Thursday, January 26, 2012

Handel and Wimbledon - The Eternal Fluidity of History's Physiognomy ...

Is there a subject learned and taught by Man that is more vulnerable to the cosmic dust of change, outside perhaps, astronomy, than history itself?
Take, for instance. a series of lectures done at St. Mary's in Wimbledon, at the Wimbledon Village Club, done during the winter months of 1863, 64:
The Club was created for members of the middle class, with a reading room holding some 600 volumes, newspapers and various periodicals. Lectures were regularly held in this building, and the lectures during that particular winter centered around great composers. The two that interested me were on Handel and Beethoven. Of the two, the lecture on Beethoven pretty well held onto what we know about that giant; however, the talk on Handel contained some rather piquant examples of perplexity; such as, "Mozart rendered up his soul at age 39." Well, do the math - the dates we have for Mozart are 1756 - 1791. Or; Handel was born, according to the lecturer, on February 24 of 1684. Seems to me that 1685 was a very good year, as it yielded to Humanity Bach, Scarlatti - and Handel.
What beguiled me even more was the particular station that Handel held in England at this point in time; for instance, "no one, without exception, neither Mozart nor Beethoven, has ever risen to the grandeur of the Ideal than did Handel."
Wonder where Bach comes in? Thanks be to Mendelssohn for promulgating the Bach cult in 1829, a cult which persists to this day. I hasten to point out that I am most assuredly not 'anti-Handel.' Handel unquestionably is one of a handful of giants in the world of great composers, and I have written about his influence upon us in previous blogs. As I had written in one of my blogs some time ago, Beethoven himself considered Handel as "the greatest of them all."
But most composers in our time continue to consider Bach as the most pervasively powerful musical thinker of the past three centuries.
Do keep in mind that we are in England as we read this, knowing that the foreigner from Germany called Handel is buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, along with Shakespeare and Milton.
Toward the end of his lecture, the lecturer at St. Mary's in Wimbledon remarks that " no man need ever to expect to rival his (Handel's) genius, or to approach his power of expression."
And at this time, Bach was known more by his congregation and the surrounding communities, but not much more.


Friday, January 20, 2012

Tchaikovsky, Horowitz and a Race to the Finish...

On January12, 1953, a unique example of the Unexpected took place:
On this day, the omnipresent Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto was performed live and recorded by the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz, with the acclaimed conductor George Szell and the New York Philharmonic.
The personal history formed between Horowitz and this Concerto had long been in place, beginning in 1928 when a young Horowitz performed it at his American debut. The ensuing recordings with his father-in-law Arturo Toscanini firmly established Horowitz as the Lion of the piano by way of his sensational readings of this piece, and it was pretty much accepted that the Russian virtuoso had reached the outer limits of what might be termed 'controlled frenzy' in these recordings.
That is, until Horowitz and Szell collaborated in the 1953 performance. It became increasingly clear to the audience that as the performance went on Horowitz was reaching an unprecedented level of protracted and unremitting excitement, and by the time the third movement was underway, the audience was held breathless as it experienced a level of textual power that obviously was recognized by Horowitz himself. As the final measures were being played, Horowitz was transported so completely by his own kinetic quotient that he increased the speed, leaving Szell and the orchestra behind by perhaps a fraction of a beat, resulting in the pianist finishing first, with the orchestra a fraction of a second behind.
The audience was dazed and bewildered sufficiently to express its applause in a kind of 'what happened' mode, rather than the usual tumultuous, football game-like pounding of the floor accompanied by bravos that was the hallmark invariably produced after a Horowitz performance.
I can only imagine how upset Horowitz must have been, as this incarnation of the Tchaikovsky is, for me, the best of the vaunted recordings done by Horowitz.
Actually, and rather strangely, my reaction to this accident in the final seconds of the performance is that the manner in which the piece ended served to actually enhance the historic level that the pianist reached.
Interestingly, the reviews I have found about this performance do not mention the final loss of connection between pianist and orchestra.
Perhaps one should consider this a strangely flawed and immortal moment in history, and no more.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Two Giants in Music - A Day Like No Other...

In April of 1943, the Second World War started to turn in our favor. American troops had landed in North Africa and were becoming an intrinsic part of the final defeat of Rommel's vaunted Afrika Korps. Hitler, like Napoleon, was beginning to understand the mammoth mistake of invading a country about one sixth the size of the earth's land mass, and Mother Russia was beginning to exact an irreversible toll on Hitler's invaders.
These kinds of events were being witnessed by the American citizenry, and in the widening glow of hope now being felt, two great musicians decided to add their part by arranging to perform in Carnegie Hall, on one condition; namely, that the only way of admission would be to purchase a War Bond.
Well, the news spread like wildfire from coast to coast, and even though thousands of citizens knew that only a few could fit into Carnegie, the spirit of the moment, within just a few days, produced a staggering eleven million dollars of War Bonds in sales. Imagine what eleven million dollars in 1943 would be worth today!
And so, on April 25, 1943, the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz and his equally famous father-in-law, Arturo Toscanini performed the Tchaikowsky Piano Concerto. Both audience and performers were transformed by a kind of electricity produced by the reason for the event, and the strange, totally arcane chemistry of audience and performers became a form of 'oneness' that may never again be replicated. The result was a performance of illimitable and yet controlled frenzy that establishes this reading of the concerto as one on a pedestal of its own making.
Do try to get hold of this recording - you may very well be drawn into its own vortex, such as I was, and continue to be, when I choose to again be witness to such a unique event in the history of music.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

In the World of Great Art, a Heroine...

Some of you may have read my blog on Varian Fry, whom History has called "the artists' Schindler." Fry altered the course of the history of art by way of his saving many of the great artists and writers in Occupied and Vichy France before Hitler could lay his hands on them.
Well, there was a woman in Paris whom we may call a female incarnation of Varian Fry, and, sadly, like Fry is not generally remembered today.
Her name - Rose Valland.
At the time of the Nazi occupation of Paris, Valland was a curator at the Louvre, where her principal task was that of curator of Jeu de Paume, the small museum housing the Impressionist paintings.
The Nazis decided to utilize this small museum as a center for the collection of the looted works of art prior to their being sent off to Germany.
Unknown to the Nazis, Valland had total knowledge of the German language, let alone, fortunately, a photographic memory. She secretly obtained almost perfectly complete information of the looted masterpieces housed in the museum as well as the ultimate German destination of these works, and conveyed this information to the Resistance, which she was a member of; all this done, over a period of years, at great personal risk, to be sure.
More than once, she informed the Resistance of a particular train loaded with masterpieces heading for Germany, which resulted in the Resistance making sure that the train involved would not be blown up. The result was wonderful, as countless pieces of treasured art could be retrieved from Germany after the war, and safely returned either to the Louvre or to the surviving families who happened to be the private owners of some of these masterpieces.
All this done by a rather mousy, nondescript little lady with small spectacles and her hair in a bun.
One of very few non-Americans receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, let alone a bevy of other awards of great distinction.
To encapsulate: between the activities of Fry and Valland, the world of Art owes much to these two; actually, this duo had much to do with the swerving of the direction modern art took in the 20th century.