Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Horowitz and Scarlatti - A Magical Collaboration...

Domenico Scarlatti was born in 1685.
Vladimir Horowitz in 1903 (or 1904).
Their collaboration was born after over two centuries had gone by.
The younger Scarlatti (his father Alessandro was the renowned writer of opera) got to formally write most of his keyboard masterpieces down in middle age, the core of which are his 555 Sonatas, the first 30 of which he called "exercises."
Vladimir Horowitz became intrigued at what he must have recognized as the prescience of the composer, in terms of what possibilities these masterpieces had in store for an instrument which Scarlatti did not write; namely the piano, which did not come around until 1711.
Horowitz sought out and huddled with the acclaimed American musicologist and harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, in order to enhance and widen his vision of the Sonatas as they could be applied to the modern piano.
I fully understand the controversy which resulted (and continues to result) emanating from the playing on the piano of pieces meant for the harpsichord - Horowitz, Gilels and other pianists envisioned these little marvels as reaching a kind of fulfillment possible only on the piano, because of the range of expression and dynamics germane to the instrument. I do not know what Kirkpatrick thought of Scarlatti as applied to the piano; however, it is a reality that he spent much time with Horowitz dealing with the Scarlatti sonatas, while at the same time we know that the cataloging of the 555 sonatas that Kirkpatrick engendered is still the primary measure the world of music still goes by.
For me, it is a constant reminder of how a pianist with a gargantuan technique can funnel his immense pianistic powers into a different shape and tactic, in order to portray the shimmering translucence and control needed to project the dazzling vision that Scarlatti possessed in his creating so many different incarnations for one instrument.
I am fortunate indeed to have witnessed Horowitz many times - how overwhelming it was for me to hear, say, a Rachmaninoff sonata preceded or followed by a clutch of five or six of the Scarlatti sonatas - a recital which could contain a piece by a Rachmaninoff, of orchestral dimension, resulting in one's world being engulfed by cascades of sound which would shut the rest of the world out - then, the incandescence, like a form of laser beam, of the magical line of a Scarlatti sonata, maintaining the same kind of 'hush' in the hall, continuing to separate the listener from a world outside of that hall. The unequaled control, aided by minimal pedaling and a world of inflection - this was Horowitz, and his love affair with these wonderful pieces, most of which were about two to four pages in length.
Would Scarlatti have embraced Horowitz in the playing of his music?
There can be no answer.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

The " Waldstein" Sonata - How Did Beethoven Do This Passage??

The world knows of the power of the gigantic 1804 masterpiece that Beethoven titled "Waldstein."
It most assuredly ranks among the more important of the 32 piano sonatas of The Master.
But, among those who involve themselves, either as performers or listeners, of this massive work, inevitably have to come to terms with a passage toward the end of the third movement; specifically, how to perform, let alone deal with, this unique shard of piano writing.
It consists, at great speed, of a series of octaves done not with both hands, but with one hand, followed by the other hand, in scale patterns moving down, then up. Normally this kind of scale playing at top speed is assigned both hands in simultaneity, and we witness countless examples of this approach done by most composers who write for the piano, usually in transitional sections between melodies.
However, in the Beethoven statement, he asks that each hand do the scale in octaves separately, which makes it both inordinately difficult and a kind of mystery at the same time.
Did Beethoven play these legato? And if so, how can it be done?
Does he want them detached, which would, out of necessity, slow these passages down?
Does he want "glissando"(a gliding over the notes without specific articulation of the fingers, but with the risk of ripping one's cuticles and shedding blood)?
Pianists since Beethoven's writing of the "Waldstein" have wrestled with and come up with answers best suited to their techniques and philosophies.
The most impressive dealing with this problem I know of is the Gilels performance, done in Austria about forty years ago. He uses the "glissando" in a way that absolutely overwhelms me - it is utterly magical, and fits the greater text wonderfully. Additionally, this great pianist, for me, is the best of the Beethoven interpreters from the Russian School.
See if you can find this rather rare video, and marvel at what this man does, especially when he arrives at that daunting passage in the final movement!


Friday, May 20, 2011

Tony Bennett - A Miracle at 85...

When I was a kid, the crooner of that time was Bing Crosby. I thought of him as a kind of vocal Methuselah, singing sweet nothings in his sixties.
Then came Blue Eyes; that is, Frank Sinatra, who made it well into his seventies as both the leading crooner and a talented actor.
And now our present time has one Tony Bennett, who, at age 85, is simply magical in his story-telling through the popular ballads America has housed for the better part of a century.
I have always been enthralled by the indestructible youth these crooners project, as youth, in its longing, loving and constant search for boundlessness is so innately elemental in these singers who were and are old enough to be grandfathers. Torme comes to mind, as he always sounded like a lovestruck teenager right up into the '90's.
At any rate; in the event you don't know - Tony Bennett produced a CD and video in 2006, in his 80th year, of duets sung with a handful of the world's most popular singers, such as Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder, Bono, Sting, Diana Krall and others. It is a sensational disc, as Bennett weaves his way around and through each of these pop stars, and, in my view, creates ways to fuse to and essentially BECOME each of these singers in a way I could not have contemplated as a possibility - do listen to this immensely gifted crooner, in this format.
It has recently been announced that Bennett will present a second release of duets late in September, with some repeat performers, along with new talents known to all who follow Bennett and his venerable career, a career unlike any other in the pop field.
By the way, be reminded that Bennett is also a gifted painter, and there is, in regularity, an incessant parade of his works in various exhibits throughout the country, and probably in Europe as well. Why not punch that button and look at his paintings, along with Sinatra, who also had talents as a painter -
Artistic gifts, coupled with a long life - a number of artists have so been anointed, and give us so very much....


Friday, May 13, 2011

"Papa" Haydn - How He Spent Some of His Mornings...

The name Haydn is known, of course, throughout the world of music; therefore, it would be a waste of both your and my time to hash over the material so well known to us.
One lesser known aspect of his activities as a composer may, perhaps, be of interest to some of you:
We know that his immense architectural abilities to build so many of his wonderfully luminous ideas from smaller elements is, perhaps, his most powerful trademark.
Spending decades as an employee of the powerful Esterhazy family, wearing the same style livery as the servants, he blithely went about his business without worrying about the availability of the next meal, as other composers obviously did.
On many mornings, he would spend a rather considerable amount of time sitting at the keyboard doing nothing but improvising; and as he did this, some of the ideas that struck him as better than others prompted him to write them out, which he did, and, in many cases, these more appealing, more important ideas appeared in many of his masterpieces, frozen forever into the larger context of his thinking for us to enjoy.
Thought that you would like to know...


Sunday, May 8, 2011

On This Date - A Moment in History...

On this date in 1945, it was publicly announced that the Second World War was officially over, and that VE(Victory in Europe) Day would commence.
How times have altered - Hitler conquered all of France in about six weeks, and from 1939 to 1942 was absolute master of Western Europe. And his 1000 year Reich disappeared in 12 years.
Two bombs vaporized in horrific finality the aims of the Japanese Empire.
And now, it is almost a decade after 9/11, with no concrete view yet available as an answer to the present world conflict - no boundaries or borders, no uniforms, no grand strategies, no territorial aims.
And yet our world is once again in danger; in conflict.
Above all this, our music, our paintings, our wondrous human gifts remain available to our consciousness and hopes.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Pasquale Tassone - An Impression of His Music...

A few months ago, I heard for the first time a composition for the violin and piano, written by a contemporary composer.
That initial experience, on my part, is still in my memory, as I have rarely been struck in a first hearing as I was struck that evening. It entered my consciousness immediately as an example of some of the most adroitly sculpted ideas written for these instruments that is within my memory bank.
The sense of elemental import given to the melodic line, enhanced by wonderfully tasteful displays of the shifting of tonal centers, let alone the power of the element we in music call the Motif, combine to form, in my view, some of the most evocative and attractive music written in our day for these instruments.
I have since, that first evening, made a point of listening several times to this composition, and I find that(and this can apply only to art at a high level) I am discovering more facets of creative brilliance each and every time, with the commensurate furthering of the understanding of the musical text.
What is most curious to me is that it reminds me of the same kind of flow we hear in the violin and piano music written by Schumann and Brahms; for me, more like Schumann. Not that there is any stylistic similarity to these composers, of course - it is, simplistically speaking, the nature of the "flow" that is so striking to me, which is an encomium to the writing skills of Tassone.
He most assuredly knows how to write for these instruments, which is not necessarily the case endemic to some contemporary composers I have heard.
I cannot commend this work highly enough.
The music is titled "Trittico."
For those of you who may have interest in hearing this work, the CD that contains this composition is titled "Postcards from Arlington," and can be found by way of