Thursday, August 28, 2008

Constance Keene - How Many Remember Her?

The other day I took out my copy of the Rachmaninoff Preludes, as played by Constance Keene.
I found myself searching for other recordings by Keene, and after listening to her Bach and Hummel performances, and after all these years of having heard these recordings, I find myself compelled to add to the small list of American-trained pianists who have always been considered among the truly great musicians. Kapell and Perahia have for years been considered, generally, as the top two; however, I must consider Keene, from my view, as their equal in terms of raw unadorned pianism. To explain:
Obviously, the late William Kapell and Murray Perahia must be considered virtuosi by way of their considerable repertoires, let alone their performance powers. Keene, at least from the public performances she had given, did not, perhaps, have the size of repertoire that Kapell and especially Perahia are known for; however, in terms of pianism, and especially in her legendary 1964 recording of the Rachmaninoff Preludes, I cannot imagine any one playing them any better. And Rubinstein himself was overwhelmed at this recording, stating that he could not imagine Rachmaninoff himself doing any more with these compositions.
I would urge you to listen to what this woman gives to us and the history of recordings. Her infallible technique and the beauty of her ways in dealing with this magnificent form of absolute music by the great Russian composer are, in my view, a revelation.
If she had not decided to turn to teaching, which she did in New York for at least thirty years; indeed, until her passing, and had remained primarily as a performer, where would she have taken herself? Her selflessness and interest in young people have deprived the ages of a talent cut short by a fateful decision to give of herself in a manner that few great artists have done.
Keene enhanced the lives of many young hopefuls, and in doing so deprived History of a name that would have been in league with the others the world knows so well.
A beautiful and fateful decision.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Art Of Hubris, in a Terrifying Form

The great actors have possession of their own shape of hubris; a unique combination of facial expression; the voice, and how it projects the actor's entity and how it inexorably fuses with the actor; the way the actor moves, and how the movements add to the total image of the actor's identity, and so on.
One of the most compelling examples of the total actor is one that may surprise you, as he is not from Hollywood, or out of J. Arthur Rank productions of England, or any movie or play cast.
The man is Adolf Hitler.
I am sure that many of you have seen pictures of a young Hitler, resplendent in a black suit or tuxedo, along with black tie and white shirt, in various poses representing the making of a speech, with that unsettling intensity blazing from his piercing eyes.
These photographs were taken by a brilliant photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, who becomes the court photographer, and these photographs seem to connote the nature of a form of propaganda designed to enhance the Hitler image.
But they were more than that.
Few of us know what was on the other side of the subject, actually adjacent to Hoffmann's camera. That item was a full-length mirror, which Hitler constantly worked in front of in order to polish, to burnish the technique of what eventually becomes one of the twentieth century's most powerful and gifted speakers.
Like any artist, he practiced incessantly using the mirror and camera as his instruments, and not much later in time was able to enrapture about sixty million people at the apex of his power in much the same way a Cary Grant or a Katharine Hepburn or a John Barry more was able to take possession of their audiences.
The next time you see a Hitler speech, watch carefully for the total expenditure of sight and sound, and then consider how closely he brought civilization to a new Dark Age.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

On Canvas: Two Little Men

Two painters crossed my brow today; one, the neo-classicist David, the other the romanticist Delacroix.
I thought of them primarily because of their paintings of two little men; one, about five feet four inches, the other, one who stood a bit over five feet in height.
David, who became Napoleon's official painter, did two works that come to my attention because of the political implications in both.
Napoleon in His Study shows the great little man, standing in full uniform. As I recall, there is a clock on a mantel or some similar piece of furniture, to his right. With the lighting assigned to the painting, it is obviously at night. The clock shows a time representing the wee hours of the morning, suggesting that the Great Leader is available and in command twenty four hours of the day, every day.
The other painting shows Napoleon on a horse at an impossible upward angle conquering the heights, with the name of Hannibal in one corner of the painting.
Great painting, with a bit of propaganda suggested here, or what??
Delacroix painted the demonic genius of the violin, Paganini, in a small oil.
He also painted, in I believe 1839, both Chopin and his mistress George Sand (real name Dudevant). Actually, I believe it was done as a double painting; however, we remember the Chopin painting more clearly. I mused over the delicate treatment that Delacroix gives to Chopin's proboscis, as Chopin himself, at the end of his life, was purported to have complained that " I was cursed with a short life and a long nose."
Two little guys, both with huge impact upon our memory.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Titan's Struggle With His Demons

Vladimir Horowitz resides in the memory banks of those of us who were witness to his performances as one of the truly great musicians of his or any other time.
His demonic powers at the piano were like no other known to me, certainly. I was part of his audiences as a young person for probably twenty or more times, and the almost football game -like atmosphere after his final piece was a trade-mark of a typical Horowitz recital or concert.
What is also known to many is the number of times Horowitz was forced to go into 'retirements' during the course of his long career. The overriding cause of his having to give up live performances at several different points in his life was a seemingly uncompromising fear of failure before an audience.
Horowitz grappled with this fear during almost all of his life, having sought counsel and eventually requiring medications to counter a growing depression.
Any of you familiar with a Horowitz performance may well remember the quavering fingers poised above the keyboard, along with his omnipresent handkerchief which was used during every performance to quell his running nose, the most overt symptom of fear, and nervousness arising from this demon.
I vividly remember Horowitz at the first recital I attended (I was about 8), going backstage to get his autograph, and struck by the chalk-white complexion, with not a trace of perspiration, and with those chalk-white hands writing the autograph. It was almost as if he had been covered by chalk dust.
This struggle accompanied him until the age of about 75, when for reasons undecipherable, the fear vanished, and for the remaining period of his career he truly enjoyed performance without condition. It was during this period that he began appearing at such occasions as disco parties in New York and elsewhere, and really got down to wearing a different bow-tie at each social
occasion. It has been reliably reported that his collection of bow-ties numbered around 600!
There were other challenges as well. I am not clear as to whether cancer was an issue; however, his prostate was removed later in life (I can only guess that it may have been in the early 80's, as I recall that he looked really rather wan at that time).
Socially, I can surmise that he was simply a teen-ager in spirit; for instance, David Dubal, a professor of music in New York, and a friend of Horowitz, recalls that at a particular occasion at the Horowitz home, with several friends, including some ladies present, Horowitz suddenly got off his favorite place on his favorite sofa and pronounced that "I have to go pee."
He never ate meat, and ate fish almost every day. He remained quite lean through most of his
life, gaining a few pounds during the final decade.
He died, suddenly, in 1989, slipping to the floor not far from his oldest friend, his piano.
Horowitz once quipped, "I am famous, but not well-known."
One of a kind.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

On This Date in 1945 - Some Thoughts, and the Perennial Question

As a young artist, I recall a day during a conversation with a brilliant historian; a question was posed by him, and what I remember about his question was not only the content, but his eyes, looking directly into mine, informing me silently that this was indeed a pregnant question.
The question was " why does Beethoven's music sound the way it does?"
There was silence; then, the reason for his seemingly simplistic query slammed into me. This historian was , by way of his question, beseeching me to attach intrinsic historical context to every issue in my consciousness, including the arts. Anything short of that requisite results in intellectual failure.
That question, asked of me so many years ago, has transmogrified my entire train of thought concerning not only music, but all other issues which pop into my pursuits.
As a result and an example, I recall lecturing on the parallels between Beethoven and Thomas Jefferson; or, Mozart as an entity totally unaware of the Enlightenment that was forming him; or the relationship between Scriabin and the psychedelic craze in the twentieth century, etc., etc.
To encapsulate: the elemental nature and power of historical context is the primary reason I sometimes digress from the arts to communicate with you the importance of a particular date in Man's history, and I trust and hope that you will forgive me for such digressions.
I rail at such historical revisionism as the denial by a troubling number, during our time, who deny the existence, for example, of the Holocaust; or, I sometimes chortle at Hitler's championing and use of Beethoven's music at so many occasions when I realize that Beethoven would have hated the dictator to the marrow of his bones.
And so, having read all of the above, I hope that you will forgive me for recalling that on this date in 1945 the history of our world altered within a nine second period, when the city of Hiroshima was destroyed.
I find it rather disappointing that I see veritably nothing available today concerning that event.
I once told a historian that "your subject is the most vulnerable in all of Man's intellectual pursuits." After a moment of thought, he agreed.
I remember a statement made recently by George Will who said "it's like someone attempting to plant cut flowers." Was he referring to the plight of the history teacher? I wonder.
How well has Man learned from his own history?

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Monday, August 4, 2008

A Letter I Value from a Legendary Pianist

It was in 1989. when I decided to go to various sources and record back-to-back all of the Horowitz transcriptions for the piano.
I remember as a child my first hearing of one of his transcriptions; namely, Danse Macabre of St. Saens. It overwhelmed me, as it was impossible for me to understand how ten fingers could accomplish such feats.
From that time I became interested in the piano transcription in general, and how various composers, especially Liszt, would study through the transcription form methods to constantly research the seemingly illimitable resources of the modern piano.
When I came across further laminations of sound attached to the already daunting experiments of Liszt, as done by Horowitz, I became truly intrigued, and it led me to writing Horowitz in 1989, just a few months before his sudden death in his New York town house, next to his beloved piano.
I wrote a request to him to gain access to his transcriptions in order to study (Good Heavens, not
PLAY-why try?) the methods through which he was able to acquire such an array of sounds in simultaneity that defied description.
I was really positive that he would not reply, as I knew that he followed a strict rule he applied to himself never to reply in letter form any aspect about his work, let alone music in general. I knew that he answered many letters that dealt with subjects such as how many ways to prepare chicken, which I understood he would alternate with fish for his own personal diet. I had read somewhere that lemon sole was one of his favorites.
But to answer a letter dealing with MUSIC! Uh-uh, or so I thought.
But I needed to write that letter just hoping that he knew that there was someone out there among his admirers needing to make such a request. I also felt with some assuredness that others must have requested the same thing of him.
I went into quasi-shock when barely a week after my sending the request, I received a letter from the Maestro, with an apology implied (!!!), stating that sending them would be an impossibility, the reason being that he never had committed any of his transcriptions onto paper. He also wished me well!
By the way, I had also asked for a copy of his own composition, Danse Excentrique , which he often played in his early career, and had recorded several times. He could not supply me with this item as well.
I have the letter safe and sound, and it must be one of very few in number, if he indeed did adhere to his own policy of not answering letters dealing with music.
I consider this little epistle a bit of a treasure.

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