Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Lesser Known Aspect of Beethoven...

We know that Beethoven began to grow deaf around his 28th year, and that total deafness was the inevitable visitor during the latter adult years.
However, one must be reminded that, according to either Thayer or Schindler, or both; it was stated that, from time to time, some hearing would reappear for short periods, and in poor quality.
Generally, from about 1816 he ceased conducting his own compositions, and it is known that in 1824, for instance, he was not able to hear stormy applause from increasingly appreciative audiences.
However, it was reported that in 1822 he returned to a brief period of improvising for friends as only he could, and in 1825 he was able to listen to a performance of his op. 132 quartet.
What torture it must have been for him to be brought back periodically to the world of hearing, impaired as it must have been, then cast back into the darkness of total silence, where the only viable contact with his fellow beings was through his so-called "conversation books," by way of written questions and answers between him and those who dealt with him. Happily, Schindler lovingly kept about 130 of these priceless books after The Master had passed on.
At the end of the day, Beethoven was, of course, the victor in his war - we have his music.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June - A Fateful Month...

This month, in other years, serves as a defining time in the history of modern man.
Three events come to mind:
In 1942, during the first week in June, American air power at Midway Island permanently destroyed the offensive phase of the Japanese Empire's prosecution of the Pacific war, resulting in the inevitable collapse and defeat of Imperial Japan in World War II.
In 1944, in the early dawn of June 6, Operation Overlord, which the world knows as D-Day, the greatest amphibious operation in military history took place on the coast of Normandy, thereby putting into operation the ultimate freeing of the oppressed in Western Europe, and forming history's greatest pincer, with Russia on the Eastern side, resulting in the total destruction of Hitler's Germany the following year.
And on this very day in 1941, human history was made when Hitler invaded Mother Russia, insuring the eventual defeat of the Nazi dream of world conquest. Actually, June 22 of 1941 may well be the most defining of the three examples I just listed, when one thinks of the ensuing events involving the super powers formed by the greatest war in the history of man and his constant companion; namely, War.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Beethoven - The Tragedy, in His Own Words...

The world knows of the determinism of the Heiligenstadt Testament that the 32 year - old composer wrote to his brothers, but was never delivered; first, his thoughts about suicide due to his increasing deafness, followed by a determination, through rationalization, of his desire to continue and complete the job he was placed upon Earth to do.
But one should be reminded that this sense of purpose was constantly assailed by bouts of anguish and depression that accompanied his consciousness in regularity.
I came across a letter he wrote in the summer of 1817 - in part:
"As for myself, I am often in despair, and almost tempted to put an end to my life, for all these remedies seem to have no end. May God have compassion on me, for I look upon myself to be as good as lost.
I thank God that the thread of my life will soon be spun out."
And yet Beethoven endured for another decade, spinning out one masterpiece after another.
How wonderfully and mysteriously ironic the total deafness becomes. It certifies the cosmic power and oneness of the works this tormented genius gave to the world.
One statement that Beethoven uttered is one of my favorites. It most assuredly was not funny to the person he addressed it ; however, for me, there is a shard of humor, however wry, couched in the words:
"You will have to play yet for a long time before you realize that you cannot play at all."


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Moussorgsky - To Do, or Not To Do?

There is a dilemma which, from time to time, confronts those of us who pursue the profession of music, and no argument is ever lost or won - the issue involved remains.
In this case, it deals with the 're - writing' of a masterpiece by someone other than the composer. I am not relating to the writing of transcriptions of originals, such as the nine symphonies of Beethoven having been reduced to piano in a most masterful way by Liszt - I am, in this case dealing with the problem attendant with "Pictures at an Exhibition," by Modest Moussorgsky.
It is well - known that Moussorgsky, like others during that wonderful period of defining orchestral works in Mother Russia, was lacking in much training as a composer. One must remember that many of these composers, who are now so well-known to us, were composers by avocation; everything from law clerks to artillery officers etc., who wrote music in their spare time. It's still remarkable to me that the likes of a Tchaikowsky, for instance, whose music is world renown today, was not a composer by profession, initially.
And so it was for Moussorgsky, whose ideas in composition far exceeded, in sheer musical genius, his abilities, periodically, to commit them to paper.
As an example, if one looks at his "Pictures," one will find, in the manuscript, several errors in notating, even rhythms.
And so the likes of Horowitz actually 'enhances' some sections of "Pictures," often by addition of notes, to project greater power of the genius of Moussorgsky. He would be the first to state that the composer simply did not have the writing technique to efficiently project his wonderful concepts over to the piano. And Horowitz stated that opinion more than once, I assure you.
In the recordings of Horowitz's "Pictures" one will hear the greater power of the message through his own 're-writing,' and these incarnations are thrilling examples of pianistic portrayals of the composer's undeniably great ideas - be reminded that Horowitz does not alter the germ of the music; that is, the themes - that would be crawling into the bedroom of the composer's mind; obviously not an acceptable process to any of us in the field.
Andsnes also embellishes, in his recording of "Pictures," to further strengthen, in his opinion, the wonderful material that Moussorgsky gives to us. He uses the term "dirty notes" when discussing the masterful way that Horowitz adds to the original work in a way that these additional notes are veritably "invisible" - Andsnes adds that this is the genius of Horowitz in his pianistic 'orchestration' of "Pictures."
And so, the dilemma exists. Purists will say that this process is artistically 'immoral.'
And there are those who support a Horowitz or an Andsnes, in their quests to give more power of projection to the music.
And whose side are you on?


Monday, June 6, 2011

The First Week of June - Two Defining Events...

We all know that today's date marks the 67th anniversary of Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day, the day that the Allies, in the largest amphibious undertaking in the history of warfare, landed on the coast of Normandy to actuate the liberation of a suffering people and bring the war to Hitler's Germany.
Another history-altering event took place two years earlier, also during the first week in June of that year.
The Battle of Midway, which took place between June 4th and 7th of 1942, spelled ultimate disaster for Imperial Japan, as all of the aircraft carriers assigned to the battle were either destroyed or scuttled, and permanently ended Imperial Japan's ability to wage offensive war - from that period on, it was a naval war built upon the American initiatives that were given over to them, due to the fatal damage inflicted upon the Japanese naval war machine.
To encapsulate, these two events, both occurring during the first week in June of the years 1942 and 1944, ended the dreams of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.


Friday, June 3, 2011

Arcadi Volodos -A Study in Stamina...

With all of the technically daunting works that have been written for the piano, especially from Beethoven's time to the present, one aspect of the multifaceted world of pieces of great virtuosity is stamina.
It's one thing to deal with the problems of conquering the towering difficulties of this kind of work for the piano, such as how to make music emerge from the finger gymnastics which are dealt with first - this is a traditional perspective those of us who perform must encounter.
Another phase of reality, which may at times be secondary, in linear terms, is the question of that second wind, which if called upon, is a natural product of pure unadulterated stamina.
I think of such unremitting pieces as the Toccata, or the third movement of the seventh sonata by Prokofiev. Or some of the Horowitz transcriptions, such as "Stars and Stripes Forever" etc.
Two works loom out at me at this moment; one is "Islamey" of Balakirev. Listen to the Pletnev or Horowitz recordings, and you will quickly be mesmerized at not only the fantastic difficulties of this piece, but also the stamina required to bring this monster into existence.
For me, however, one of the truly standout examples of the need for not just a great finger technique, but elemental stamina, is a transcription of the Scherzo from the 6th symphony of Tchaikowsy.
This transcription was written by a master pianist and teacher from Russia, Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962).
As you know, during this past century and more, Russia has been grinding out phenomenal pianists in astounding numbers. Many have also been great musicians, from Anton Rubinstein to Vladimir Horowitz and Evgeny Kissin.
Feinberg is not well known in our musical society, as he should be. Not only was he a luminary in performance and pedagogy, but he was a prolific composer as well, having written, for instance, twelve sonatas and three concerti. He was well known in Russia and in the world of musicology as a top grade writer of transcriptions, many of which he adapted from organ works of Bach, whom he played much and adored. Among other aspects of his writing are transcriptions of the last three symphonies of Tchaikowsky. There are recordings of Feinberg, if one should like to look for them. His tone and technique are memorable, and he can be considered a great pianist.
You know the scherzo from the sixth symphony of Tchaikowsky - just think of that piece reduced for piano solo, and a remarkable young pianist from Mother Russia, Arcadi Volodos, recorded this transcription a few years ago.
The technical requirements Feinberg inculcates, in order to capture the orchestral elements endemic to the piece, are enormous; however, every bit as transfixing is the stamina required just to get through this work, and Volodos tosses it off in a way that defies the imagination.
Do listen to this rarely performed transcription, and know what Stamina, in its purest form, can give us.