Wednesday, November 26, 2008

For Christmas - Some Suggestions for Music Lovers

As the Season approaches, may I suggest some recordings as gifts?
In the popular field, there are, of course, countless discs by many outstanding artists available to us. A few notable recordings to consider:
Torme and Shearing "do" World War II - So many of the really wonderful pop tunes were written during this period, and Mel Torme, with George Shearing, form one of their many collaborations; this recording being, in my opinion, their best. Incidentally, this performance was either their final, or next to final collaboration.
The Essential Billie Holiday - Recently I was given this recording, which was done in 1956 in Carnegie Hall by Holiday and such great supporters as Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge.
Holiday is in superb form here, better than any recording I can remember, and the quality of the recording is enhanced by digital re-make. If you like Holiday, you'll love this recording.
In the classical aspect, the two recordings made by Vladimir Horowitz and his father-in-law Arturo Toscanini are among the great performances forever preserved (actually, the two recorded the Tchaikowsky a second time on "I Am An American" day). The level of power and controlled intensity that these two icons were known for gives us a combination of excitement the listener will always remember. The Tchaikowsky Concerto and the Brahms Concerto No.2 were the two performances they committed to record, and one has to wonder why these two giants did not record more.
The nine symphonies of Beethoven have, of course, been recorded countless times; however, the two recordings I am most attracted to are the Toscanini and the Bruno Walter performances.
The power of Beethoven's message permeates the Toscanini incarnation, while the Walter interpretation has a patrician-like quality that adheres to Beethoven's language in a manner that intrigues me.
Just a few suggestions - hope that your Christmas list will be easier to assemble!


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Power of Dreams?? Read On...

During the first few weeks of my piano recitals in Germany, sponsored by Amerika Haus, which I had written about in my previous blog, I experienced an encounter with the world of dreams, which to this day, continues to befuddle and mystify me.
While initiating my tour, I experienced a dream, which was EXACTLY the very same each incarnation, about five or six times, all within a period of about three weeks, those first three weeks of my performances. The dream unfolded as follows:
I move onto the stage, approach the piano, acknowledge my audience, and prepare to perform.
As I lift my hands to begin, I freeze, and ask myself "Which recital do I play? Is it recital no. 1? Or is it No. 2? Or No. 3"? (In the dream, I had obviously prepared three different recital programs).
I simply cannot remember, and so I rise from the piano seat, stride over to the edge of the stage, look down at an elderly lady sitting in the front row, and ask her if I could look at the program. With a deeply puzzled expression, she hesitatingly rises from her seat, moves to the stage, and lifts her program up to me.
I gaze at the program for a moment, give it back to the woman, go back to the piano, muttering to myself "So it's recital No. 2", and begin my recital.
Incredibly, as I have stated, this dream recurred several times during the initial phase of my concert tour, and was precisely the same each time, even down to "recital No. 2."
Was it fear that engendered these dreams? I do not recall having fear, only the usual nervousness that accompanies all performers as a natural part of the performing process.
Would Freud have had an intelligent answer??


Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Palmengarten - My Experience There

When I was in the military, I was immediately assigned to Special Services for the purpose of performing , primarily in Europe.
When I was informed that I would be stationed in Frankfurt (Germany), which would serve as my central location for practice and preparation for live and radio concerts, I was further enthralled with my being given the Palmengarten as a central headquarters, which had a wonderful Bechstein piano there for my performance preparations.
I knew that the Palmengarten was a place which had hothouses containing countless plants and trees from around the world, including a number of palm trees.
This place was created in, I think, 1868, by the people of Frankfurt, as a kind of haven or escape for any of its residents. And it was, and is a beautiful area of repose.
And so I could practice on this magnificent instrument, which was in a large room with huge windows, looking out at a huge expanse of tulip and other displays during the summer months I spent there.
Even though this room was assigned to me for my work, it remained open to the public, and so as I worked at the piano, visitors would come in and out; some sitting, for a brief period, to listen to what I was doing.
It was a rather unique experience for me, as this was the only time in my life that I practiced before various audiences - how many of you out there practice in front of people??
All this was arranged through the cooperative workings of the American Armed Forces and the Amerika Hauser organization, a kind of "think-tank" out of Berlin to foster contacts between German and American intellectuals and artists. I would hope that this group may still be doing its work in Germany.
It was an item of irony for me that I was informed at one point during my time there that the Palmengarten served as the Frankfurt headquarters for Hermann Goering, the number two Nazi and the head of the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. I never delved into that aspect, but I would surmise that this indeed did happen, as I was told by some high-ranking military people about this issue.
What remains for me are the many pleasant memories of the Palmengarten, the piano, and the many truly interesting people I got to know during this time in my life.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Dreamer and the Thug - Both on the Same Road to Nowhere

1938 - Neville Chamberlain on the way to Munich.
1941 - Rudolf Hess on the way to Scotland.
Both examples of Cervantes' Quixote, in the twentieth century.
I have not yet found a historian to write about these two within the same paragraph. Do please inform me if you have.
Prime Minister Chamberlain, and his predecessor, Stanley Baldwin, both thought that the Empire was not assailable, and both did not contemplate the Hitlerian logic , let alone possibility of Force of Arms to solve any international issue.
So, at Munich, even though Chamberlain thought that Hitler was the essence of repugnance, he signed in along with the Nazi leader and the Fascist dictator, Mussolini, to facilitate and actuate the bloodless taking over of Czechoslovakia, while the President of the Czech state waited in a hall outside of the proceedings.
"Peace For Our Time" was the theme of the day when Chamberlain returned to England, waving the paper to an exultant crowd at the airport, that he and Hitler had signed.
So much for Don Quixote I.
Rudolf Hess, we remember, was second only to Hitler in the early days of Nazism, and languished in the same jail with Hitler while the future dictator dictated his "Mein Kampf" to
After Britain had declared war on Germany, which Hitler did not anticipate, Hess anguished over this unforeseen development. He knew that Hitler did not dislike the British, and the tyrant had felt that it would have been possible to, at least for the foreseeable future, co-exist with England while he occupied the Continent.
In 1941, Hess could no longer contain himself. He felt that he could confront Churchill and work out an agreement with Great Britain and then, in triumph, present it to Hitler.
And so this leading Nazi, never for a moment understanding the deep and abiding hatred Churchill had for Hitler, set off in a small plane (he was a fine pilot) all by himself, for the British Isles, never having told Hitler of this grand plan.
And so, Hess jumped out of his plane and parachuted his way onto a fine Scottish lawn, was detained by the local police, who informed Churchill whom they had in custody. Churchill was incredulous, but did not change his mind about watching a Marx Brothers movie that very same evening.
Can any of us make up better stories?
And there you have the Hero of Cervantes II.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Mozart - What Was He Like?

The movie "Amadeus," which supposedly portrayed Mozart, was indeed a brilliant movie as regards the costumes, locations, and musical performances, let alone the superb cinematography; however, the story was pretty much fictionalized, as other movies depicting the lives of great composers had been before this film was released.
But I must say that the actor portraying the great genius, whose name is Tom Hulce, did a really fine job representing the social weakness and immaturity of this supremely gifted composer.
We do know, as Hulce projected in the film, that Mozart, at times, was petulant, silly, insulting, childish, and just plain difficult to get along with a good deal of the time. He was certainly not in the favor of some of the members of the Emperor's court, and Salieri, the Emperor's Composer, probably hated the existence of Mozart, chiefly out of the fear that he realized that Mozart was a far more gifted composer than he was, and probably felt threatened by the young genius' gifts.
Some of the letters written by Mozart tell us of his social make-up. I heartily recommend the great compilation by Emily Anderson, which consists of the letters to and from Mozart, as well as the letters written to and from the Mozart family.
I call your attention to one letter, as an example, written by Mozart, from Milan, in 1772, to his sister. The following is at the end of this letter:
"Farewell, my little lung. I kiss you my liver, and remain as always, my stomach, your unworthy brother Wolfgang.
Please, please, my dear sister, something is biting me. Do come and scratch me."
Just one example of several which demonstrate Mozart's personality structure.
One time, he was literally kicked out of a Count's home, actually bodily removed.
And on it went.
The towering nature of his power as a musician - one thing.
The make-up of his person - another issue.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Jacqueline du Pre - The Unspeakable Tragedy

Imagine a seventeen - year - old girl, in a concert in London, becoming established as a leading 'cellist, and arguably considered the foremost interpreter of the great ' Cello Concerto by Edward Elgar.
Imagine that same high-spirited young lady, beset by demons within her, struggling with intense conflicts which confused the measurement of her very identity.
From around age five to this concert, which put her on the world stage, the 'cello was the center of her universe. It is an admirable thing to note that her parents did see to it, to the best of their efforts, that her childhood was one of balance and normality in issues of social import.
Her sister, Hilary, was also a gifted young musician, a flutist; however, Jacqueline's meteoric ascent to world fame became the overriding family reality.
Her husband, the brilliant pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim; one of the most eminent musicians to have come out of South America, collaborated with her, both as a performer and conductor. Their recording of the Elgar Concerto is, fortunately, available. It remains one of the most memorable performances on record, and is the definitive view of that masterpiece.
Fortunately for the world of music, Jacqueline did indeed make several recordings before the unspeakable tragedy struck.
In her late twenties, the scourge called Muscular Dystrophy began to appear, and the inevitable disaster slowly but steadily took away the illimitable gifts that were given her.
In 1987, in the prime of her time, age 42, Jacqeline du Pre passed away, and a career of possibly unprecedented promise was gone.
This writer, with all of the experience contained, both as a listener and musician, considers the magical sounds that this young woman created on the instrument to be the most moving in his memory, what with the likes of a Casals, or a Piatigorsky, or a Rostropovich preceding her.
There were many personal issues in her life, which the reader can uncover easily, that could have impacted her genius; however, like Beethoven, also the companion of personal tragedy,the music prevails.


Saturday, November 1, 2008

Beethoven - Five Piano Concerti, or Six??

The Five Piano Concerti of Beethoven are as well-known, perhaps, as any of the piano concerti ever written.
But he DID write another piano concerto, which is almost never heard. I remember hearing it only once, as a child; sadly, I cannot recall the performer's name.
After his violin concerto, which many consider the reigning concerto for that instrument, Beethoven did indeed write a piano version of the violin masterpiece, which, as I recall, is listed as Opus 61A.
Beethoven almost always envisioned the piano when he wrote; one of the reasons, perhaps, that resulted in the palpable difficulties encountered by the soloists in that first performance of his 9th symphony. Some of the singers complained to the composer that at times the singing was impossible, whereupon Beethoven, at times not too mildly, reminded the singer or singers that their voices were instruments, like all others.
The piano transcriptions by Liszt of the 9 symphonies of Beethoven demonstrate the innate 'pianism' in so much of Beethoven's music. As difficult as they are for the piano, they work wonderfully on the instrument, almost as if it were Beethoven himself who wrote these for the keyboard. I feel quite confident that Beethoven would have embraced Liszt's creations.
Some of you may disagree; however, it seems to me that the sublimity of Beethoven's conceptualization as regards the piano propels us into the process realized by what we now know about the piano and its veritably illimitable powers of dimension.