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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Friday, June 1, 2018

A Deeper Look Into the Phantasmal Imagery Created by Pianist Art Tatum...

It has been related to us that on an occasion when a conversation took place between Art Tatum and the brilliant jazz pianist Bobby Short, Art Tatum, with a smile,  replied to a statement made by Short "look, you come here  tomorrow, and anything you do with your right hand I'll do with my left."
Now, to me, it is irrelevant as to whether this statement is or is not apocryphal  - the power of these words was  indeed discussed among musicians during this period primarily because of the pandemic nature of awe that performers possessed of the indescribable attainment of Tatum's technique. For instance; in the nature of the "left hand" in jazz performance, the usual arrangement is for the majority of activity, both melodic and improvisational,  to be borne by the right hand, with the left hand supplying the rhythm, harmony  and occasional passage work. In short, we hear most of what we call 'technique' being represented by the right hand. In the case of Tatum, however, we hear, essentially for the first time in pop playing, a dramatic increase in the role of the left hand to a point where it is recognized that Art Tatum possessed a technique that was equal in both hands. Just listen to a few of the Tatum recordings primarily to observe the role the left hand has in the arrangements, and it becomes a reality that Art Tatum did in jazz what we expect and receive in the music and performances of the great classical pianists since the 1700's.
Stride piano - you know ; the "oom-pah" activity done in real earnest from "Fats" Waller right on through today- namely, that one lower  note struck first, followed by a chord both in  the left hand, usually at a moderate to fast tempo, depending upon the nature of the tune involved... Well, in the case of Art Tatum, we hear, from time to time, a stride piano consisting not of that first single lower  note, but a complete chord of three or four notes, followed  above by that  now second  chord, all in the left hand, at times at a dizzying pace of  up to several chords per second. Tatum applied this technique from time to time(listen to his "Tiger Rag") for short periods, before returning to the traditional method of Stride Piano. No other pianist could do this . It takes the level of the playing of Oscar Peterson, in our time, to replicate this staggering height of physical technique, and is but one of a series of achievement levels  that attracted the likes  of a Horowitz, or a  Rachmaninoff, or  a Toscanini, let alone other great classical artists.
To encapsulate: listen not only to the  obvious brilliance we attach to a Tatum performance, but do 'peer' behind the curtain of this giant to listen for more of what he left us, which has, in my opinion, not yet  been equaled...


Friday, May 25, 2018

The Lesser Known Side of a Great Pianist...

During my childhood period, two of my heroes of the piano were Artur Rubinstein and Alexander Brailowsky. Rubinstein, of course, is so well-remembered for his unparalleled performances of Chopin. His singular attraction to the great composer was most assuredly enhanced by way of his performing Chopin for a period twice the length of the composer's life span. Many still consider Rubinstein's Chopin his greatest attainment.
Alexander Brailowsky, along with Rubinstein, was known internationally as one of the world's great Chopin players. Some considered Brailowsky to stand beside Rubinstein as 'that other great Chopin player.'   Brailowsky was the first artist to perform the entire Chopin lexicon many times over during his career.
I recall a consideration by various critics and musicians that Brailowsky might well have performed Chopin in a  manner similar, perhaps,  to the way that Chopin may have performed his own works, in that  he, like the composer, was not robust physically. We know that Chopin was frail due to lung related complications. Though he was, evidently, a wonderful pianist, he himself more than once ruefully wished that he could perform some of his more powerful passages more like his friend  Liszt. Similarly, Brailowsky was a rather small man, with a slightly bent posture. I remember his physical appearance when I experienced that wonderful encounter with him(see my April 29, 2008 blog).
So; generally, I remember Brailowsky as one who dealt with such wonderful  poesy in his playing of the masters of the 19th century - that molten imagery that he always elicited was his trademark.
But, listen to his recording of the Liszt Totentanz done in the 1940's with the conductor Reiner.
As well-known as he was  for his grace and fluidity, occasionally  that 'other side' of Brailowsky  was divulged to the musical world.  When he decided to do so, he would at times unleash a mammoth physicality we do not usually attach to this man.
Hear for yourself...


Sunday, May 13, 2018

On This Special Day, How Motherly Advice Can Help Shape History...

As this day is Mother's Day, I thought that I might share this vignette with you:
The time -early  20th century.
The place - Western Europe.
The situation - two young men forming and establishing their budding reputations  in piano recitals and concerts as they moved westward.
Both happened to be situated quite near one another, although never meeting during this period.
One was  Vladimir Horowitz, captivating his audiences by way of his lionizing  his repertoire.
The other was a South American, who at one time  experienced a  conviction that he was a descendant of Beethoven. His mother happened to accompany him during this period, and on one occasion remarked that Horowitz was performing, and she would like to hear him. And so she went on to the recital, leaving her son behind to practice for his next recital.
When she returned, she approached her son, and said the following:
"practice more. He plays better than you."
Evidently  her golden advice registered. The young man's name - Claudio Arrau.
Arrau himself speaks about this incident in an interview done a few years before his death.
And so, it seems of worth to heed Mom's advice...


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Recording That Is The Apotheosis Representing the Power of the Horowitz Presence? Read On...

I was one of the fortunate who saw the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz live in recital at least twenty times. The first encounter with his presence was as a child taken by his father around age 9 or 10. The final time was as a faculty member of the Longy School, with a couple of my students, in  an auditorium  in Western Massachusetts.
Of all the great artists I have seen and heard throughout my life experience, none has left me with a more vivid remembrance of what human genius can bestow upon the consciousness as did Horowitz.
That combination of illimitable forms and shapes of expression and statement in cohabitation with a pyrotechnique,  projected by way of that unique neurotic edge that was his, and his alone, invariably  left me limp and  strangely exhilarated at the same time. After that final encore, the  atmosphere was more akin to being at a football game than an encounter with an artist - just listen to audience reaction in the recordings he left after a live performance.
The  magic he gives us in the many recordings available  constitutes  proof of his position in music history, of course; however, that indefinable magic of being in the same room with him during a performance can never be given us in a recording.
One recording that , in my view, comes as close to being in his actual presence is the 1951  release of his transcription of the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15, the Rakoczy (Rakoczi) March. That tune had been the informal form of  national anthem of Hungary for some time after its appearance around 1730, before the present anthem was installed. This theme was a reflection, it seems, of the Hungarian tragedy which prevailed during the Habsburg period in Austria, and the original composition best defines the militantism and anger of the Hungarian experience; that Call-to-Arms, as it were. And Horowitz, in his transcription, magnifies the power of that experience.
It just so happens that this recording captures that steely Horowitzian sound wonderfully well, enhanced by one of the Russian pianist's most overwhelming  performances at the height of his powers.
It's almost like having been there...                           


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Imagery and Composition - Does it HAVE to be Music?...

When I think of the word 'art,'  the word 'imagery' also appears. The creating of an idea and the imaging  of that idea are, it seems to me, really one and the same  when it comes to the promulgation of transfer from that 'image' to the outside world. As an example, when I compose music, I 'see' the formation of whatever statement I come up with, and then shift it over to manuscript form.
Another example of that process is how the writer does the very same thing, it seems to me. That 'imaging' of what turns out to be the most propitious result of word choice gives us the magic of the story-teller, or humorist, or master historian, etc.
In the case of humor, examples of word choice can give us little masterpieces of creative imagery, resulting in absolute delight in the same kind of way that a one-page "Arietta" by Grieg, or a "Mazurka" by Chopin can make our day, with the same kind of transporting result emanating from a different direction  - what this process can give us - here are a few examples:

Oscar Wilde - Never argue with an idiot - any bystander involved will never know which one is the idiot.

Kurt Vonnegut - An example of pure terror is, upon  awakening; one becomes aware that the country is being run by your high school class.

Agatha Christie - An archeologist is the best husband a woman can get. As she grows older, he becomes more and more interested in her.

Oscar Levant - (remarks about the art of music he represented  as an eminent pianist and humorist) -

What this world needs is more geniuses with humility - there are so few of us left.

George, if you had to do it all over again, would you fall in love with yourself? (an actual question he asked his friend George Gershwin).

(In answer to a question Gershwin asked Levant; namely, "do you think that, a hundred years from now, will they be listening to my music?" Levant's answer was "yeah, if you're still around."

Stan Laurel, the genius side of the famous duo Laurel and Hardy in the early period of the sound movies, injected his own brand of humor into many of the scripts - for instance:
Playing the part of a detective searching for a woman named Mary Roberts, Laurel approaches a woman he had  never seen before and demands to know "I want to know why you are not Mary Roberts!!"

After a deeply philosophical conversation about Existence with his partner Oliver Hardy, Laurel looks into the camera and remarks, with a sigh - "life isn't short enough."

In another movie, Laurel meets Oliver Hardy after a period of twenty years, and hammers out "remember how dumb I was? Well,  I'm  better now."

Just a few examples of humor born of a kind of imagery by strong, if not great minds - and not music this time around. Not meant to create belly-laughs, such as late night TV offers us, but simply another way to absorb some creative imagery from a different phase of source, and make one think for a second or so, resulting, perhaps, in a tiny giggle...

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Monday, April 23, 2018

A Great Work for Piano - and Two Famous Names in Pop Music...

The cast of characters:
Irving Berlin
Richard Rodgers
Vladimir Horowitz
Samuel Barber
The League of Composers -

In the year 1950, a new work for solo piano  was introduced. This work was commissioned by the money of Irving Berlin (remember "White Christmas?") and Richard Rogers (remember "My Funny Valentine?"),  in an organized move by way of  The  League of Composers, a group created for the promulgation of supporting new works written by contemporary American composers. That particular commission was directed to composer Samuel Barber to write a major work for the piano.
The result was the Piano Sonata.
When I think of Samuel Barber, his famous Adagio for Strings is what I hear first almost every time.
An atmosphere wafting from the High Baroque, especially from  that unique sense of spirituality emanating from the work of Handel and Bach. The "Arioso", or sections of  "The Messiah" come to light. But Barber does NOT sound like either of these giants - what is fascinating to me about this composer from Pennsylvania is that the language of his music bears its own uniqueness, and is like no other. The creations of Barber are certainly not  avant-garde; there are no ostentatious  sounds of  a revolutionary new concept   thrown at the listener.  What amazes me is  the natural sense of lubricity in the core of his language. There is a  view of the Baroque, at times; or an aural connection with the Romantic that is totally disconnected, stylistically, from the great 19th century masters.
Barber, for me, is one of the most stunning originals I know of.
In this Piano Sonata, for instance, he uses chromatic and diatonic language freely, along with the twelve-tone system, all in cohabitation with one another, in some of the most brilliant writing I know of coming out of the 20th century. In the final movement, he brings the Fugue into focus, using syncopation, jazz and "blues" to totally obliterate any trace of the Baroque influence in this form of writing. It's like no other Fugue I know.
By the way, Barber chose Vladimir Horowitz to premier the Sonata in 1950. They had known one another prior to the writing of this piece. Barber had originally considered it as a three- movement composition, but Horowitz shouldered his way into the picture and insisted that there be a "flashy"  ending to the music. Barber resisted, resulting in Horowitz calling him a "constipated composer."
Infuriated, Barber answered by writing a 4th movement in just a matter of hours, which IS that fantastic 'fugue' I had just mentioned - all jotted down in one day.
I often think of this composition as perhaps the most important large-scale piano solo creation by an American composer in the 20th century.
And the luminosity that Horowitz imparts. It's veritably as if this sonata was written for him.
Do listen.  And be overwhelmed...