Monday, November 27, 2017

The Rachmaninoff Second Sonata - A Story Worth Telling...

How often do we hear of a composer giving permission to another musician to alter the music in order to further project the original ideas without destroying those ideas?
That, seemingly, is what Rachmaninoff engendered when he asked the legendary virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz to do just that.
To make it brief: Rachmaninoff wrote the sonata in 1913, then in 1931 revised it, by both shortening it,  then making  some of the passages somewhat less difficult. These two actions seem to verify the composer's assertion that the sonata was, in its original form, both  unnecessarily  difficult at times  and consequently a bit more complicated, textually, than it needed to be. He himself voiced some discomfort with the music from time to time, until he set about enacting his 1931 version. Around 1940, for reasons I cannot conjure,  he approached Horowitz about further revision, which resulted in a yet further journey into the core of the sonata. The recording of the Horowitz version is available, and the results are brilliant and provocative, giving us a view of yet another side of the Horowitz mystique - his view of the sonata, it seems to me, preserves the original intent of the 1913 version. Even more fascinating is the fact that as Horowitz performed this piece, he would alter some areas in a form of extemporization whenever he would present it, creating a kind of improvisation without obscuring the composer's original intentions each time it was performed.
So; how often can we witness the process described above, all during the life of the composer?
I find myself summoning at least one reason why Rachmaninoff may have chosen to revise, then discuss with Horowitz  the issue of yet  another creation of a view of the piece: the second movement, to me, is redolent with harmonic ideas that sound almost as if Rachmaninoff jotted them down, then decided which ones to inculcate. We know that Haydn, centuries before, did precisely the same thing, probably more with melodic, rather than harmonic ideas.  One can, at best,  only speculate...
By the way, I have finally(!) come to the conclusion that there IS greatness in the playing of  Yuja Wang. Her reading of the second movement of this sonata moved me deeply - her  contact with the core values of the composer are, for me, alive with a kind of meaning that I hear so seldom today.
What do you think? Listen to Horowitz and Wang - it's not so much a matter of comparison. For me, it's Apples and Oranges of equal beauty and color.            


Friday, November 17, 2017

Two Powerful Composers, and the Two Movies Which Best Define Them...

How many of us remember Frank Churchill? Or William Walton?
How about the tune "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"
A tune that palpably 'picked up' the spirits of a nation beset by the Great Depression.
A tune said to be the favorite pop tune of one Adolf Hitler, who chose the name 'Wolf '  to be used to address him by those in his hierarchy.
And how about "Heigh -Ho, Heigh - Ho", sung by the Seven Dwarfs in Disney's first full-length classic in animation?
Frank Churchill joined the Disney group early in its  formative  period, and became the core power of a new form of popular music for the movies. He wrote the score for "Snow White," followed by such Disney masterpieces as "Dumbo" and "Bambi."
His music became known throughout the world, and his wonderful melodies captivated such classical performers as the American pianist Earl Wild, known as one of the reigning pianists of his time.
Wild wrote a transcription of the melodies of "Snow White," titled "Reminiscences of Snow White,"  a transcription written in the typical post - Lisztian style of the late 19th century. Wild himself made a recording of it, which you will find most captivating, especially for those of you who grew up with Disney's films as a companion. What a truly singular  pianist Earl Wild was!
How tragic - into his 41st year, Churchill took his own life, a victim of alcoholism and depression. His music has outdistanced his name...
And William Walton?  In actuality, although his name is relatively obscured in our day, this man was one of the more significant English composers of the last century. Why not listen to one of his most important works, a full-fledged Oratorio titled "Belshazzar's Feast" -  out of the Book of Daniel recounting the fear of the King Belshazzar, when that handwriting on the wall (mene, mene, Tekel Upharsin) appeared, proclaiming that "You are weighed in the balance, and found wanting."
The music is very powerful in its representation of human fear at its highest level, and the writing for chorus and orchestra  rings in its brilliance, in terms of imagery.
At any rate, a film produced in 1942 in England, titled  "The First of the Few," the title of which became "Spitfire" when shown in America, dealt with the story of R. J. Mitchell, the man who designed the air fighter called Spitfire, which dealt Hitler's attempt to invade England a fatal blow.
Walton was assigned the role as  composer for this film. The item to take note of in his  score is a Prelude and Fugue, which turns out to be a vivid revival of the Elgar 'Pomp and Circumstance'  era which preceded Walton. The prelude represents, in the film, the oncoming resilience of the British against the Nazi threat, and the Fugue artfully typifies the busy  coalescing period of the British industry as it put this vaunted airplane together and aided in the killing off of Hitler's plan to invade England early in the conflict.
Listen to these two powerful composers, and enjoy!


Thursday, November 9, 2017

How History Ties These Two Titans of the Piano Together...

Vladimir Horowitz and Simon Barere...
How are these two names connected? And how many are familiar with the second name?
Even though almost thirty years have elapsed  since his passing, the name Vladimir Horowitz continues to resonate with the followers of great piano music and of  the legends who perform these masterpieces. Horowitz, with that singular combination of  a kind of neurotic edge and 'pyrotechnique'  continues to accompany so many of us today by way of his magic.
On the other hand,  the name Simon Barere has emerged  into public awareness from time to time, then recedes back through the veils of  history. He is remembered, perhaps,  more by way of his
tragic death on the stage of Carnegie Hall on April 2 of 1951 than the recordings he left behind. I cannot recall such an event being replicated in the world of music - imagine, for a moment, those electric  moments of Barere playing for the first time in his career with the Philadelphia Orchestra and its legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy. The work was the Grieg Piano Concerto.  Shortly after the  opening of the work, a wrong note was heard, then another. Barere leaned forward, then collapsed, with his forehead striking the keyboard, and he then slid off his stool onto the floor . I remember seeing a photograph of his form lying in a heap next to the piano.
Barere was taken backstage, whereupon his death took place. It was a massive stroke.
This event  left the musical world  shaken for quite some time.   The sensationalism connected with this tragedy left an imprint lasting for months, especially among those  who recognized the measure of the loss of this man.
I think the central reason why Barere comes back to us from time to time is the nature of his life story, what with the problems Barere encountered in Mother Russia because of his being Jewish in a society that repressed others as well, such as Horowitz,  Godowsky and Heifetz, in early careers - and following Barere was the eternal bad luck,  such as his final move to Germany in hopes that better fortunes would follow, only to land in a place beset by the oncoming reality called Hitlerism. And playing in bistros and other places just to make a living...
And so it went for a time - but his enormous powers as a pianist would not be denied, and he eventually received the acclaim that these powers demanded.
But, at the height of his powers, he was taken from us.
Listen to a piece written by one of his teachers, the Russian pedagogue Felix Blumenfeld, who also was the teacher of  a youngster named Vladimir Horowitz .
It is an Etude for the  left hand alone, and demonstrates a remarkable knowledge of how to write for the piano. It's the only piece of many written by Blumenfeld that still shows up, from time to time.
It is viciously difficult, what with not only the hordes of notes that seem to make it impossible to believe that just one hand is on the keyboard; it is also a veritable lexicon on pedal techniques needed in order to promulgate the effects of the keyboard imagery engendered by Blumenfeld.
 Horowitz learned it, in preparation for future performances - however, according to contemporary accounts left us; when Horowitz heard a performance of the Etude by Barere, Horowitz decided never to perform this piece in public. We know that Horowitz had an open admiration  for the prowess of Simon Barere. Do look into the fabulous recordings left to us of this man.
To encapsulate, Felix Blumenfeld must have been one heck of a teacher... 


Thursday, November 2, 2017

How About Some of the Great Women Performers of the Past Century? Do Read On...

Most of you may well be aware of the following women contemporaries of  our time. More specifically , do you know of their following offerings? I suggest the following offerings  as examples of their singular levels of attainment; actually, as certification of the reality that these women are  not just wonderful performers, but 'forces'...
Martha Argerich - her performance of the Scarlatti Sonata (K.141), or
the Prokofiev Toccata -
Cleo Laine - She may be around 91 as I write, as Dame Cleo Laine;  however, do  seek her historic  duet with a flutist, in the scat-singing version of  "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing,"  or
"Turkish Delight" with her late husband, let alone some of  the other unforgettable duets this husband/wife chemistry produced -
Constance Keene - know her? She walked away from the concert stage in order to teach at the Manhattan School of Music for many years.  But listen to her 1964 recordings of the Rachmaninoff Preludes (she gives us all of them), and know that Artur Rubinstein was overwhelmed by her offering, stating that he could not imagine their being played better, even by the Composer himself. For example, listen to  the "E" flat prelude  (opus 23, no.6), or the "G" minor prelude; or, the Weber Rondo op.24.
Constance Keene was the only woman pianist Horowitz ever chose to replace him in a recital, due to illness -  the only woman pianist the legendary Russian virtuoso openly admired  -
Two examples of unfettered beauty exist in performances by a soprano  named Anna Moffo, in offerings of what the human voice can create through vowels, not words, putting this instrument into direct familial cohabitation with the mechanical instruments we are all so familiar with; specifically,
"Vocalise", by Rachmaninoff ( with Leopold Stokowski  conducting); and, "Bachiana Brasileira" No.5 by Villa-Lobos, followed by  Yuja Wang performing the "Vocalise" on the piano, with the  resultant 'bel canto' reality on a percussion instrument.