Sunday, March 30, 2008

This Music Formed My Life's Path -Look For a Recording!

When I was about eight years of age, my father took me to my first concert. It was a recital by Vladimir Horowitz, and it was at the Eastman Theater of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where we were living at the time.
Even though I had been taking piano lessons for a few years, my first love was baseball, and by that time I had been working on a baseball card collection since I was about five, and knew the batting records by memory of all the baseball greats.
But during the course of about fifteen or twenty minutes at this recital, my ladder of priorities exchanged rungs.
Horowitz absolutely mesmerized me. My entire life was altered within that brief period. For days after the recital my consciousness swirled with the sounds of what I had been witness to. I can still recall with undiminished clarity the picture of that lean figure sitting in front of something that suddenly took on a life's force of indescribable power and message.
Though baseball continued to be an important segment of my life (as it still does), its position was rudely pushed down and instantly replaced by this wordless language.
The music that I remember the most clearly was the Opus 38; the 8 Preludes, by the Russian composer Dmitri Kabalevsky.
The dazzling colors Kabalevsky suffuses these Preludes with, and the stunning athleticism of Horowitz in his performance of these wonderful pieces are still with me after so many years, and I am happy to inform you that Horowitz recorded them in, I believe, 1947, in a live performance.
If you don't know this music, and you want to hear Horowitz at his pianistic peak (he was in his mid-forties), you're in for a powerful experience.
See if you can find this recording.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

How Wars Are Won - The Wonders of Serendipity

For those of you who read my blog, you know that I periodically divert from the Arts to engage in other aspects of experience. An example:
During World War II, some rather curious events you may or may not have come across scurried across my inner blackboard.
The first I always get a kick out of; namely, when Operation Overlord took place on June 6, 1944, involving the greatest armada in Man's history, the Generals hesitated in informing Hitler of this unprecedented operation, as the tyrant almost always slept late and was never to be awakened, no matter what, including the Allies' mammoth landing in order to free Europe from the Nazi scourge - and no one dared to awaken him - difficult to imagine.
And on Dec. 16, 1944, about 200,000 German troops stormed out of the Ardennes(how could our intelligence have not noticed something??) in the largest military operation in the West by Hitler.
On this day, Dwight David Eisenhower was named a five-star general.
Also on this day, a General officer second only to Eisenhower, British General Bernard Law Montgomery applied for leave to spend Christmas in England, and happened to be on his way to an early golf game.
I promise to return to the relative sanity of the arts next time.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Horowitz and his Handkerchief?? Read on......

This purported contribution to the Art of the Written Word will deal with the performer and his personal battle with pressure, in whatever form it may appear:
In a brief movie made in Hollywood centering around the great violinist Jascha Heifetz, it was mentioned that Heifetz, at times, could drop as many as three pounds of liquid in a single recital - the expenditure of energy in a recital by a pianist, according to a medical research group's announcement some years back, equals the energies exuded by a professional football player in one game.
The combination of intensity and the kind of "nervousness," formed by the occasion and the make-up of that particular performer, can indeed be seen by the audience member present.
For instance, in veritably every performance by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, that eccentric and reclusive pianist, a black handkerchief would be produced between pieces, followed by a most meticulous procedure of face-and-hand wiping, that in terms of theatricality, would rival the drama of the performance itself.
Brow-mopping is, of course, quite common in performance, as so many phases of energy must be called upon to fashion a performance into a successful reality.
The example I am so fond of is the relationship between the fabled pianist Vladimir Horowitz and his handkerchief.
First, one should be reminded of the titanic battle that Horowitz waged with his fear of the audience and fear of failure before that audience. It hounded him throughout most of his long career; so much so that he was forced to retire from public performance for at least four times, the first as early as around 1936. Some of these "retirements " lasted for years before he could summon enough inner strength to return to the stage. There was one period of retirement during which he did not leave his town house for two years, not even for a short walk.
His fear and nervousness showed up in the form of a running nose, and if you were to have seen him, or have one of his videos, you know that his beloved handkerchief was at the ready for a nose-wiping, either between pieces, or even during concerti, when he would take a wipe at his proboscis while the orchestra was playing.
It was so poignant and at the same time humorous to see how lovingly he plopped his beloved and ever-present handkerchief down on the piano before his performance in Moscow, his first visit there in over sixty years, and how the audience lovingly acknowledged that familiar procedure.
Horowitz and his Handkerchief ; besides his piano, AND his wife, who was at all of his performances, these four entities were never separated throughout his legendary career.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Angela Hewitt and Glenn Gould - Apples and Oranges?

While listening to Bach played by the legendary Glenn Gould, I decided to listen as well to parts of the same music recorded by the great young pianist Angela Hewitt, also a Canadian as Gould was.
I became intrigued by the world of difference between the two. What they had to 'say' in their performances was equally powerful to me, and so I decided to place various pieces of the Bach Partitas back-to-back on a CD so that I could hear both artists in a contiguous form. The result, for me, was a defining experience. Gould replicates the spirit of the High Baroque in his wonderfully controlled attack-form which reminds one of the harpsichord. Hewitt brings Bach into the direct context of the modern piano's capabilities, which results in a greater degree of inflection and tempo plasticity . She evidently feels that Bach would have embraced the modern piano, knowing that instruments are in constant change; perhaps, that is the reason that he left virtually no tempo or dynamic indications for the keyboard music.
Whichever school of Bach-playing is agreed upon, the powers of both Gould and Hewitt are undeniable forces.
Listen to them back-to-back, and consider "who is better," or are we comparing apples and oranges?

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Sound Not Familiar to Us

When the saxophone is played, we are, of course, familiar enough with its sound to be able to identify it when it is played.
However, if you can get hold of some the few recordings of the French saxophonist Marcel Mule, you will experience the saxophone in an entirely different light.
First of all, it is classical saxophone, not pop, rock or jazz - this aspect automatically casts the instrument into a different form.
An additional, and the most powerful addendum to the new experience you will undergo is the almost miraculous level Mule reached on this instrument. His status as a musician is every bit equal to the great musicians playing other instruments. The sounds he produced at times will make you wonder what instrument you are hearing. The best example of this level is a piece by a French composer, Bonot, in his "Caprice Enfant de Valse."
Another great performance by Mule is the Concertino da Camera by Ibert, during which Mule elevates the saxophone to heights simply not familiar to the listener, casual or otherwise.
By the way, another wonderful saxophonist, Vincent Abado, plays the Concerto for Saxophone and String Orchestra by Glazounov.
Both Mule and Abado presided over their greatnesses in the area of the mid - 20th century.
Be assured that it will have been worth the effort to find these masterpieces, which may be still be available through some researching.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why Did Vladimir Horowitz Utter Such a Statement?

As I had written before, the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz, with a pyro-technique equal, probably, to Franz Liszt a century earlier, was an admirer of the equally legendary pianist Art Tatum. The two became friends, even though they were worlds apart in the kinds of music they produced.
When Horowitz, in mid-century, remarked that "I wish that I could play like Art Tatum," I am quite sure that these words produced some consternation, if not confusion; after all, why would one of the most celebrated pianists of all times say such a thing? I remember reading that this statement appeared in the New York and other newspapers, as a form of sensationalism.
It seems to me that what these rather cryptic words meant was that with all of his technical powers, Horowitz wished that he could extend the range of those powers through improvisation, which Tatum, as a pop pianist, did at all times. The closest Horowitz could get to any improvisational expression was through his own fabled transcriptions of famous piano compositions.
A rather delicious form of mini-frustration on the part of this giant? Perhaps.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

On St. Patrick's Day, Don't Forget John Field!

In celebration of St. Patrick's Day, I thought I'd inject a reminder about John Field, one of Ireland's most gifted artists. To listen to Field is to listen to music worlds away from Beethoven, although he was born only twelve years after the passing of Beethoven.
The most important music Field produced are his Nocturnes for piano. One is immediately transported into the heart of the Romantic era upon listening to these pieces. The melodies are tunes one would expect to be given us by one of the great Irish tenors we are so familiar with; however, these gems are unique expressions written for the piano, and are, curiously, "Chopin - like," even though Chopin comes after Field (Chopin was born eighteen years after Field).
Two telling stories about Field :
One day, while teaching at college, I ventured into the library to find some music to play during a break from classes. As I passed the librarian , I asked her what editions of John Field are on the shelves. Her answer was "who's John Field?"
On another occasion, one of my sons was preparing to go on one of his trips to Ireland. So I asked him to stop in at one of the record stores in Dublin to pick up any CD he could find of one of Ireland's own; namely, John Field.
Upon his return, he handed me a CD he purchased in , I believe Dublin. I had pictured his being able to find all kinds of Field while being in Ireland. What I found was that the CD he brought back was one recorded in Worcester, Massachusetts, about forty miles from my home.
In other words, Field should be better known than he is.
Finally, to cite an example of the indefatigable and indestructible force we call Irish Humor: after hearing a young Liszt attacking the piano as only Liszt could do, Field turned to his companion, and asked "does he bite?"
Listen to his Nocturnes, and experience some wonderfully pleasurable moments.

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Sunday, March 9, 2008

Schubert and the Beatles - The Same Spinning Wheel?

The Art- Song (a narrative for voice) was brought to prominence by a 17 year-old wonder; the Austrian composer Franz Schubert, in his "Gretchen Am Spinnrade." In one song, Schubert firmly establishes this form for the ages.
A century and a half later, in a totally different culture, and in a totally different place, the Beatles give us "Eleanor Rigby."
Both songs contain the same dark hues, haunting melodies and a sense of foreboding emanating from stark loneliness, love unfulfilled and hopelessness.
Gretchen, as she sat spinning in her bleak little room becomes, in the following century, Eleanor Rigby.
I would doubt, although it is speculation on my part, that the Beatles knew very much, if anything about the composer of the first "Eleanor Rigby."
Perhaps it is simply another example of the artist posing another of countless examples of the representation of human emotion for the sake of its existence, and nothing more.

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Friday, March 7, 2008

Earl Wild - A Pianist Who Should Be Heard

The great American pianists are relatively few in number. Two in mind are, of course, Murray Perahia and William Kapell. Perahia is, in fact, one of the world's great Mozart interpreters; and, tragically, Kapell's meteoric career was cut short at age 31 in a plane crash.
Another American pianist, who, though not a great musician in the Perahia or Kapell cast, is nevertheless a major force in his performances, and does give us some great playing in many of his recordings.
As I recall, he was born somewhere in Pennsylvania in 1915, and so far as I know, is still among us.
His career glitters by way of such attainments as a staff pianist with the legendary NBC Symphony Orchestra under Toscanini, and he has performed with countless major orchestras and given recitals all over the world. His teachers were students of Liszt, and I believe he studied with Egon Petri, perhaps the greatest pianist Holland ever gave us.
Wild is also a very fine composer, and one of his more attractive compositions is a transcription of tunes, in medley form, from Disney's Snow White, in which he employs the great tradition of 19th century transcription techniques in a brilliant display.
Wild also champions neglected composers such as Scharwenka and Paderewski. Actually, Paderewski's Concerto in "A" minor is quite beautiful and well written. Both of these composers have been wonderfully recorded by Earl Wild, and I would certainly recommend these performances without hesitation.
I think that you will be most impressed by Earl Wild and his terrific pianism.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Arturo Toscanini - Tyranny in a Magnificent Form

Arturo Toscanini, through the first half of the twentieth century, was considered by many to be the greatest of the great conductors. His personal orchestra, the NBC Symphony Orchestra, made many recordings which to this day are considered legendary.
His methodology might not be acceptable today; namely, the fear that he instilled in the musicians who played under him. A distant relative of mine, whom I met only once, and who played oboe under Toscanini, verified the reality of the nature of this great conductor.
His temper was, at times, so corrosive and explosive, primarily during rehearsal periods, that these accomplished musicians, each with a mind of his own, was  ultimately molded by sheer force of will into the shape of the conductor's goal of the moment.
I can, and probably will relate some of the stories of terror projected by Toscanini, all of which are documented.
However, allow me to tell you of an incident which represents his temper:
This occurred during the Second World War, at a rehearsal of a Beethoven sonata for violin and piano, in a large room set aside for Yehudi Menuhin, the eminent violinist, and Toscanini, who was a superb pianist.
The piano was a small studio-sized instrument, and Menuhin stood to the right of the piano bench occupied by Toscanini.
The rehearsal began, and all things were going smoothly, when a telephone on the far wall began to ring.
The two musicians continued playing, while the phone continued to ring.
Menuhin recounts that while they were performing and the telephone ringing went on, he looked down at Toscanini, and noted that the Maestro's complexion slowly went from normal pink to ruddy red, and the veins on the right side of his neck were beginning to show. Menuhin also noted that the pitch of the telephone ring was totally foreign to any of the notes in the sonata.
The playing and the ringing continued a while longer, when suddenly, with a roar, Toscanini sprang from the bench (he was well in his seventies at the time), ran across the large room , reached out for the ringing telephone, and ripped it out of the wall.
I have no further information; for instance, did the rehearsal continue, or did Toscanini storm out of the room? I do not know.
I wonder if a twenty-five year old Adonis, with a thirty inch waist, and biceps rivaling the circumference of an oak tree, could have replicated that which Toscanini did on that day?

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Vladimir Horowitz and Art Tatum - Strange Bedfellows!

In the video " Horowitz-the Last Romantic", there is a most curious section which lasts but a few seconds. It is Horowitz, with that impish grin, breaking out with his personal mini-transcription of (believe it or not!) "Tea for Two," and it is perfectly awful, as Horowitz had no propensity to perform pop or jazz; however, there it is, if you can get hold of this video made a few years before Horowitz's passing.
The reason for this incarnation is Horowitz's fascination of the pianism of Art Tatum. Horowitz, it seems, was mesmerized by Tatum's fantastic arrangement of "Tea for Two", and, it seems, was working out a bit of this tune from time to time on his piano at home.
See if you can find Tatum's "Tea for Two". It was recorded in California just a few years before Tatum died. The incredible schematic that Tatum developed in this arrangement obviously captivated Horowitz, and you have the result in this little outburst in the Horowitz video.
How engrossing it is to realize the open admiration that the titan Horowitz had for Art Tatum.

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