Thursday, January 28, 2016

Great Performers and their Extended Gifts...

Recently I decided to view the Rachmaninoff 3rd piano concerto, performed by Horowitz, with Zubin Mehta conducting. At one point during this performance I asked myself if my readers were aware of another aspect of the great conductor; namely, that Mehta was not only the eminent conductor the musical world has known about for years, but also a world class performer on the double bass. Then my memory brought back a recording of Schubert done by no less than Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline Du Pre and Mehta himself , all in the same room at the same time.
Which led to my musing about other famous performers, such as:
Serge Koussevitsky, the founder of Tanglewood and the long time conductor of the Boston Symphony. He, as well, was a virtuoso on the double bass. I remember hearing him, as a youth, in a recording of one of his own compositions for unaccompanied string bass. My piano teacher at that time informed me that Koussevitsky was, arguably, the world's leading performer on that instrument.
How about Jascha Heifetz? On many occasions, he put his Stradivari down and played piano. There are examples of his piano playing; some rather sensational, available. Oddly, a popular tune for solo violin appeared, titled "When You Make Love,", composed by one Jim Hoyt.   If you do not recognize the name Jim Hoyt, you are not alone - Jim Hoyt was a pen name for Jascha Heifetz.
Mel Torme, one of the leading pop singers of his time, known as the "Velvet Fog" because of the silken textures of his vocals, can be seen in a photograph, playing drums with Benny Goodman. I believe that one of Torme's earlier experiences was playing drums in Tommy Dorsey's orchestra.
Nat Cole is remembered by many for his wonderful vocals, but do be reminded that in the earlier days, he was the originator of the King Cole Trio, and there are many recordings that bear witness to the reality that Cole was one of the leading jazz pianists of his time.
Stephane Grappelli  is generally considered the  leading jazz violinist of his time, with many legendary  recordings , both audio and video, available to us. A marvelously constructed classical technique is utilized to project his unparalleled improvisations , the result being the most singular voice in the art of  pop violin performance. But do go on and discover the sensational jazz pianist Grappelli was. There are recordings of his piano playing available which certify the overwhelming gifts this man was owner of.
Just a short list of added powers given a handful of artists...


Thursday, January 21, 2016

For Valentine's Day: Three Truly Unique Opinions of "My Funny Valentine"...

I occasionally appear on radio to offer various performances of world famous  musicians that are, in my view, either  historically singular or not generally known, or both.
On Feb. 13, I will be on the air to talk about a trio of performances I especially like, followed by their recordings.
This session will involve one of the best known tunes of the  Richard Rodgers lexicon we know as "My Funny Valentine."
The famed British pianist George Shearing  offers his first recorded version, I believe recorded in 1956, of this song, and  envelopes us with a luscious array of 19th century patterns as only Shearing  can conjure, with an apotheosis  of Bach architecture forming a crown to this delightful recording.
For me, Cleo Laine (now Dame Cleo Laine) is not only a pop singer, but a Force - just listen to her "Turkish Delight."  In her opinion of "My Funny Valentine," recorded in 1988, she  takes us to a different place by way of   a strikingly  unique slant on how to tell the story, with  a marvelous tapestry woven around her  by way of  a piano forming the harmonies in a Classical configuration and a paucity of notes played - truly striking.
How  about "My Funny Valentine" for two violins?
AND the choice of the violinists?
How about Yehudi Menuhin, one of the 20th century's  eminent performers and
Stephane Grappelli, arguably the greatest of the Jazz violinists of his time? They recorded together during the 1970's and 80's.
Enough said -  just  listen to THIS opinion!
Enjoy the Trio!


Friday, January 15, 2016

What Would Horowitz's Reactions Be ?...

If  Vladimir  Horowitz, arguably the 20th century's most powerful  pianist, were to come back today, just for a short visit, what would his reactions be? I wonder?
In recent days and weeks, I have been coming across performances of some of the Horowitz transcriptions played by a clutch of young pianists. As far as I've gone, the "Stars and Stripes Forever"" transcription appears to be the most  oft-played. The one most eye/ear 'catching' I've seen thus far is the performance by the young pianist Benjamin  Grovesnor. It was recorded,  I believe, when he was about eighteen, and the ease and fluidity which he projects is positively staggering - almost as if he were going through a Cramer exercise, with no palpable resistance detectable. Other performances by Kulenov and Sultanov are also  available,and can  be seen as well. In every incarnation I've been witness to, there simply is no detectable mode of resistance, the result being a performance  of a Horowitz transcription with no sign of   a Dionysian struggle extant.
The celebrated Russian Arcadi Volodos, in his playing of  Horowitz transcriptions, does give us the kind of  unfettered excitement that we associate with Horowitz, in his  legendary performances.
Sadly, he is the only pianist performing today whom I know of,  that makes the atmosphere move around these vaunted works  that celebrate and serve as encomiums to the pyrotechniques that were created by Liszt almost two centuries ago.
Which leads to another issue I have become increasingly aware of; that is, an age of emerging young pianists who can do anything with their fingers that a Horowitz or a Rachmaninoff could do, virtually incapable of playing a wrong note, but saying almost nothing.
Are there others out there like me who wonder, with some sense of foreboding, or at least discomfort, about the whereabouts of the spiritual core of this arcane language? Has it gone into hiding? Are there any teachers out there, representing other instruments, who have the same sense of 'what is happening to the message?'
Or am I alone?


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

George Gershwin and Paul Dukas - A Conundrum Involving the Listener?

For a reason I cannot  project to you with any degree of logic or intellectual probity, I thought that I might share it with you anyway:
George Gershwin, in his decision to create an opera consisting of  an African American cast  depicting the tragedy  of  Porgy and Bess, created a bit of a firestorm of controversy and consternation, as the year was 1935 when it was created. Nothing like this had ever been done before, but Gershwin  had become captivated by this theme, and actually moved to South Carolina for a period in order to soak up the sense of atmosphere of the setting he had in mind, before committing this masterpiece to manuscript.
Well, history has certainly woven "Porgy and Bess" into the tapestry of immortality, as this story has been told innumerable times throughout the world since its first performance the better part of a century ago. I saw the production many  years back in New York, and will never forget the impact of its message.
Its magnificent array of tunes has since appeared in many forms other than in the original opera format. One of the more popular presentations is to simply have the two voices(Porgy and Bess) heard without the opera setting; that is, in concert  or recital form; such as the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong presentation in the 1950's, or the Cleo Laine/Ray Charles performance of the 1970's.
There is no hesitation on my part in recognizing the magnificent production given us by these great performers, and the glow of Gershwin's music shining throughout.
However, it takes  much more work  for me to listen to these concert versions than it did to simply take in the total sense of  reality by watching the opera as Gershwin had  created it.
Strangely, I have the same kind of reaction when I think of the one piano sonata that Paul Dukas wrote shortly after his immensely popular "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."
The work was completed in 1900, and is one of the largest sonatas we know of.
It can take anywhere from 45 to 50 minutes to perform, and has only recently come back from relative obscurity and is recorded - the eminent pianist Hamelin can be  heard, for one.
It is an attractive piece, redolent with melody and truly fine transitional passages that fit the piano  quite superbly, with thoughts of Beethoven and Franck swirling throughout. The piece IS huge, and written by a fine composer, but one in the second tier, as it were.
One of the first critics  to hear it used the word 'recondite' to describe it - does that imply ambivalence about this work?
I think that  this may be the primary reason that I listen to the sonata quite rarely - it may require too much work to listen to it too often.
And so, these two disparate works have something in common - a kind of delicious conundrum...