Friday, January 29, 2010

...and How About Jakob Gimpel?

If you are not familiar with the name Jakob Gimpel, and were this moment able to hear one of his recordings, I feel quite confident that you would scratch your head (at least metaphorically!) and ask, "why have I not heard this pianist before this moment - where have I been?"
Gimpel was born in Poland, and died in, I believe, his 84th year.
He was, essentially, equal to virtually any pianist, alive or dead - that is; as a piano player. His playing of the instrument was nothing short of astonishing. I would suspect that the reason that History does not place him in the top bracket of great pianists is that his repertoire was somewhat limited.
However, I would invite you to look for his recordings and indulge in a thrilling experience. At least, get the film, titled "Mephisto Waltz," and listen to the incredible piano playing - this is Jakob Gimpel playing the music sound track for this film. He also did other movies, let alone perform throughout the Western World, and successfully so.
Please allow me to comment on the recent passing of Earl Wild. I have already done a blog on Wild; however, it would be remiss of me not to bow to this truly wonderful American pianist, dead at about 94. Personally, I consider Wild, along with the late William Kapell and Constance Keene and, of course, Murray Perahia, as the foremost American pianists of our time.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

E. Robert Schmitz - An Unfinished Recital

E. Robert Schmitz was a distinguished 20th century pianist, having been born in Paris, and known widely for his playing of Debussy. He performed extensively, with New York his favorite place to perform in.
In one recital, which included a Beethoven sonata, Schmitz got to a certain point pretty well into the composition, when his memory failed him, resulting in a screeching cessation of the music. It is said that he turned beet-red with anger; anger of such a huge dimension that he decided to start the sonata over again, which he did. A calamity was the result; specifically, when the pianist reached the same place where he had stopped in his first playing of the sonata, he again could not get past that fatal measure. This time, he was so upset with himself that he leaped from the bench and stomped off the stage, not to return.
I would imagine that the audience involved must have felt almost as uncomfortable as the unfortunate pianist.


Friday, January 22, 2010

How Many of Us Remember the Young Fou T'song?

When I was just beginning my work in both musicology and education, one of my heroes was a young Chinese pianist, Fou T'song. What I remember most clearly about his playing was the remarkable interpretive grasp he possessed of the piano music of the 18th and 19th centuries, especially the music of Chopin. I have, from time to time, been in wonder of why this truly powerful musician did not climb to the top of the ladder.
Of all of the musicians of Eastern traditions I have known of throughout my career, I am of the opinion that Fou is the most 'westernized' pianist in the playing of the Romantic period. I am aware that the young sensation Lang Lang is among the most recognized pianists of the day; however, for me, the poetic views that Fou gave to my ears remain among the most beautiful and intelligent contributions to the history of piano performances.
I believe he was born around 1934, and has been a master teacher these days. I noticed his name connected with master classes in Lake Como, for instance. I believe that he does continue to perform from time to time - I should love to hear him now.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Walter Gieseking -A Pianist of Greatness and Swirling Controversy

Although Walter Gieseking was born in France, he is thought of as a predominantly Germanic entity - as I recall, he was born in 1895, and died in the middle fifties.
His astounding raw talent appeared early, at about age four, and his incredible gifts were soon apparent to those who listened to him during the early years. It is said that his sight-reading abilities were like no other great pianist, including the likes of Rachmaninoff and Horowitz, both of whom were resoundingly known as superlative sight readers. Gieseking sight read the Grieg Concerto at sight and at tempo, for instance. I cannot be sure as to whether that accomplishment was an apocryphal example of story telling. I assume that it indeed occurred, based upon the reality that Grieg himself saw Rachmaninoff, whom he befriended, do the very same thing! I remember, as a child, owning a recording of the Grieg as played by Gieseking; I've always been rather curious as to why this wonderfully luminous recording has not been connected to Gieseking, in historical terms.
His performances of Debussy and Mozart are legendary. Gieseking had an uncanny pianistic "vision" of the possibilities of dynamics and timbre which no other pianist, in my view, has ever matched, less exceeded. Michelangeli comes close, in my opinion, in his recordings of Debussy.
Listen to the digital revivifying of the recordings of Gieseking's playing of the French Impressionist, and I feel confident that you will be overwhelmed by the illimitable views of nuance and plasticity that this man could cajole out of the instrument.
The unfortunate controversy surrounding his relationship with the Nazi regime kept him from playing for some years after the war in various countries, including America; however, he was eventually given clearance. The result, for me, was to witness him just once, in Boston. I shall never forget the absolute magic emanating from the stage. His control over the keyboard made the music sound as if it floated not directly from the piano, but rather from the general area of the stage, as if the entire front of Symphony Hall were the instrument. His ability to totally abolish the elemental reality of the piano as a member of the percussion family is still vivid in my memory bank.
He was a large man, with big hands, making the piano appear relatively small. He appeared rather heavily bandaged around the head, having been in a bus accident which killed his wife; and yet, while still showing evidence of that recent tragic event, there he was, creating a world I have yet to be witness to again.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Goddard Lieberson - A Rather Unique Course for Piano

Goddard Lieberson was president of Columbia Records for about fifteen years, and pioneered in producing several musicals on the then new LP record disc; as a matter of fact, he was one of the leading exponents of this defining recording medium.
He was also a composer, and one of his contributions to the art of pedagogy was a rather individualized approach to the enriching of the repertoire.
I'm thinking of a three volume lexicon, titled "Piano Pieces for Advanced Children or Retarded Adults."
As many of you know, Mendelssohn wrote several dozen little masterpieces called "Songs Without Words." Lieberson goes one step past Mendelssohn by giving the first book in his series a title; namely, "Five Songs Without Mendelssohn." The five songs are "Whistling Boy on Horseback; The Same Boy, Five Years Later in Paris; My Neighbor Studies Voice; My Father Plays Pizzicato; and, An Aimless Walk in the Park."
Book Two contains "six technical studies which will teach you nothing."
Book Three gives you "eight studies in musicology which will teach you a great deal."
Some titles in book three include "How to Handel a Bach Violin Solo; How to be a Soviet Composer; Shostakovich's Vacation on a Collective Farm; and, Liszt, my Children."
Seems to me rather obvious that Lieberson was not without a sense of humor, which he lovingly directed toward his great love for music.
I have the first volume, and invite those of you with musicological curiosity to pursue these delightful "tomes."

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Miliza Korjus, Anyone?

One of my favorite pursuits is to project the names of musicians of renown who are essentially forgotten by way of the passing of time. The towering performers who withstand the erosion caused by time are the likes of a Toscanini, a Rachmaninoff, a Heifetz, etc.
However, there are many truly important musicians whose names are essentially forgotten by all but the few whom we might call cohorts - I have written of several since I began this blog; performers such as Jesus Maria Sanroma, Rise Stevens, Larry Adler, etc. This coterie of wonderful performers was celebrated during their day, and at times, for a period beyond their tenure.
I should like, respectfully, to add another name. She was Miliza Korjus, a coloratura who was born in the first decade of the 20th century, and became world recognized as a reigning singer in the coloratura range, and had been compared to Jenny Lind and Lily Pons, to mention but two.
Her great physical beauty, coupled with a singular agility and timbre akin to the coloratura soprano, made her rather quickly a star. She sang with Furtwangler in Berlin, just to give you an example of her stature, and made some movies in Hollywood, which show up rather rarely on television. I do remember seeing her on my computer some time ago - I would recommend, for those of you not familiar with Korjus and her work, to get a recording or two.
A brief note: cancer has stricken Seiji Ozawa, the brilliant conductor, whose tenure as musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was the longest in that vaunted orchestra's history.
I'm sure that it is hoped that the disease has been detected early enough, so that maestro Ozawa can make a complete recovery.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

After Beethoven's Last Three, is Liszt's Sonata the Most Important of the Romantic Era?

After hearing Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" performed by the great Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (his most recent recording), my first reaction was the realization of the architectonic power of his performance; the manner in which Andsnes put together the multi-faceted structure of this large work in such a comprehensive manner, resulting, from my view, in actuating the most compellingly intelligent perusal of Mussorgsy's intuitive masterpiece in a way I could not have conceived. It was as if Andsnes had done what Mozart describes as seeing "an entire symphony on the head of a pin."
My thoughts veered quickly to a question; namely, what could Andsnes give to the massive sonata by Franz Liszt, his only sonata?
A sonata actually containing, perhaps, four movements, but bound into a continuum which gives the impression of a one - movement sonata - the magic, for me, is the process of Theme Transformation, and the transcendent beauty that Liszt carves out of this process. Not Theme Variation, which is the process of what I call Frozen Improvisation - the process called theme transformation is to transmogrify the nature of the original themes, giving them a totally different role in entirely different contexts, which actually can disguise the original theme so effectively that only those of us who are in the field can recognize these different incarnations which were derived from the primary themes.
Liszt used four (some say five) thematic fragments upon which to build this massive work - this aspect, plus the combining of musical ideas with poetry, which was Liszt's most important contribution to the history of musical composition, gives us a wonderfully compelling view into the world of intellectual and artistic endeavor not experienced before 1852, the year I believe Liszt started writing this sonata - only Beethoven, in his last three sonatas, is at the same level of creative endeavor, as regards writing for the piano.
I hope that one day Andsnes will answer a call from this defining work.


Friday, January 1, 2010

Andsnes and Horowitz - New Piano Recordings For the New Year

Happy New Year to my readers!
Thought I would discuss piano recordings of great interest, to start the New Year off:
I have already written about the first two releases of Vladimir Horowitz, selected from recordings he made in Carnegie Hall over many years, made for his own pleasure and never commercially released, which he donated to Yale University in, I believe, 1986.
The first two releases, which include another performance of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and his only recording of Balakirev's "Islamey", I have already discussed.
The next release from these private recordings is due on January 5th, which includes one of Horowitz's favorite sonatas; one in "E" flat (n0. 62) by Haydn, along with the Beethoven "Waldstein" and "Moonlight" sonatas.
On February 2nd, I believe, the fourth release from these Yale archive recordings occurs, which I think is a recording made in Berlin in 1986, just three years before the passing of this legendary pianist. The recording was discovered in one of Berlin's radio files, and should be fascinating to the followers of the great Russian musician. I look forward to these treasures!
I believe that the joint tour of Leif Ove Andsnes, the great Norwegian pianist, and Robin Rhode, the South African artist, is now over, at least for this period. As many of you know, this joint tour centered around a pictorial view, both aural and visual, of Mussorgsky's "Pictures," created and realized by Andsnes and Rhode.
Recently, I picked up the CD of Andsnes doing the "Pictures" (there is also a DVD of both Andsnes and Rhode in performance), and, for me, it is a revelatory perusal of a work I have long known. It is, in my view, the most important recorded performance since the days of Horowitz and his recordings of this singular work - like Horowitz, who enhanced the original manuscript by way of his own transcriptions, Andsnes also enriches, conceptually, the original music with his own addenda, and in such a wonderfully subtle way that prompts me to suggest that this recording, in my view, is the most intelligent delivery I know of this work; in addition, the illimitable pianistic powers of this young pianist makes for this reading to be the most engrossing incarnation of "Pictures" since the legendary Horowitz recordings.
Hopefully, the reader of this blog will pursue these vital recordings to begin his or her New Year in fine fashion!