Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Samuel Barber - The Greatest Sonata of the 20th Century?

Please be reminded that in the over two years since the inception of this blog, my personal "game" has been never to have to refer to any paper, document, the Internet or any source other than my memory - the one time I broke my own rule was to have to find, word-for-word, an interview by one of Napoleon's officers when he visited Beethoven in Vienna. Other than that blog, all the material you read is from this addled mass we call a brain. I wonder when I will run out of material? Things keep popping up, much to my surprise!
At any rate, I recalled this morning that the American composer, Samuel Barber, was born a century ago, in 1910 (I'm a bit late, as I believe that he was born in the early part of that year, either in January or February).
The primary issue about Barber, for me, is that he truly was 'classical' in his presentations, regardless of the use of the tone-row, which we do hear in some of his compositions. His melodies are redolent with a kind of tonal gravitation that bears true beauty, almost as if he were writing in a place in his mind that belonged to a preceding century. His great Adagio is an example of that.
However, I would rather discuss one of his most powerful creations; that is, his sonata for piano, Opus 26.
It was, as I recall, finished in 1949, and contrary to some material I had come across as having been the one piece that Horowitz ever commissioned, it was, in reality, commissioned by the League of Composers.
The sonata has four movements, and is marvelously crafted for the piano and reserved for a true virtuoso. The legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz greedily gobbled it up and recorded it the following year, I believe, and is one of the great pianist's most brilliant ventures into music that was written within his lifetime.
The melodies are compellingly attractive and with great direction, and the classical base of Barber's language pervades from beginning to end. There are shards of the "blues," from time to time, enabling the American fusion to come forth, along with the composer's great ability to project motive structure in a fluidity that binds all four movements into one giant structure.
The most brilliant tactic, in my view, is the clever way that Barber escapes the tentacles of Baroque imagery in his fugue (final movement) simply by employing jazz-like syncopation in the primary subject. This fugue is one of the greater moments in this truly iconic composition - upon giving much thought about the music, I have come around to consider this sonata as powerful as any written in the twentieth century - I'm sure that some of you may disagree with my opinion; do keep in mind that this is my opinion only, not a proclamation!
Listen to Horowitz doing the sonata - it is available, I'm quite sure.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

My Beloved Piano - and NO Tin Cup!

When I was in the market for a new piano, I had become aware that, at that time, the Yamaha piano was in fact one of the best pianos out there; and even though I was thinking Steinway, I thought that I should look into the Yamaha matter, especially after having learned that a nearby university had purchased a large number of small Yamahas for its practice annex.
The head salesman informed me that, sadly, there was such a demand for the Yamaha grands that he would not have any for several weeks, but he did invite me to try an upright, the only Yamaha in the store at that time.
I was hugely impressed by the large and rounded sounds coming out of such a small piano, and immediately asked if I could be contacted when the next shipment of grands arrived.
About six long weeks later, the Yamaha store called, and informed me that there were three grands due in any moment now, two of which were already sold. I informed him that I would come down immediately, which I did.
Upon arriving, the pianos had not as yet arrived, and so I waited for quite some time before the truck appeared in front of the store. During that waiting period, I was told that the one remaining grand piano on that truck was already in demand by three or four other individuals. It seems that there was a rather strong groundswell of interest for these pianos from Japan, and I was part of that groundswell.
And so, in a mode of at least mild desperation, I asked if I could try the piano before it entered the store. Mr W. was befuddled, to say the least; however, I promised that if I liked the piano, I would make an official commitment then and there.
The result: when the truck arrived, and the grands were being brought down to the sidewalk, I spotted a medium-sized model, and upon its making contact with the sidewalk, I got on my knees (I was dressed in a suit!), as the piano had no legs attached, of course, and I played some music on the keyboard. I was amazed that the piano, after such a long trip, was still in very good tune, and I promptly told the gentleman that I would make a binding deposit on the piano then and there, which did indeed take place a few minutes thereafter in the store.
When I think of it, I do remember that there were four or five people who happened to be walking by, then stopped, to listen to a kind of piano performance perhaps never again to be replicated.
That piano is still in my living room.
I realize now that the only item missing from that scene was a tin cup.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Perspective on a Masterpiece

Before moving on with the subject chosen, please allow me to state most clearly that this is a true perspective on the subject involved, not in any way an opinion:
Some time back, I offered a perspective on the playing of Bach by two great pianists, Glenn Gould and Angela Hewitt, dealing with their particular views on the same music. In this contribution, I will discuss the views of four great pianists dealing with the first movement of the third concerto by Rachmaninoff.
I placed, back -to-back, on a disc, four recordings of this movement by Evgeny Kissin, Leif Ove Andsnes, Vladimir Horowitz, and the composer himself.
Kissin recorded this music in 1993, with the Boston Symphony and Ozawa.
Andsnes recorded in 1995, with the Oslo Philharmonic and Berglund.
Horowitz recorded in 1951 with the RCA Symphony and Reiner.
Rachmaninoff recorded in 1941 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Ormandy.
To me, it was most revealing to realize that the spatial positioning of the first two utterances pretty much set the tone and substance, both technically and, more important, the musical message of this movement.
Of the four performances involved, Kissin sets the slowest pace, and by quite a difference from the other three. The result is that his performance is set in a regal and lofty manner which seems to enhance the impact of the succulent harmonic structure that Rachmaninoff imparts to the best, arguably, of his four concerti. The wonder of that harmonic process is the driving force behind the exquisite color in Kissin's pianism, so familiar to the serious listener.
Andsnes plays at a quicker pace, a pace closer to that which one usually associates with this movement. This great musician has the ability to give us a kind of warmth and loftiness, fused in a way I have not heard in any pianist I am familiar with - it seems as if Andsnes has found found a way of fusing great warmth and a minimum of sentiment in his playing of the Romantics; something I find rather uncanny.
Horowitz was the "terror in his twenties" who so thoroughly captivated Rachmaninoff in his reading of the concerto that the composer and legendary pianist vowed that he would no longer perform this concerto in public again. Fortunately, he changed his mind just a few years before his death when he decided to record all four concerti with Ormandy. And, as can be expected, Horowitz gives us a gripping and overpoweringly personal view of this music. It is almost as if this piece were written for Horowitz, as it fits his unique pianistic structure like a glove.
Interestingly, Rachmaninoff, in his late sixties in his recording, plays his music at the fastest rate of all four pianists involved in this perspective. The unparalleled fluidity in his playing was, perhaps, the reason for his choice of tempo. He was a supreme miniaturist during his career as pianist; that is, in his choice of many small masterpieces which we find in his recordings. It seems that this illimitable plasticity and glossy texture endemic to his playing works as well in large forms, such as this concerto, even though the dimensional structure is so very monumental. To me, it is truly a unique experience to hear how he builds the power into this movement at such a speed, and still averts the danger of making this piece the greatest "miniature" ever written.
To encapsulate: these four readings of the same work are indeed fingerprints, each being totally different for so many reasons; however, none, in my view, can be considered 'wrong,' as each pianist is indeed a great musician; each with a different view of the language waiting to be projected to posterity.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

"You Can't Do That!" - Does Any Artist Have the Right to Make That Statement?

An event that occurred during my first years in music came to mind the other day, and I thought that I should share it with you:
I was standing in front of a composition I was looking over which I had placed on a kind of podium in order to look over a portion I was working on at the time, when a colleague of mine, old enough to be my father, and whom I had known and respected for some years, sauntered over, looked at my music, then suddenly, and rather loudly, said "you can't do THAT!"
He was known to be less than pleasant; a rather gruff and rough kind of individual, terrorizing his students from time to time. His demeanor was overlooked because of his brilliance, and was an entity of respect and regard throughout his career.
His first name was Jesse, a leading exponent of the Schillinger system of composition, which was a powerful intellectual equation of the arts (chiefly music) and math, dealing with such pictorial approaches as geometric repetition (snowflakes, petals, etc.). The creator was Joseph Schillinger, who ultimately influenced such people as Gershwin (actually, Gershwin studied with him longer than with any other creative entity, I believe), the renowned arranger Glenn Miller, Oscar Levant and many other musical luminaries.
Now Jesse was an expert in the Schillinger system, and for him to make such a statement to me rather shook my world for a moment, as I had a high regard for him.
I once performed his wonderful arrangement of the " Spellbound Concerto," music written by the movie composer Miklos Rozsa, for the movie classic "Spellbound." I remember that the subject of Jessie's rancor was a group of chords, built upon fourths, rather than thirds, and he was rather vehement about the use of these chords without ultimate resolution. My first reaction was "what about the Mystic Chord upon which Scriabin based so much?"
Jesse hunched his shoulders up, uttered a kind of growl, walked away, again muttering "you can't do that," and disappeared into another room.
I must hasten to add that Jesse and I continued our friendship, as I always made a point of never reacting to his gruff tirades in front of him - it seemed to "de-fang" him.
The question DOES linger, does it not? - At least, in terms of speculation - how many said to Schoenberg "you can't do THAT" -or, to Prokofiev, or Stravinsky, or Beethoven, in his use, for example, of the human voice in the Ninth?
Personally, I am violently opposed to the totalitarian potential imbuing such a question.


Monday, March 8, 2010

Just to Let You Know - Two Great Websites

I know that this particular blog is a real departure from the norm; however, to those of you who live in New England or New York State, who may be planning to explore this wonderful area in the future, or who simply enjoy reading about places and people, may I highly recommend the following two websites?
They are much fun and most informative to read, have a huge following, and are a source of reference for magazines, radio programs dealing with food, events, trips and people. There are also newspaper and T.V. reviews.
Good, lively, helpful, fun, much free reading.
I promise to return to myself next time around - just thought that some of you might enjoy these particular sources of information!


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Mario - a Violinist With Dangling Cigarette

At the beginning of my professional life in music, I met a gentleman who is indeed well remembered, as he was indeed a memorable part of that period in my career.
Picture the following description as best you can:
About five feet six, and almost as wide; muscular, not chubby.
A toupee, which must have cost him $1.89; absolutely devoid of any quality, perched atop a face with a wonderfully sculpted mustache ; a nose shaped exactly like Tony Bennett's; piercing black eyes with a hint of fatherly love which he tried to hide most of the time; a cigarette which dangled at a downward angle from his lower lip, which I had thought was physically impossible, as it never dropped to the floor - that cigarette was there almost every time I was with him, no matter where that might have been.
A perfect example of that wonderful performance ability - he could play anything that was ever written for the instrument, including the music of Ysaye. His sight-reading ability was beyond description; the best sight reader I have ever personally encountered. He knew countless pieces from memory; from concerti to solo masterpieces, both transcriptions and originals.
But - the one ingredient he lacked, which prevents us from knowing his name in world terms; that is, musical genius. There are, and have been thousands in that category throughout musical history whom we never hear about; namely, those who are veritably incapable of playing a false note, but equally incapable of inducing the atmosphere from moving around us when we hear such an individual.
Mario was a wonder in everything but that most elemental aspect of performance.
He was well known in the area where he made his living as a teacher and performer of secondary orchestras, though I do remember his playing with the Boston 'Pops' from time to time.
One day I produced a sonata I had written specifically for an occasion which would feature Mario and myself as performers. It was a big work, with four movements and a daunting 'vivo' as final movement of the four.
When he first picked it up (he had not seen it before), he flipped the pages, mumbling and nodding from time to time. When he came to the 'vivo', he uttered "looks great," and proceeded to play the violin part AT SPEED, without a blemish. It was utterly overwhelming - I had never contemplated that kind of exhibition as a possibility. Later, as I got to know him, I asked him about his sight-reading abilities, his answer being that when he was a young student in Italy, his teacher constituted sight -reading as a major part of his regime. It was the only time Mario produced a slight whisper of modesty, as one has to be born with that kind of ability to devour a piece not seen beforehand; that is, in the way Mario was able to do so.
At another time, I was working on a piece by Kabalevsky, when Mario sauntered into the room, remarked that he really liked the music I was doing, and asked if he could sit down and take a look at it. I looked up at him, rather surprised at his request, and asked him if he played the piano. He replied something like " a little", and proceeded to play the Kabalevsky pretty much at speed! I was absolutely astounded, and MUST have asked myself "why am I even trying??"
There are so many different guises in the form of Talent, are there not?
We were friends for some years, performing and spending many hours together. I cannot recall how and why our time together came to an end.
But every one of us has an occasional fork in that road.