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 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...


Saturday, January 20, 2018

Alexander Scriabin and the Cocoanut Grove Fire - a Different Saturday...

Today is a Saturday, to be sure. Earlier this morning, my traditional question; namely,"what will I do today?" ended up with yet another question:
"Can I extract from my memory mass a distant  Saturday of palpable significance?"
After a few moments a Saturday did indeed materialize, one I haven't thought about for years:
On the final November  Saturday in 1942 an event occurred in Boston that to this day still has a direct affect on public safety implementation , as regards regulations - a match was lit in a popular night club called Cocoanut Grove. Within minutes, the building was  aflame, the result being the loss of 492 lives, the most terrible event of this kind in our history.
I remember, as a kid, that one of my cowboy heroes,  'Buck'  Jones, a star in Western serials and other movies,  was one of the victims. Also, I was told that a family member, someone I never got to know, was another having died in the conflagration. This horrible event adhered to my collection of reminiscences for some years, as I recall.
Well, after this image reared its head this morning, I asked myself  "where does this Thing called Fire  attach itself in the arts?"
In a matter of seconds the name Alexander Scriabin came forward, alongside his composition "Ver la flamme" (toward the flame).
In his marvelous performance at his home of this piece(see it on YouTube), Vladimir Horowitz explains that a vision that Scriabin purportedly experienced; namely,  that  the world would eventually perish in flames, was the reason that this music was created. It was interesting to Horowitz that the composer's vision and ensuing music had materialized long before the discovery of nuclear fission by two German physicists in 1938 - need I go on?
Let alone the final, incomplete work by this incredibly gifted, tortured genius we call Scriabin, titled "Mysterium" - a work to be performed in the Himalayas, with no audience, with "bells hanging from clouds" as festoon, along with synesthesia utilization by way of touch and smell along with music...
did Scriabin feel that fire alone was  not enough, for mankind to be returned to the Divine?
Yes, Scriabin was indeed serious about all this.
Be assured that my thoughts about this particular Saturday  have taken a totally different direction...


Friday, January 12, 2018

How Two Words Describe the Powers of Two Piano Giants in Their Early Careers...

The words are 'belie,'  and  'idiosyncratic.'
The two giants are Vladimir Horowitz and Leif Ove Andsnes.
The following events are recollections, and, of course, are my reactions to the events; not an imposition of any opinions on my part:
Also; this is not in  any way  a  comparison of these two artists -
The world of serious music has long known of the 3rd Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff. For the better part of a century, this massive and defining  masterpiece has been performed and recorded with the attendant aura of regard and respect that it deserves, by a host of great pianists  having spent many hours dealing with the ways to assemble this legendary knuckle-buster,  and make their vital contributions to the history of one of the most important Concertos  in the literature.
Vladimir Horowitz was not yet thirty when he recorded the Concerto for the first time in England, and of all of the myriad of recordings, his attachment to the text still remains for many, arguably, the most compelling reading among the great recordings available.
Here, the word 'belies' the youth of Horowitz, in that it seems as if he had been living with the music for far longer than his less-than-thirty-year life span at the time of the recording. The word 'idiosyncratic' also applies, in that Horowitz had, for me,  pierced the core of the text as a form of eclectic reaction to an association with the music  for a half century, seemingly,  rather than less than a third.
To place into an even clearer context, I am more impressed with the first recording by Horowitz, than with the ensuing recordings he made of the work  over the remaining 50-odd years of  an unprecedented career.
And now I turn to one of the  true patricians among the great living pianists, the Norwegian virtuoso Leif Ove Andsnes.
About twenty five years ago, my wife was driving her car, listening to a favorite radio station playing, if you please, the Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto. Evidently the power of the message by the pianist reached out and forced my wife to pull over to the side of the road in order to better grasp the message she was being given. She was simply  taken over, and, as she recalled, she sat and listened to the remainder of the work. Fortunately, the announcer gave the name of the performer. It was Leif Ove Andsnes, then about 22 or 23 years of age, in a Norwegian recording just having been released.
"You MUST get this recording," were her first words to me upon returning home. Which I did the next day.
I found myself writing to Andsnes, informing him that my senses asserted  that, for me,  his reading was the most  compelling  and important  representation  of the Concerto by a pianist under the age of thirty since the Horowitz recording.
And he replied by stating that no such placement, historically, had entered his thinking, and was interested in knowing my reasons, which began an exchange of letters ending with my  meeting the man several times and exchanging E-mails for about 15 years thereafter. My meeting him was facilitated by the Spanish violinist Ricardo Odriozola, for which I am forever thankful.
Again; and for the same reasons I attached above to the Horowitz event, the words 'belie' and 'idiosyncratic' apply.
And,  once again; for me, the power of message that Andsnes transmits in this early recording,  such as the young Horowitz did and does in his earliest  recording of the Concerto, is indeed a rare and defining event.
Then again; how is it that Mendelssohn scrawled out his first  Midsummer Night's  Dream -  at age 17?
Or, - just listen to Mozart's K. 1-5, all written, quite possibly,  before he could write his own name; at age 5...
Or - Gershwin, at age 19; writing a song we still hear; namely, Swanee,  at age 19? In about 10 minutes?
All the answers served up to me are, at best, speculative...


Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Employing of the Piano as a Tool - One of My Early Experiences as an Educator...

When, in my early days upon returning from my experiences in Europe both in education and performance, I was invited by the superintendent of schools  in a community outside of Boston to do some teaching in the  music department. I hadn't  thought of that aspect at the time; however, this particular superintendent had a brother who was a percussionist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and was interested in my joining the faculty(I cannot recall how I met this man, as it was so  long ago).
And so, I began part-time work in the school system, as I was already teaching elsewhere at the time.
I developed a course of study for third  and fourth grade students, who, by this period in their lives, had developed their reading habits sufficiently  to choose the piano as their instrument of the moment, as it were. My plan:
The Issue:  Seeing that the students in the system were allowed to take weekly  classes in the orchestral instrument  of their choice  upon reaching grades 5 and 6, why not introduce them, while in 3rd or 4th grade, to an instrument; specifically  the piano, that would teach them both the treble(G)clef and bass(F) clef?  That way,  a student,  upon choosing, say, violin(a treble clef  instrument), or, say, trombone(a bass clef instrument),  would already have learned  how to read the clef of the orchestral  instrument  chosen. In addition, if the student desired continuation of the piano privately after leaving elementary school, he or she  could easily do so.
The superintendent embraced the idea with, as I recall, a degree or two of  enthusiasm.
The idea appeared  to work , as I ended up, after a few years, teaching full-time in the public schools for twenty nine years, doing mostly 'pioneering', such as developing a four year program in college-level music linguistics, etc. I actually taught at a nearby college  as well during this time, teaching the same material that I was teaching at the high school, even on the same day, at times.
It was great fun - one issue that still resides in my memory was  my trying to explain to authorities from other school systems who visited my classes that I was NOT teaching the kids piano as a performance entity, but using it primarily as a tool for purposes of linguistics.
To this day, I'm still not sure that I was totally  successful in  producing a distinction between the issues of performance, and the art of  language as the end, not necessarily  the means to the end, as a small number of these visitors continued to believe that I was teaching 'how to play the piano' - no, no  - that was most assuredly not my motive...
But; it worked, evidently - I still get an occasional call from one of my  'victims of circumstance' voicing his or her  recall of the experience. That's enough for me!