Monday, August 6, 2018

On This Date in 1945 - a Reminder, and a Strange Story of Human Imagery...

We all know of the dawn of a new age emerging from the destruction of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
How many of us are aware of a lecture given in Zurich late in 1944 by Werner Heisenberg, known  as one of the leading physicists in Hitler's Germany, much like Robert Oppenheimer , another great physicist here in America, who was head of the Manhattan Project , the project created and assigned  to create the Atomic  Bomb?
Among the members of the audience in this Zurich lecture was an American, with a pistol in his pocket, who was in actuality an agent of the O.S.S., the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency of our present day.
This man was sent to Zurich to determine the status of Hitler's quest for development of The Bomb, and shoot Heisenberg if it was found that the Germans were ahead of us in that race.
In the event that the assassination was necessary, that man would then take a poison capsule to escape capture and interrogation.
The assassination was deemed unnecessary, as he determined that the Germans were quite far behind us in the quest to build The Bomb.
And so this man returned safely to America. This individual, posing as an advanced student in physics, also actually met Heisenberg after the lecture. Heisenberg, after the war, remembered this inquisitive young man.
Hard to believe?
Read on...
The man's name was Moe Berg, a baseball player, who was a catcher for such teams as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red  Sox.
He also graduated from Princeton as a language major.
He received a law degree from Columbia University as well.
We know he spoke at least seven languages, such as Japanese and German. He knew and spoke  two dead languages; namely Sanskrit and Latin.
He was asked, before  graduation, to stay on at Princeton, in order to teach.
He was  enlisted by our government,  to join the Office of Secret Services , which he did.
He knew President Roosevelt personally, as well as Albert Einstein, who once remarked to Berg,
"you know more about physics than I know about  baseball."
And there is more about this remarkable man.
You probably know of the Salinger classic, titled" The Catcher in the Rye."
Well, the author Nicholas Dawidoff  reshaped that title in order to write a biography of Moe Berg, titled "The Catcher Was a Spy."
I thought I'd write a little about Berg, as an example of the power of Imagery, this time concerning the power of language, other than the language we call Music - just for a change of pace...


Sunday, July 29, 2018

Horowitz and the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto - an Odyssey Unequaled...

In 1978, the  celebrated piano titan Vladimir Horowitz, then in his mid seventies, and Zubin Mehta, the distinguished conductor, collaborated  in a performance of the 3rd piano concerto by Rachmaninoff. There was but one person in that hall who knew that this would be his final public performance of this monumental work - and that person was the pianist.
Fortunately, that performance was recorded, and therefore the recording is a document that will forever be a testament to the pianist in more than one way. To explain:
Fifty years before, the composer, already well established as  both the creator of a  number of masterpieces, as well  as one of the world's great pianists,  and this young  lion named Vladimir Horowitz, who had just a few days before arrived in America, carrying with him a reputation as a pianist of astounding powers, met in New York. Circumstance led them both to Steinway Hall, where they selected two pianos in the cellar. Rachmaninoff had known that the young Horowitz knew and had performed the concerto in Europe, and he suggested that  Horowitz play the solo part while he would do the orchestral reduction on his piano of choice.
History tells us the result; namely, that Rachmaninoff 's  famous statement after this incident; specifically "he swallowed my composition whole,"  was certification of the coming bond between these two men. They became veritably father-son until the passing of the composer in 1943. By the way, Rachmaninoff vowed never to play that concerto publicly again after hearing Horowitz play it that fateful day.
So, a fifty year Odyssey became a reality, during which Horowitz would give to his world a lexicon of performances of this knuckle-buster - which finally ends with the 1978 performance.
Horowitz made several recordings of the 3rd during that fateful fifty year period, some of which are, in my view, staggeringly  powerful statements  of one of the  reigning pieces in this form.
In the 1978 recording, the prodigious technique of Horowitz was  already beginning to falter - the Inevitable had begun. However, the unique Message of Statement remained totally intact, and the unique legacy of father-son is there from beginning to end  - a truly great recording, which is simply through the Horowitz recordings of the concerto a statement of the sublime chemistry formed by these two men...


Monday, July 23, 2018

Oops- A Letter Written by Composer Max Reger , Should Have Been Included...

Forgot to mention a letter written to a critic by a rather irascible composer, Max Reger,  whom  I had just written about a few minutes ago  in today's blog.
It's worth the price of admission:
"I am now sitting in the smallest room in my house. Your review is now before me. In a moment it will be behind me."
It seems to me quite evident that Reger did not think much of this particular critic -
Oh, well...

Piano Music for the Left Hand - a Reminder of Its Import and Magical Level of Attainment in the Realm of Compositional Technology...

Allow yourself  to consider, for just a moment or two, a beguiling question connected to the issue of piano performance: how much is out there,  knowing that violin music is so redolent with the answer to the issue of what comes out of the world of music created by just four fingers?
For the pianist, what with  the availability of sound production by way of TEN, not four fingers - can come  the question "what if one hand is omitted - how much, and what, is available to the composer, if one hand becomes the medium; not two?"
And the great composer  Johannes Brahms (remember that we're  talking 19th century!) answers that question with his sublime  contribution; namely, the piano transcription for the left hand alone, the Bach  Chaconne.
Enter  Fate, which becomes the great facilitator, in the form of personal tragedy or travail:
Alexander Scriabin, the iconic Romantic-turned -Mystic, who seriously injured his right hand while working on the Liszt Don Juan, and was unable to play with that hand for many months - during that vexing period of depression and frustration, wrote some music for left hand alone, one of which stands today as a brilliant  example  of  early creative sojourns dealing with the issues of simultaneity and production with only five fingers available; that is, his Nocturne for Left Hand.
Then comes World War I, and the tragedy of a young pianist of great promise in the German army whose right arm was  amputated in the ghastly trench war that came out of that period. His name was Paul Wittgenstein, and it appeared that all was over for him and the attendant promise of a brilliant career.
Around 1929, Wittgenstein made what becomes a fateful decision in music history, by commissioning the eminent composer Maurice Ravel to write a Concerto for him.  A whole new industry then began, as composers emerged to delve into and investigate the seductive world of  The Possible by developing a whole new technology with original creations,  not transcriptions, of piano music for five fingers. Serge Prokofiev, the eminent Russian composer,also wrote a Concerto for Wittgenstein. Interestingly, this work was never performed by Wittgenstein, as he decided that he simply could not truly understand the music that Prokofiev had written.
At any rate, other composers flocked to Wittgenstein, and he went on to experience a lengthy and successful career in music for one hand . I recall seeing him once on early TV during my student days.
What is remarkable is the writing of  secondary composers such as  Felix Blumenfeld and Leopold Godowsky, both of whom straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. Neither is generally known today, but the brilliance of their technology in writings for music for left hand is available. Listen to  one of   the great pianists of  our time, the Canadian Marc-Andre Hamelin play Prelude and Fugue on
B-A-C-H by Godowsky. Or listen to  the  Japanese pianist Tchinai , who cannot use his right hand, perform music by Max Reger , called Special Studies.
Or the fabulous pianist Simon Barere,  who died onstage at Carnegie Hall at the beginning of a concert, perform a Blumenfeld Etude for left hand.
And there are other performances one can see/hear on YouTube.
And do ask the question - is the game "can I create music that sounds as if both hands are involved?"
And the composer has indeed answered...


Friday, June 29, 2018

Felix Mendelssohn and Emil Gilels - a Change of Mind Like No Other I Know in the History of Recordings...

One of  the Mendelssohn  Songs Without Words, titled "Duetto," is among my favorites of the piano music of Mendelssohn. The theme is, for me, one of the most ravishing creations carved into existence by this composer, supported by the magic of Mendelsson's unmatched view of harmonic simplism and clarity of direction as a combine. The story of a soprano voice, answered by its own echo in the tenor region, is a story redolent with absolute beauty for an instrument that becomes the medium for a superb example of true, unvarnished Dialogue. I think that it ranks among the supreme examples of what Mendelssohn could do with a few notes.
Now there is a performance by one of  the  preeminent  Russian musicians, who happened to choose the piano in order to prove his  points - the name is Emil Gilels. As a young man the better part of a century ago, Gilels made a recording  of the Duetto, and it is a clear example of the promise of the  greatness that Gilels , through the years, has given us. It is a great reading of the music at an early age.
He made another recording of the Duetto over a generation later, toward the end of his career, that  is a revelation in the world of Interpretation, which in a recent blog I said was, perhaps, another word for Opinion. The transmutation is enormous -  listen to these two recordings, and ask yourself  if you have ever heard such a change of opinion by the same musician playing the same music.
The change in tempo will be the catalyst through which the meaning of the thematic significance is totally altered , and the story line becomes totally different.
For me, what remains a kind of mystery, is that I have come to embrace the two totally divergent
views by Gilels. What do you think?
On YouTube, key in:
1. Young Gilels plays Mendelsson Lied Ohne Worte
2.Gilels plays Mendelsson (


Friday, June 22, 2018

On Another June 22 - A Defining Event That Changed the Direction of History, and Gave Us Musical Masterpieces...

On June 22, 1941, a long-standing plan of  Adolf Hitler came into being - approximately three million  German troops  crossed a nearly 2000 mile border and invaded Soviet Russia.  A war of extermination had begun, ending in May of 1945 in Berlin after  a war of unprecedented carnage - a war which included such horrors as the Siege of Leningrad, which lasted  some 900 days, with approximately  one of every three of the city's inhabitants dying. A war which included the ravaging of  thousands   of Russian villages and hundreds of its museums, small and large. A war which changed the face of Europe;  a Europe transformed into a geopolitical shape that remains today a direct result of that conflict.
Out of that unparalleled period of darkness comes a number of  statements without words, one being a statement created by the great Russian composer  Dimitri Shostakovich  he titled "Leningrad,"  his  7th symphony, which originally was meant as a statement directed as glorification of Vladimir Lenin. However, that statement thereafter   became a musical  expression  of unbridled hate of the Invader and a tribute to those who defended the city. It remains, arguably, the most powerful musical statement by a Russian composer to emerge  from the Horror of 1941-45. It is even today performed in modern Russia  as a reminder of the titanic struggle and  subsequent  victory  over Nazi Germany.
Another reigning composer from Mother Russia, Serge Prokofiev, wrote three major works for solo piano  which were titled the War Sonatas, numbers 6,7 and 8,  during this time period. The most often played, no.7,  produces  a third movement containing a merciless isorhythmic forward thrust with every measure comprising  of  seven beats, which brilliantly describes the unremitting tragedy and  overpowering asymmetry of the meaning of War. Vladimir Horowitz recorded it shortly after Prokofiev had completed these works, and this performance remains one of the great pianist's most enduring contributions.
Today there remains a number of music historians who believe that these compositions remain the most meaningful expressions of the world's greatest conflict, given us by these Soviet composers.
Do listen, especially, to the "Leningrad" Symphony  and the seventh Sonata. For me, these two compositions  remain among  the most powerful  manifestations of the impact of human history...


Saturday, June 16, 2018

A CD Box Set Like No Others - Read On...

When Anton Rubinstein launched a new program at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1861 dealing with pedagogical  methodology pertaining to the piano, he established the so-called Russian School, which continues with unabated success to this day. Rubinstein's  particular attachment to Liszt and his unprecedented legacy is the catalyst which brought this gargantuan contribution to the piano into being. And this particular box set of ten CD's is a lexicon which represents the results of the Russian School in the most comprehensive view I know of that comes out of the recording industry.
I believe that this collection was produced in Mother Russia in or around 1995, and is a collection of recordings that represent the astounding accomplishments of  products  of the School during the better part of the past century. The performers are:
Alexander Goldenweiser
Heinrich Neuhaus
Samuil Feinberg
Maria Yudina
Vladimir Sofronitsky
Sviatoslav Richter
Emil Gilels
Lazar Berman
Mikhail Pletnev
Evgeny Kissin
Names like Richter, Gilels, (possibly)Berman,  Pletnev and Kissin leap out at us due to their fame as reigning pianists. Pletnev and Kissin remain powers well-known to us, as contemporaries.
However; how many of us are familiar with most of the remainder on the above list?
Due to  the nature of an authoritarian state, both race (some were Jews who were restricted much of their time from leaving Russia) and other personal issues, a number of the remainder had not performed outside of the country much, if at all.
But listen to these performers, and you will become aware of their stature as world-class pianists in their own right. All of these lesser known pianists became well known as teachers, which has helped to maintain the magnificent continuum of the Russian School to this day.
How about a couple of names not listed above who were also results of the Russian Piano School?
How about Rachmaninoff? or Horowitz?
Need I go on?...

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