Friday, May 29, 2015

A Letter From Vladimir Horowitz - to Me(!)

I have that letter in front of me. It is dated October 31, 1988,  from his E. 94th Street address.   It was written  and sent by his secretary, Beatrice Stein. The contents:
Dear Mr. ____________(my name),
Mr. Horowitz has seen your letter to him of October 17th and he has asked me to inform you that the Danse Excentrique has never been published. Nor does he have a written score for the music.
He is very sorry not to be able to help you out in this instance.
He does send his good wishes and kind regards to you.
Very Truly Yours,
Beatrice Stein

So; why did I send him my request?
Well, the only recordings I know  of one of very few Horowitz compositions  always intrigued me as a teenager, as I knew that his primary pursuit as a youngster was to be a composer first, and a pianist second. And even though  "Danse Excentrique"  is a less than masterful piece of writing(a rather blatant replication of quasi-Impressionism, with some 'jazzy' insertions), it  struck me in 1988 that I should like to learn and perform it, simply because it seemed that no one else I was aware of  had ever learned and played it publicly.
 There was another letter written to him(which, sadly, I cannot find) before the letter you see above; namely a request to get his fabled transcriptions, so that I could study the secrets of his imagery as a writer of his own  pyrotechnical incarnations. His answer (which, even more sadly, I cannot find at this time), surprised me, in that all eleven transcriptions had never been written down. I guess (and can only speculate), that he had decided to take them in arcane fashion to his grave so that no one else could play his very personal treasures; or, perhaps, he did not have the techniques to WRITE what he could 'image out' through his fingers. I cannot be sure why they were never  written down.
But a fellow named Kong-Ju Lee has spent about 25 years getting to actually write down all 11 transcriptions (I wonder how many pints of blood he exuded during this period?)
Copies can be gotten.
I have recently heard some of these transcriptions played. I am not counting the few transcriptions that Arcadi Volodos has  learned by listening to Horowitz recordings countless times.
Would Horowitz have approved of  the unveiling of his sacred property?
Or would he approve and admire the attainment of this rather unique unveiling?
My intuit modality informs me that he would have been rather upset.
What do you think?
I had almost forgotten - his letters  were especially 'sweet victory' for me, as I knew that his policy regarding correspondence was a refusal, in general, to discuss the subject of music, and he limited his subjects to issues such as recipes for lemon sole, which was a favorite dish of his. Upon my writing to him, I never really expected any reply from the Maestro, and was thrilled indeed to be a direct witness to the breaking of  his own rules concerning music in his personal correspondence.


Friday, May 22, 2015

"The Art of" - the Creative Process in Different Forms...

Some years ago, I offered a number of blogs  citing  different forms of the Creative Process, including examples ranging from such  incarnations as the art of making contact with a baseball by way of the writings of Ted Williams;  model railroading;  making breads, such as chocolate or strawberry;  genius in making  war, such as the use of the Ardennes; the multifaceted powers of Albert Schweitzer, etc.
And so I thought, however belatedly, that I should project more material germane to this wondrous, arcane human power:
In a rather well-forgotten movie produced in England in 1942 there is housed a trio of  gifted artists, each in a different field of artistic endeavor.
The movie is titled "Spitfre," and deals with the production of an airplane that stopped Hitler in his tracks.
Upon his conquest of France in 1940, the tyrant turned to his next victim, namely Great Britain, with intent of eliminating the British before turning to the East and Mother Russia. His plan, called Operation  "Sea Lion" was  the invasion of  England, preceded by the destruction of the British defense line, especially on the southeast coast, by his powerful air forces.
And so the air attacks began, resulting ultimately in such severe  punishment dealt out by a relatively small contingent of English and allied airmen, that Hitler was forced to cancel his plans of invasion, which resulted in the two front war that ultimately defeated the Nazis.
All this is well known.
However, let us look into this film more closely.
The main character, Reginald Joseph Mitchell, is played by one of the greatest of  British actors, Leslie Howard, known in America chiefly by way of his acting in "Gone With the Wind." Howard's ability to bring to life the characters he portrayed is testimony to his sense of imagery, let alone his powers  to project  the human emotions needed for character portrayal at a high level.
The  man who wrote the score for this movie was none other than the distinguished British composer William Walton, one of the 20th century's better known musicians. One of the most powerful  creations he gives us is a Cantata titled  "Belshazzar's Feast," a work that should be heard more often than it is in our day, sadly.
That main character R. J. Mitchell was the creative genius who visualized a revolutionary  approach to  airplane design resulting in the Supermarine Spitfire, which along with its partner called Hurricane, destroyed Hitler's dream of enslaving England, and averting, perhaps, what Churchill called a "new Dark Age."
Three creative giants, each with a different art form, housed in a movie not known for greatness and historical accuracy.
Three fellows, out to make a living - like Mozart and Salieri, in a joint concert of their music - just once...


Friday, May 15, 2015

One Composer Challenges Another, and Live At Different Times...

Maurice Ravel stated more than once that one of the prime forces propelling him to write his magnificent "Gaspard de le Nuit" was his being compelled  to write something more difficult than that gargoyle challenging pianists, titled "Islamey" by the Russian nationalist composer Mily  Balakirev.
"Islamey" appeared in 1869 and has been the center of conversation among pianists ever since; to specify, there seems to be pianists in each succeeding generation who consider it the most daunting piece written for the instrument. Obviously, this is an issue of controversy and argumentation. For instance, I  like to think of Samuil Feinberg's  piano transcription of the 3rd movement of Tchaikowsy's "Pathetique" symphony as tiring as any piece I know of for the piano - and the arguments will go on and on.
Balakirev, who was considered  a virtuoso performer, remarked that there were sections in "Islamey" that he could "not handle."
There are three recordings of this composition that I have a rather assiduous interest in:
Vladimir Horowitz learned and performed it for only one concert season (1950,51}. I do not believe he ever performed it publicly after that period. Fortunately, he  had it recorded 'live,' probably at Carnegie Hall during that one year. That miraculous controlled  neurotic 'edge' to every Horowitz performance is the prime ingredient that propels the legendary pianist to staggering levels that will be experienced by the listener only a small number of times in the available recordings of this fabled player of the piano.
Claudio Arrau recorded "Islamey" at the Camden studios in 1928.  For me, the prime issue  dealing with his performance is the opportunity for the  great Chilean to project poesy into a piece of music that does not bear the weight of greatness, in my view - after all, Balakirev is not included among the great composers.
The genius of the writing is based upon the reality that with all of the stupendous difficulties endemic to "Islamey," the writing for the piano is indeed "pianistic." I was surprised when I came across this recording years ago, as I did not expect  Arrau to be connected with this kind of endeavor; however, he was in his twenties in 1928, and it DOES give us a view of another form of world-class technique which Arrau certainly possessed.
Mikhail Pletnev recorded "Islamey" at Carnegie Hall in 2000, and proves in his performance that he can elicit from his audience a Horowitzian response. His superb stylistics and  mammoth technique (ever hear his transcription of the "Nutcracker?"} make for a truly memorable event. It is great fun to hear this Russian  virtuoso tackle this Brobdingnagian  form of athleticism for piano. 
Listen to these three recordings - it IS great fun.


Friday, May 8, 2015

The Rachmaninoff Third Concerto - a Perspective Dealing With Three Pianists Who Have Dealt With It...

In the recordings made by many pianists of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto during the past century, are there those under the age of thirty who were able to garner both the immense technical demands and the sublime message left us by the composer and give to us performances of historical import?
After a period of  my mulling over this question, there are three who come to mind.
In his first recording, Vladimir Horowitz was about 27 years of age when he performed  the  Concerto in England with the London Symphony Orchestra. It has been, and remains one of the most important recordings of this or any concerto. There are those who still consider this early Horowitz performance one of the top recordings of the 20th century. For me, that unique neurotic edge  Horowitz had always been known for gives this particular reading a sense of unremitting thrust and direction, in fusion with the colors the young lion  from Mother Russia was capable of bringing into being. For me, this first (1930, as I recall,} of the several recordings  Horowitz  produced of this work, was his best.
Byron Janis studied almost four years with Horowitz, and enjoyed a meteoric career until, sadly, a form of arthritis devastated a kind of promise given to so few. Janis did resume his career; however, those early recordings form a document of  unparalleled promise, let alone worldwide acclaim . The word from the French; namely 'eclat,'  best describes, for me,  Byron Janis in his Rachmaninoff. The bursts of dizzying passage work and absolutely delicious forming and consummation of phrase after phrase, especially in the first movement, make for an unforgettable performance by one in his twenties.
The Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes was, I believe, only about 23 when he recorded the 3rd Concerto for the first time. What he was able to capture and share with us is a truly unique reading  by a superior intellect and artist, let alone a pianist with a mammoth technique. For me, the one great uniqueness Andsnes possesses, in his playing of the Romantics, is the ability, time after time, to evoke a combination of intense beauty in his expressions without a trace of sentiment - I do not recall ever experiencing this in any musician I have ever heard.
Whether you agree, or not, with my choices; do listen to these three.


Friday, May 1, 2015

More on Musical Legends Performing Together...

As you know, just a few weeks ago I wrote a blog dealing with the epic recordings of Fritz Kreisler and Sergei Rachmaninoff back in 1928.
The subject of such great soloists performing with one another crossed my path this morning; and so I thought that it would be fun to impart more of the same to you, in the event that you are not aware of the following defining performances:
There is a recording of a legendary Russian violinist named Nathan Milstein playing a  Brahms Sonata with a rather well-known pianist - his name, Vladimir Horowitz. This was recorded around mid-2oth century, and can be found. Be prepared for many discoveries!
Try to picture the following:
Leonard Bernstein, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Vladimir Horowitz, Yehudi Menuhin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Isaac Stern - all in one room; all at the same time.
This was a singular occasion celebrating the 85th year of Carnegie Hall.
Imagine  -
Bernstein conducting Beethoven;
Horowitz and Rostropovich playing Rachmaninoff;
Horowitz , Stern and Rostropovich playing Tchaikowsky;
Fischer-Dieskau singing and Horowitz playing Schumann;
Bernstein, Stern and  Menuhin doing Bach;
All of the above standing shoulder-to-shoulder singing Handel -
You can be witness by getting hold of "Concert of the Century" CD.
As for video:
How about a filmed tidbit of Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorksy and Artur Rubinstein, in Rubinstein's living room, merging in a Mendelssohn trio? Nothing at this level may ever be replicated again.
Want more? Do leave a message in "comments."