Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Two Baroque Giants-What a Difference!

1685 was a good year. Bach, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti were born within months of one another. I will write about Scarlatti in the near future.
Johann Sebastian Bach was the most influential composer of the past three centuries. His magical powers in evaluating the mathematics of music, coupled with the towering force of his spirituality created a synthesis which affects our musical thinking to this day.
George Frederick Handel, whose gifts certainly rivaled those of his contemporary Bach, amassed great wealth and held a position of power in London, and was the best known composer of his time.
Johann Sebastian Bach was known chiefly in Germany, wrote enough music for the Lutheran service to compile about five years of music for his church, received meager stipends and was also paid with food, clothing and other basic commodities, and was buried in 1750 in the courtyard of his beloved church.
George Frederick Handel received permission to leave his native Germany for a short visit to London, and never looked back. His oratorios and other works became so popular that his reputation and wealth were unrivaled during his time, and he was buried with pomp and splendor in Westminster Abbey in 1759.
And yet, during our time, and since the composer Mendelssohn put Bach's music on the map in 1829, Bach's name is more familiar to the world, in general, than Handel's. Why?
Perhaps it is due to the uncompromising values Bach placed in his music; namely, to write music for the sake of its existence, and to think not of fame so much as to satisfy the elemental need to synthesize the vocabulary of the diatonic system, which is still an intrinsic sector of our music today.
Handel strove, on the other hand, for recognition and fame, which he obviously achieved. It seems he did this by curtailing his immense creative powers just enough in order to create a popularism in his writing to bring the middle classes into the audiences which before his time were chiefly audiences of royalty and privilege. In a sense, Handel invented the turnstile (metaphorically!) , and the middle class has been involved in concert-going ever since.
Handel's music was and remains revered and popular to this day; however, the core and substance of Bach's immense vocabulary forced his own genius sons, particularly Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and the composers directly thereafter, to turn to a more simplistic form of musical thinking, giving us the Classical Period of Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven.

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 24, 2008

My Latest Suggestion for Your Listening Pleasure

The Tchaikowsky Piano Concerto is, of course, one of the most often performed and recorded works in the past seventy years. The epic performances of Horowitz and his father-in-law, Arturo Toscanini, are among the most memorable.
I must tell you that I stumbled onto a recording made in 1955 that comes across as one of the most thrilling among the numerous recordings.
The pianist is Emil Gilels, who at the time of the recording was undergoing his first experience in America, and taking his audiences by storm.
Born and trained in Russia, the pianism of Gilels is immense. As a student, I recall seeing him just once, and it was an unforgettable experience for me. He was one of the first Russian artists I remember hearing who had a great command of Mozart and Beethoven.
At any rate, his playing of the Tchaikowsky is one of the most luminous and searching readings that I can remember. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the legendary conductor Reiner, complement the piano aspect wonderfully well.
I recommend your looking for this recording, as it is one of the more important contributions serving Tchaikowsky.

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Further Musing, and No Answers

The Second World War was the most powerful event of the 2oth century; so powerful that it results in placing us where we are at this moment. One shudders upon considering that if the Dark Side had won, a new Dark Age would have emerged.
My thoughts wandered from elemental ironies to unanswerable questions:
After the Allies had been expelled from Europe in 1940, and Hitler poised for invasion of the British Island, we know that some 336,000 British and French troops had been rescued and brought back to England, to fight Fascism another day - how and why did that happen?
The German military machine, the most powerful in history up to that time, had dashed across France in less than six weeks, and were pounding toward the Channel when an order from Hitler stopped this dash east of the town of Dunkirk. A number of the German generals were astounded at this order. This action allowed the British to rescue those men, a third of a million, and bring them back to the safe harbors of England.
Much speculation has come forward from this event. Some say that Hitler stopped the tanks, because of the marshy nature of the land mass before Dunkirk, and relied upon the air force to complete the destruction of these men, which obviously did not take place.
Another more interesting speculation is that Hitler might have stopped his army in order to placate the British into forging an ultimate alliance with him - it was known that Hitler did not want to fight Britain, at least at that point in time. If that were the case, he certainly did not understand the implacable hatred that Churchill held for Hitler, calling him publicly at that time, a "guttersnipe."
We may never really know why this event occurred as it did.
In leashing his unprecedented Blitzkrieg against Western Europe, and ultimately the Soviet Union, we know that much of the technique of "lightning war" came from a book written by one of Hitler's generals, Heinz Guderian.
One should also be reminded that at the same time, the Germans were avidly going over a very important book written by a then obscure French colonel , Charles De Gaulle, which dealt with tank tactics, which the Nazis later inculcated into their Blitzkrieg. How strange; the French ,with their Maginot Line,had always thought of defensive war, while one of their own formed visions of future war tactics that the Germans used to defeat the French in 1940.
How about the painful ironies, such as the bombing of Coventry?
Churchill had broken the Enigma code of the Germans, and knew, through this code, that the Germans were planning on destroying the beautiful cathedral city of Coventry. Churchill had to endure not letting his own people know that Coventry was to be bombed, as he knew that if the English were to have been notified about the coming attack, Hitler would have realized that his code had been broken; therefore, Churchill had to endure the coming Hell he alone could have prevented.
Another painful decision involving Churchill - that decision to destroy the French fleet. He knew that if Hitler had taken over the French fleet, the third strongest in the world, after his occupation of France, that the combined French, German and Italian fleets would have ruled the oceans and would eventually have starved the British into surrender, and the United States would have been totally isolated.
And so Churchill "endured the unendurable" (as Hirohito once said after the Bomb leveled Nagasaki), and ordered the destruction of the French fleet, killing many French sailors in the operation.
Is there a form of insanity greater than War?


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Was This a Calculated Moment, or the Opposite?

Please forgive the occasional digression from the arts, but I thought that I should share this moment in history with you.
The other day I thought that I would view chapter three of that wonderful documentary of 1973, 74 called "The World at War", which I hadn't seen in years. The section I was interested in was the surrender of the French to Hitler on June 21, 1940, at Compiegne, where the Kaiser surrendered to end World War I more than a generation before. It was in that old wooden railway car which so many of us have read about.
Hitler and his entourage were seated in the car, waiting for the French to enter.
When the French walked in, Hitler and his group arose, and here is where I found myself surprised, if not actually astonished, by what I saw (remember that the world and I have seen all this before on film many times) ; namely, that Hitler saluted in the universal manner (you know; arm crooked at the elbow, with hand to eyebrow), rather than with the Nazi salute, with arm shooting straight out at the usual upward angle.
I cannot remember Hitler ever having saluted in public before in the traditional manner. Is there another time that history has filmed such a salute from him? I know of no such picture.
Was Hitler feeling so avuncular at that moment(we know that he was in a joyous mood on that day, having reached what ultimately turns out to be the apex of his successes), that he did this purposely to"reach out" to the French for their "gallantry", or was it simply a reflex action going back to his days as a runner in World War I?
I can only speculate; however, it most assuredly was an unexpected gesture from a tyrant possessed with such vertical and obdurate ideology.

Labels: ,

An Artist Cloaked in Self-Made Mystery

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was one of the most evocative and brilliant pianists of the twentieth century. His command of the keyboard was beyond description. The control over each note seemed to emerge as a complete cosmos unto itself. The quality of sound fanning out of the piano was to me the same as watching the properties of quicksilver. His interpretations, though at times controversial, were engrossing in their power of projection.
Another equally compelling aspect of this man was, shall we say, his eccentricities.
There was no artist I know who was harder on himself (and inevitably upon his audiences at times) than Michelangeli.
Many times an audience, waiting for him to perform, would find itself leaving the hall without having seen or heard him - he simply would not appear.
The reasons for such a debacle were many; to cite a few, if the piano had somehow been affected by weather (in his consciousness), or if the weather, for whatever reason affected his state of being, or if he awakened on the day of a recital or concert not feeling exactly the way he needed to feel in order to perform to his expectation of the moment, he would simply not appear.
I was never part of any audience involved in a Michelangeli Moment, and am thankful for not having been. I am grateful for being able to pull out a CD or video of this great musician, knowing that he will show up each and every time.

Labels: ,

Saturday, February 16, 2008

More Recordings to Look For

Much of the time I will suggest recordings by classical performers, of course; however, you will note that from time to time I will suggest recordings by popular artists because of the impact of their performances.
I thought of the unique melding of the legendary guitarist Joe Pass and the one-and-only Ella Fitzgerald, who made a few records with no other musicians involved.
The albums "Speak Love" and "Take Love Easy" are two of their best, along with one made in Montreux, Switzerland. There is an additional really singular album, titled "Ella and Joe...Again". These interpretations will leave you spellbound, as you will hear these two great musicians wrapping their magic around you in a manner indescribable.
Fitzgerald was moving into the latter part of her career when these two got together in the late 1970's and early 1980's, and her command of the story she tells at this point in her artistic life, coupled with the empathy Joe Pass gives to her voice will truly transport you to another place.
These albums are more than worth the effort, be assured.

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Art Tatum - A pianist like no other

Great classical musicians speak of the pianism of Art Tatum with the same open-mouthed admiration that lovers of popular music do.
There are very few popular performers who are constantly part of the consciousness of teachers and students alike in the music colleges and conservatories around the world. One of these vaunted few is Art Tatum.
Born with veritably no sight, Tatum is still the measure that all the great popular pianists go by.
From George Shearing to Oscar Peterson to "Fats" Waller to Teddy Wilson; and on and on,without exception, the world-class pianists in the pop field continue to look up to this giant among giants as the Better Man.
The gifts of Tatum are so powerful that even among the great classical artists of our and the previous century, there are words of admiration. Even Vladimir Horowitz, the titan of twentieth century pianism, openly admired Tatum. In another piece which I will write soon, I will relay to you the bond between Horowitz and Tatum.
As one who has taught music at college level, I cannot tell you the number of times the name of Tatum was inculcated into the topic of the moment.
There are many recordings, of course, of this pianist; however, a gripping phase of Tatum's recording history goes back to 1940 and 1941, before Tatum achieved world recognition.
At Columbia University was a student of musicology, Jerry Newman, who had heard Tatum in one of the bars in Harlem, and immediately perceived the immense potential of this performer, who was going from one dive to another, playing for drinks.
Newman approached Tatum in one of these places, and asked if he could record him on a portable wire-recorder. The result is a treasure of performances in these bars in Harlem. At times Tatum was recorded in Newman's apartment on the wire-recorder in addition to those done in Harlem.
I have a recording of these wire-recordings, and they tell us of the Coming Giant, and his ultimate influence on the great performers who followed him. I personally am convinced that Art Tatum was probably, at around the age of fifteen, already without parallel in his pianism. His destination was to polish and build upon this gigantic technique, a style of playing that becomes his vocabulary, known the world over.
See if you can find these recordings from the Newman Archive.

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Ardennes - Man's Failure to Learn from His Own History

The Ardennes - a hilly, rather heavily forested area in both Luxembourg and Belgium; as militarists have constantly called it; impassable, militarily.
In 1914, however, the Germans poured through it to score a grievous defeat upon the Allies, and it was a factor in the ultimate prolongation of the bloody "War to End All Wars."
In 194o, with most of the British and French troops positioned north of the Ardennes. as it was thought that the Germans would attack the West in that area, a magnificent feint was put into motion, with the then unprecedented and frightening operation called Blitzkrieg (lightning war),which went through the "impassable" Ardennes with both tanks (thought to be absolutely impossible to do) and infantry, routing the British and French forces, resulting in hastening the tragedy at Dunkirk, when the Allies were expelled from the Continent.
In 1944, with only inexperienced American troops thinly spread along the Ardennes sector, the Germans, in their final effort to alter the course of the war in order to force the Allies to sue for peace, surged through the Ardennes with tanks and infantry in massive numbers and created what is known as the Battle of the Bulge. It was, even at that late date in the war (Dec.16, 1944), and with Germany surrounded, the largest land battle of the war in the west. In the six weeks it took to ultimately drive the Nazi back to the Ardennes sector, about 1600 Americans died daily; all in all, America lost approximately 19,000 young men in this battle.
I've wondered, from time to time, about this place called Ardennes - seems that no lesson concerning this place was ever learned.

Labels: ,

The Giant, Beethoven - After all; Only a Human

The power of Ludwig Van Beethoven as a creative force, can be summarized by the great 19th century pianist , composer and thinker, Franz Liszt, in his words (to paraphrase): "that giant shadow; always behind me."
The world is, of course, conversant with the magnificence of Beethoven's creations; however, it may be of interest to become more familiar with the Master's life style, as it appears to us in different forms.
A visit to Beethoven by a member of Napoleon's Council, Baron de Tremont, is noted in de Tremont's memoir; as follows:
"Imagine all that is most filthy and untidy: puddles on the floor, a rather old grand piano covered in dust and laden with piles of music, in manuscript or engraved. Beneath it (I do not exaggerate), an unemptied chamberpot. The little walnut table next to it was evidently accustomed to having the contents of the inkwell spilled over it. A mass of pens encrusted with ink - and more manuscripts. The chairs, most of them straw chairs, were covered with plates full of the remains of the previous evening's meal. Both Balzac and Dickens would use two full pages to describe what I have seen in Beethoven's two rooms. But as I am neither Balzac nor Dickens, I limit myself to saying this: I was at Beethoven's."

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Leif Ove Andsnes - A New Recording

I usually suggest audio recordings each week; however, I will depart from the usual and recommend a new DVD from Norway, by EMI, of the already legendary Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who has produced a delightful combination of narration and performance as tribute to Grieg, who died in 1907.
I will not be specific as to the contents of Andsnes and his personal odyssey involving his beloved Grieg; however, rest assured that this production is well-worth having.
Ultimately, the most revealing aspect of this DVD is the unique form of magic that Andsnes is capable of creating in his performances. For this writer, Andsnes is the most powerful of the younger pianists in the top echelon. His pianistic genius is one thing; however, what he does with the notes he plays is quite another. The unparalleled musical intellect, coupled with the uncanny ability to mold great expression without a trace of sentiment is an experience I have never undergone.
It is too simplistic to call him a great pianist. My senses compel me to describe him as a great musician who happens to use a piano as proof.

Labels: ,