Monday, February 27, 2012

Vladimir Horowitz and the Rachmaninoff Third - Truly a Way of Life...

On September 24, 1978, the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz, the conductor Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic performed one of the greatest of all piano concertos, the 3rd of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Only one person in Avery Fisher Hall in New York on that September day knew that this performance would be the last time the pianist would perform the concerto publicly, along with a performance with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra that year - that person was Vladimir Horowitz.
It ended a fifty year love affair that the legendary pianist experienced with this work.
It began in 1928, when he and the composer played it together, with the composer playing the orchestral part on an adjoining Steinway in the Steinway Cellar in New York, shortly after the young Horowitz had met Rachmaninoff. This first encounter between the youthful lion of the piano, newly arrived from Europe, and the composer, prompted Rachmaninoff, who himself was one of the century's greatest pianists, to state "Horowitz swallowed my concerto whole," and vowed that he would no longer play this concerto publicly after hearing Horowitz play it that fateful day.
As the reputation of Horowitz spread quickly throughout the world, the pianist performed the concerto many times, recording it at different periods during his career.
Rachmaninoff kept his vow never to play the work again publicly - shortly before he passed away, he did record all of his concertos with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and along with a recording of his Variations on a Theme by Paganini, this series of recordings stands as testament to the towering pianist and composer who successfully thrust 19th century Romanticism forty three years into the 20th century before his passing.
Nevertheless, Rachmaninoff experienced a realization in his own music that Horowitz brought to the surface of reality that prompted him never to play this concerto again before an audience. What is it that Rachmaninoff heard? Perhaps the answer is best given to us by the author Hilton, who stated that "if a person were born totally deaf, and later given an hour of hearing, that hour might best be spent listening to Horowitz."


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

John Williams at 80 - More Than a Movie Composer?

As John Williams turns eighty, my thoughts and reactions pertaining to this famed musician splay in more than the one direction pointed at his movie music. To explain:
When I think of the famed composers who wrote for the movies, I think of the likes of Max Steiner, or Franz Waxman, or Miklos Rosza, or Herbert Stothart, and others who were connected with such screen classics as "Gone With The Wind," "How Green Was My Valley," "Mrs. Miniver," "Casablanca," etc., etc., etc.
In the case of these famous composers, I was able virtually every time to identify the composer before his name appeared on the Credits list at the beginning of each movie. For the most part, the generic nature of their music was clearly available to me - and I hasten to point out that the word 'generic' is not in a negative light; actually, their particular styles led to the enhancement of their careers.
In the case of John Williams, in such wonderful scores ranging from "Jaws'' through "E.T" to "Schindler's List" and many more first-rate movies, I found that I could not very often identify the music of Williams before his name would appear in the Credits - and he is the only movie composer who evades my ability very often to identify before the fact of disclosure.
This leads me into consideration that John Williams is not only the famous composer of movie music the world knows, but also, in my view, a composer of major stature, with a language that puts him, arguably, into the category of Composer, not just Movie Composer, with a truly unique voice.
His use of the diatonic system, which Bach formally put the stamp of approval on by way of his Preludes and Fugues in the so-called "Well-Tempered" system some three centuries ago, is still very much alive and constantly revivified in so many diverse methods, that Williams, for me, must be considered not only the famous movie composer that he deservedly is, but also a composer of major import in our time.
I think that I should really enjoy playing a sonata or concerto or etude or suite for piano by John Williams.
Mr. Williams, - I eagerly await!


Monday, February 20, 2012

Among Great Artists, Other Fascinating Gifts...

In mulling over a number of great musicians, it came to me that some of these extraordinary people have other extraordinary gifts; for example:
Jascha Heifetz, considered by many to be the greatest of the 20th century violinists, was also a brilliant pianist. I have a rather rare piece of video showing him at his piano, performing really quite marvelously. By the way, he was also known generally among his colleagues as a practically unbeatable ping-pong player!
Zubin Mehta, one of our eminent conductors, is one of the world's great string bass players, as was the legendary conductor Serge Koussevitsky.
Arturo Toscanini, as powerful a conductor as there was, considered a giant among the eminent conductors, accompanied the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin, playing at the piano the orchestral reduction for piano, of the Beethoven Violin Concerto at a rehearsal between rehearsals with the NBC Orchestra, during the Second World War.
Mozart was not only the unparalleled composer we know him to be, and of course he was known as a wonderful pianist as well; additionally, one should be reminded that he evidently played the violin well enough as a child for his father Leopold, who was an eminent violin pedagogue, to state on more than one occasion that his son could well have become one of Europe's leading violinists, had it been his choice to do so.
Larry Adler, who stood alone in the 20th century as the supreme player of the classical harmonica, astounded those who saw him accompany himself on the piano quite wonderfully as he played the harmonica on a contrivance strapped around his neck - as a little boy, I was taken to a Larry Adler recital by my father, and it will never be forgotten.
I also possess a short video of the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli sitting at a piano and absolutely overwhelming me with his jazz playing, with a withering example of stride piano in the left hand - veritably beyond belief.
How about:
Mel Torme? He at one time was the drummer in Tommy Dorsey's fabled band.
Frank Sinatra? Have you seen his paintings?
Or Tony Bennett's?
Even Dwight D. Eisenhower's? His still life work is really quite beautiful.
There are other notables who have relatively hidden gifts of palpable brilliance. Thought that I might share a number of them with you for your reading pleasure, and, hopefully, to gently surprise you.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Vocal by Art Tatum? Yes, Indeed!

Some time ago I had written about the Jerry Newman Archives; namely, a collection of wire recordings made by Newman of Art Tatum playing in various bars in Harlem, mostly during the year 1941. Newman at the time was a music major at Columbia University and, fortunately, had the prescience to record Tatum in a number of short masterpieces done on really bad pianos, mostly out of tune. In the 1970's a reissue of the recordings became available. I believe a clutch of these recordings was titled "God is in the House."
I'm sure that by searching, one can obtain a copy of Newman's recordings; however, what is not noted, so far as I know, are the specifics of one tune, titled "Toledo Blues."
This is a rare recording of Tatum singing as he accompanies himself. Tatum, in this riveting recording, is rather obviously under the weather, and the slurring nature of his words attests to this reality. Even more compelling is the reality of his improvising not only in his playing but also in his lyrics, as he ends the tune by grinding out in absolute synchronization with the piano the words "the drinks are comin' too damn slow."
Rather sad; however, these tunes that Newman captured are testament to the gigantic gifts that Tatum shared in increasing measure with his audiences through the next generation leading to his tragically premature passing.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Johann Sebastian Bach and Art Tatum - Parallels??

When one undergoes a consideration of J. S. Bach, arguably the most powerful composer of the past three centuries, the primary connection logically will take us to his unequaled polyphonic technique; that is, the magnificence of his works which contain multiple melodic lines, and how these lines mesh and meld, creating such indescribably evocative messages of beauty by way, through his genius, of that wondrous synthesis of spirituality and technique. Whether we hear his 2-part Inventions, marveling at the unparalleled ability this giant possessed in his choice of what notes to leave out, in these works for the keyboard, or works which contained four or five lines in simultaneity or in diagonalized poses - one tends to address and recognize Bach's contrapuntal facet first, more than not.
However, every bit as powerful as his linear language is, perhaps, the most important reason for the emergence of the so-called Classical Period; that is, the inculcation of relative simplism in single melodic lines and the resulting alterations in the manner of harmonic choice to enhance these melodies.
No furthering of Bach's language was possible, in the view of his successors, such as his genius son C.P.E. Bach - all one has to do is analyze the harmonic visions that Bach gives to us in so many of his chorales, with the realization that the powers this giant demonstrates to us are equal in both harmony and counterpoint. He stands out, perhaps, as the greatest of the composers, as regards the attainment level of the vertical and horizontal in Western music.
Well, perhaps we should think of the legendary pianist, Art Tatum, in the same light.
When we think of Tatum, our first thoughts, generally and logically, go to his fantastic technique, which continues to thrill us whenever we hear his recordings. Not only did he create awe in the other pop pianists of his day, let alone to this day, but the likes of Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff were enthralled by his gigantic pianism.
However, if we are to start concentrating on another aspect of Tatum, it should be his harmonic vocabulary. Along with his legendary playing is a reality that a torrent of harmonic choices ran neck-and-neck with those overwhelming designs that his fingers created. As a matter of fact, those of us who know the language of music are every bit as affected by his harmonic deftness as we are with his vaunted finger technique. Any knowing jazz pianist will attest to the reality that his harmonic ideas were the equal of the totality of the performances of Art Tatum.
So; strangely, whenever I think of Bach, the name Tatum quite often creeps in...