is it merely that I find it difficult to peer past this blinding technology  in order to behold that Thing called 'Great?'
I have no problem whatsoever in perceiving the absolutely wonderful level of beauty and liquescence (when demanded) made available by the leading pianists; the quality of tonal beauty is there for me to hear - the problem is when I listen to such keyboard giants as Hamelin and Trifonov I hear aspects of their total that I consider great, but I find myself stopping short of simply terming them as 'great.'
Is it that the gigantism of physicality in keyboard technique is obfuscating my being able to define  greatness in that performance?
For me, the jury is out at this point in time, in spite of the  transcendent level achieved in the playing of that particular piece.
My hope is that there will appear a way for that synthesis to be presented; and, soon...


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Part Two of the Illimitable Power of Art...

In my last blog I discussed the strange but real connection that Adolf Hitler possessed in connection with Man's art; all beginning in his being denied admission as a student to the Vienna Institute of Fine Art twice, primarily and seemingly,  due to his inability to draw the human figure, which begot the genesis of the tortured, horrific  reality of Adolf Hitler, and the lurid reality that a portion of the nature of our existence in the 21st century, at least in part, remains with and within us, due to the 12 year Odyssey of Hitlerism.
Much, to be sure, has been written, and continues to be written  about this man. The primary reason for my bringing his memory back for the moment is, for me, strange irony germane to this man and Man's art.
For one, the art exhibit he  created back in 1937, visited by millions for the four months it existed, called Entartete Kunst (degenerate art), consisted of works of art which he considered dangerous and inflammatory; works of art, many by geniuses representing Expressionism, such as Picasso, Kokoschka, Kirchner, Dix, Kollwitz, and a host of others who have given us a number of works which are part of  the indestructible legacy  in the arts we call Great.
The irony that strikes me comes out of Expressionism, which Hitler hated -  that  powerful period coming out of the early 20th century that depicts the inner world of  the mind and its workings, rather than the outer world that the eye can behold. Many  of the powerful paintings and sketches created by the Expressionists depict the darker side of the human condition, with War as one of the primary sources as subject. Just look at Kathe Kollwitz and some of her work; or, Otto Dix; or Ernst Kirchner, just to name a few. The brutality and ugliness of the dark side will confront your senses - how about Guernica by Picasso, and its immortal statement about the horror and futility of War?
And Adolf Hitler, who  became one of history's most successful instigators of horror and pillage, railed in the most vehement manner against the powerful statements of Expressionism, calling them elemental threats to human sensibility and to the culture he represented.
In the exhibit he produced in 1937, he had a number of these works actually hung upside down, or at awkward angles and without frames, accompanied by various forms of graffiti scrawled on the walls of the gallery.
From my humble view, it seems to me that Hitler demonstrates his fear of the Artist, perhaps feeling that there would be no way to bend him into the shape that conformed to the ways of his thoughts and beliefs - but, NEVER admitting that reality to himself.
It is, perhaps, too easy to simply reason that Hitler did not understand the art he hated; especially when history certifies that he represented more efficiently, perhaps, better than anybody else, save Stalin,  in  modern history, the very subject we see so often in a great number of the works of the Expressionists.
Is there a greater mystery than the person we see staring back at us in a mirror?...

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Illimitable Power of Man's Art...

During the regime of Adolf Hitler, the tyrant spent countless hours gazing at models of his coveted plans for transforming Berlin into a world center he would name Germania, which, among the vast array of buildings forming its center would be an enormous collection of art objects collected and chosen by Hitler and his Minister of Armaments, Albert  Speer, who, incidentally, was a highly trained and gifted architect. During years of  spending  hours, much of the time the wee hours, hovering over and dealing with ever-changing arrangements of the artistic center of his new capital, all laid out on a huge table, Adolf Hitler  dreamed  of that ultimate hour of absolute personal victory by way of the reality that he would become the world's most  powerful entity  in the world of the arts.
He claimed that it would exceed the drawing power of any other capital in the world by way of its unique splendor, both in size and architectural imagination.
Hermann Goering, who for much of the Hitler regime of twelve years as Nazi no. 2, became a ravenous 'collector' of art objects from 1933, the first year of the Nazi accession to power, to just months before the defeat of Nazi Germany  in 1945. Goering, during this period, had become the 'owner' of somewhere between 1400 and 1700 works of art he obtained by personal choice  of each of these art pieces,many of which were renowned masterpieces.
There were others in the Hitler hierarchy who also became owners of various forms of art, including tapestries and furniture of immense value. It becomes quite obvious that the word 'power,' as so  efficiently utilized in the Nazi horror, is reflected in the Nazi's thirst for possession of Man's artistic creations as an intrinsic part of their identity.
Toward the end of the war, just a few months before D-Day in June of 1944, a letter was sent by Eisenhower, from North Africa to the Overlord planners to be aware of the immense and fragile quest to preserve as much of the art treasure in Europe as is possible in  the coming hostilities, and a group of men in the armed forces, many of  them known authorities in the arts, called the Monuments Men, became a vital part of the eventual preservation and reclamation of the art treasures which would survive the conflict. The world still does not know, and  probably will  never know, the final numbers  of treasures which were destroyed during the European phase of World War II.
As victims of Nazi occupation, the French offer countless examples of the indestructible connection to their art, two of which I offer:
As the German armies approached Paris in 1940, the French shipped out as  many  of the art treasures in the Louvre as they could. The procedure to save the great Hellenistic statue, Winged Victory, required a special transport to be designed in order to move this fragile piece of marble, assembled from fragments, down the grand stairs facing the Louvre entrance. Fortunately, the statue was safely removed after an inch-by-inch descent over the stairs, and sent out to unoccupied France. The other renowned work of art; namely, Mona Lisa, was placed in a small van which  had a sealed atmosphere within to protect the painting, which was in a most fragile state, and also shipped out safely to a place in Vichy France. These two treasures never fell into Nazi hands, in addition to many other art pieces, thanks to those who considered their treasures more valuable than their own lives.
The words of Beethoven  tell all:
"It is they who should bow to us."

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Mystique of the Prelude - and Where Rachmaninoff Takes It...

I usually think of the word 'prelude' as  a composition belonging to itself; as a separate and complete expression, with its apotheosis occurring by, arguably, Chopin, in the nineteenth century.
In actuality, this term began to appear increasingly during the time of Couperin in the 17th century as an improvised, brief precursor to larger compositions for keyboard; therefore,  the term 'prelude.'
With  the ensuing increase of  emotional projection  in composition and commensurate physical changes in the instruments that could  support  such demands (termination of such processes as terraced dynamics; or, the pianoforte), the Prelude, for one, takes on the shape and view of a separate, totally independent composition.
And so, when we hear a prelude of, say,  Chopin, we are witness to an example of absolute music( a composition with,  for the most part, no specific 'story');  rather, in such  endeavors by Chopin and Rachmaninoff, pieces written in all 24 major and minor keys  as a kind of compendium of the possibilities of  the  list of human emotions via the diatonic system.
No need to genuflect to the wonders of the Chopin preludes, as  we have been doing that since the 19th century.
Let's move to  the case of Rachmaninoff, whose position is unique in the course of linear history:
A Romantic, who appears after the  peak of the Romantic Era  is passing by, and remains with us until 1943 , midway into a century of immense transition. His position today continues to include  him in the  select group  of the great Romantics.
His contribution to an examination of the 24 major and minor  keys, written in the first decade of the 20th century by way of the prelude, in his opus 23 and 32 projects, stands  as one of the major attainments for the piano. The spectrum of representation of the vocabulary of human emotion is a revelation in these wonderful, relatively brief creations.
My two favorite recordings of the preludes are by the Russian legend Richter and  the American pianist Constance Keene.
Richter, of course, was a big man, and surrounded the piano.  For me, his sense of connection to these gems, has no parallel. No pianist has ever possessed a larger repertoire  - he himself stated that he could play at any time, the equivalent of 15 recital programs without repeating any included piece.
Constance Keene was  a slim, almost fragile-looking figure, who totally belies her appearance in this 1964 recording of the preludes. The great Artur Rubinstein, one of the 20th century's reigning pianists, stated that he was "flabbergasted" upon hearing this recording, and remarked that he could  not imagine anyone surpassing  the greatness of her performance of this music.
Do listen to what happens to this music, when these two play for you...

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A Name Among the Great Pianists To Be Remembered...

Since the latter part of the Romantic period the world has been the witness to the veritably endless parade of  great  Russian pianists. From the time of Anton Rubinstein to the legendary career of Vladimir Horowitz, who passed away less than thirty years ago, the  history of the keyboard giants  from Mother Russia is like no other,  from the time it all began  with the early Romanticism of Beethoven's  journey.
Many of us still hold in vivid recall the shouting and stamping after a Horowitz afternoon recital; an experience  of a unique form of 'feeling completed'  after hearing Ashkenazy; an overriding sense of "did what I just heard really happen?" upon leaving a Gilels recital, such as I once did at Symphony Hall in Boston;  or a Richter; -   and on and on it goes after listening to a Kissin, or a  Pletnev etc., etc.
The parade of these immortals is even longer than generally thought about. There is a sizeable number of marvelous pianists from Russia that we so seldom hear about, as many of them remained in the country of their birth primarily as teachers. The names, for instance, of Udina and Feinberg represent not only  pedagogy of the highest level but also performers of world-class attainment.  Listen to the recordings that were made in Russia during the earlier portion of the preceding century, and you will be aware that you are listening to performance at its highest level.
After all this, I must bring to you the name Vladimir Sofronitsky.
He never played in the West. He never played in America. Or England. The few recordings emanate from  Mother Russia, for the most part.
I, for many years, had considered the playing of Scriabin's piano music by Vladimir Horowitz to be the most certifiably connected to this Russian Mystic; after all, that singular, neurotic  Horowitzian 'edge' really best typifies the mystery of the unique tapestry  woven by the composer that is Scriabin's  legacy.
But, then; there is Sofronitsky in his playing of Scriabin - did his marriage to one of Scriabin's daughters have something to do with the magical powers he evokes from the music?
But do go on with other recordings.
The Mazurkas of Chopin; the playing of Schumann; his reading of the Mendelssohn "Variations Serieuses" is beyond description, in my view. His 'touch'-pedaling in Mendelssohn, as opposed to the more connective pedal he utilizes in his Chopin is a brilliant example of differentiation between one Romantic's language and another.
And the other recordings he left us - well;  Gilels himself stated, upon the death of Vladimir Sofronitsky, that "the greatest pianist in the world has just died."
It seems that a heart condition, cancer,  let alone drugs and alcohol,  had taken him from us.
At the Potsdam Conference, Stalin ordered that Sofronitsky play for Truman and Churchill, which he did. Of all the pianists available in Mother Russia at that time, the Russian leader chose Sofronitsky.
A legend not generally known to us, sadly...
If you are not familiar with this rather secretive, Hollywood-handsome,  hero of Gilels and Richter -
then why not  give him a try?...


Sunday, February 4, 2018

How My Particular Form of Bricolage in Musicology Came About...

Strangely, it was not a musician who was the primary influence in creating my ways of dealing with the mystery we call Music, in terms intellectual.
My experiences, as a student, with great musical thinkers as Jerome Diamond during my days at Eastman, or John Hasson of Boston University, can never be taken away from me, when it comes to the issues such as interpretation  and instrumental methodology connected with the piano - these men were not only 'second fathers,' but great practitioners,  when it dealt with the confrontational issues germane to performance.
However; when it deals with the ways, as a messenger, of eliciting answers pertaining to the countless issues dealing with this arcane language, I unhesitatingly doff my hat and bow to two historians.
I knew one of these gentlemen; the other, I have never met.
Charles Arthur and I met whenever we could, both socially and between teaching hours.
What caught my attention about him, firstly, was his approach to teaching. He never had notes, never used a text book, always spoke directly to his students. He, of course, constantly spewed forth titles of  great numbers of books to read and articles to digest. In essence, the student would create his own text book from the classes attended.
It was his book (his PHD thesis) on the remaking of the British Navy between 1795 and about 1805 by Admiral St. Vincent, who transformed a corruption-laden group of officers and men into a force which was instrumental in the ultimate defeat of Napoleon.
I was simply overwhelmed in the make-up of process during that decade that Charles Arthur so magnificently assembled, and how the veritably Byzantine nature of that process resulted in such vital  historical realities.
He and I discussed his book many times, and the way his mind worked led me into questioning
my own approach to things historical; primarily, how to deal with a better form of dissection of historical issues.
Then one day, after smilingly expressing discomfort to me by saying, "you know;  you possess more knowledge about things historical than I know about things musical, and it distresses me."
Arthur  then, looking straight into my eyes,  asked "please tell me why Beethoven's music sounds the way it does."
I gaped at him, looking for a way to answer. Nothing further was said.
About a week or two  later, it occurred to me that I should ask him a counter-question, which I did; namely, something like "are you requesting that I look further into The Enlightenment in order  to better understand where Beethoven came from?"
His answer, with a smile, was "bingo."
From that point on, the issue of History has been my companion in the Arts.
The other historian is Mason Drukman.
His book  "Community and Purpose in America" absolutely mesmerized me, pretty much in the same way that Arthur's treatise did.
Drukman's specificity in the issues of such items as Determinism and Individualism, especially in early America, is  without parallel, and it brought me to look further into the elemental dangers and powers still threatening a rather tender young America.
And so; when I think of, say, Chopin -  in a number of his Mazurkas, I think of the Chopin who played hundreds of times in the great homes in and around Paris, but no more than thirty times that we know of in the great public halls - Artur Rubinstein, when playing Chopin, used the 'trick' of choosing a  lady member of the audience  sitting in the first three rows, whenever he first came  on stage  - that young lady, whoever she was, was never made aware that he was playing for her only.
Rubinstein divulged that 'trick' eventually, stating that it was during his playing of the more intimate Chopin - was Rubinstein, in his own mind,  replicating the days of Chopin playing for small groups, or, perhaps, even one person?  To be sure,  certain  Mazurkas are wonderfully personal atmospherically.
Do be assured that my examination of issues surrounding music and/or musicians is not merely  a pursuit of hypothesis -some of the answers I seek are directly attached to a reality concerning real issues germane to the chosen subject.


Monday, January 29, 2018

A Pianist - the Peregrinations of a True Peripatetic...

In one sitting, you can hear
Piano Concerto No.3 by Bartok
Piano Concerto by Barber
Piano Concerto K. 466 by Mozart
The Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach
Danny Boy
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
etc., etc., etc......
by one pianist; his name,
Keith Jarrett -  know him? If not, do become acquainted with performances that will both dazzle and bewilder you.
Some years ago, at Tanglewood, I saw him play  the Mozart Piano Concerto K.  488 with the Boston Symphony. I was positively dazzled by his understanding of this wonderful example of dialogue between piano and orchestra. This performance was followed by what Jarrett is primarily known for; and that is his approach to Jazz, mostly by way of his limitless harmonic vocabulary  through the process of  improvisation.  To understate - a truly unique kind of Tanglewood experience for me.
Listen to the journeys  he undergoes  in his treatments  of "Danny Boy" and  "Somewhere Over the Rainbow,"  then listen to some of the Classics he has recorded.
I'm quite confident that you will be  thrilled at his immense gifts, then find yourself doing some head-scratching at another point in time - all at the same sitting...
Give him a try...