#269 NURAY HAFIFTAS TURKISH ARABESQUE MUSIC

#269

NURAY HAFIFTAS, SINGER

TURKISH ARABESQUE MUSIC

I think I may have mentioned in a previous post my hobby, back in the 1980’s, of listening to shortwave radio—radio broadcasts aimed at North America from countries all over the world. Shortwave radio was, for nearly 70 years, THE medium for international communication. With the advent of the internet and streaming music, it has permanently lost its luster and usefulness. But it was thrilling to me back then to listen to music from other countries, and especially—late at night, with my headphones on—from Turkey. I was really attracted to all Turkish music, and in particular, to arabesque music.

Wikiwand defines arabesque music as follows:

“Arabesque is a term created by Turkish musicologists for an Arabic style of music created in Turkey. As with Arabic music itself, its aesthetics have evolved over the decades. Although melodies and rhythms are predominantly Byzantine and Arabic influenced, it also draws ideas from other aspects of Balkan and Middle Eastern music, including bağlama music and Ottoman forms of oriental music. Arabesque music are mostly in a minor key, typically in the Phrygian mode, and themes tend to focus on longing, melancholy, strife and love issues.

A very small percentage of Arabesk is exclusively instrumental. For the great majority of it, a singer lies at the center of the music. Male singers dominated the genre in its early years, but female singers probably predominated during its peak years of popularity. A common theme in Arabesque songs is the highly embellished and agonizing depiction of love and yearning, along with unrequited love, grief and pain. This theme had undertones of class differences in early 1960-70s, during which most of the genre’s followers -mostly working class to lower middle class – identified themselves with. Turkish composer (and, I am adding, conductor and world-class pianist) Fazıl Say has repeatedly condemned and criticized Arabesque genre, equating the practice of listening to Arabesque tantamount to treason.”

Fortunately for me, I am not a Turk by birth, so my attraction to arabesque music cannot be considered treasonous.

There are political and cultural reasons, as well as musical, for why arabesque music is frowned upon by some—Fazil Say is hardly alone. In the early years of the Turkish republic, arabesque music was seen as regressive—a cultural, “eastern” holdover from a previous era, embodying everything the newly westernized nation of Turkey (in the 1920’s and 30’s) was seeking to abolish. Arabesque music’s resurgence into what it is today is largely a result of a huge seismic shift that has occurred here in Turkey over the past few decades involving millions of rural migrants moving from eastern Turkey to Istanbul, previously the most westernized city in Turkey. For this and other reasons, Turkey’s overall political climate has shifted far to the right. As a consequence, arabesque music is associated with the less educated, conservative segment of Turkish society—which is sizable.

But, as I’ve said many times before, music is about sound that expresses emotion. Where it has come from—its particular etymology—may be interesting, but is not germane to appreciating it. The notion, mentioned above, of unrequited love, grief and pain, is something that one picks up on easily while listening to arabesque music, even without knowing the language.

I am not qualified to comment on what aspect of the Turkish experience this represents—and how, musically, such music sprang from the collective soul of a people—all I know it is there it is to hear. For many years, this characteristic was present in many Turkish movies as well, all meant for popular consumption. A stock movie plot had the heroine committing suicide—or some other tragedy occurring—at the movie’s conclusion.

So, to get to today’s post: during one of my first stays in Turkey—when TV was received through an external antenna—no cable—it was hard to avoid seeing, on the few channels available, videos of arabesque singers. One that particularly caught my attention was Nuray Hafiftas. As I was to learn, in the hierarchy of arabesque singers, she was nowhere near the top. There was, though, something about her that I intuitively felt was archetypal about arabesque music.

Although I had been planning a Nuray Hafiftas post for a long time, what really prompted me into doing so this morning is learning just yesterday that Nuray Hafiftas had recently died of cancer. She was only 53. I was surprised, when hearing this, how piercing it was to me to learn this. So, as a small remembrance of her, I will offer a few of her songs.

I don’t think arabesque music is an acquired taste—I think you’ll know within 30 seconds whether you’ll ever like—or love—it.

SEN KUCUKSUN

EYYAH GONUL

BIZIM ELLER

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#268 MOZART DIVERTIMENTO IN D MAJOR, K. 131

#268

MOZART

DIVERTIMENTO IN D MAJOR, K. 131

NEVILLE MARRINER, CONDUCTOR
ACADEMY OF ST. MARTIN’S IN THE FIELDS ORCHESTRA

Four horns! Plus a lot more….

Aside from playing Mozart Piano Concertos and Sonatas while growing up, my acquaintance with Mozart—in his totality—came about in two spurts later in my life—and is now ongoing. While studying for doctoral oral exams a long time ago, I listened to some of Mozart’s “greatest hits” works—symphonies, chamber works, concertos for instruments other than piano, and so on—things that I might get asked about during the exams. Then, sometime around 15 years ago—and especially while I was making the 100-mile round trip between Dayton and Cincinnati while teaching at CCM—I made it a goal to listen to everything he had written (626 works!). It was great driving therapy.

It would be nice, I suppose, and convenient—if I could just quickly rattle off my favorite Mozart—maybe ten or twenty works—or even, being very liberal, fifty or so. But the truth is, it is far easier to list works of Mozart that I don’t care for.

There are not many.

One of my favorites, then—among hundreds of favorites—is the Divertimento in D Major. A divertimento was a work specially composed for a particular social event—not exactly background music, but also not serious, stop-what-you’re-doing-and-listen-to-this music. It was music composed for a small ensemble—not orchestra size, but bigger than, say, a string quartet. It was meant to be entertainment, not heavy-duty.

“Divertimento” was the most commonly used term for these multi-movement works, they were also known as serenades, cassations, and notturnos. Sometimes divertimenti were played outdoors.

This particular divertimento is in six movements, and was composed when Mozart was 16 years old. It is a work in “concertante” form. This means that Mozart contrasted one group of instruments (violins, violas, and bass–the strings) with another group (flute, oboe, bassoon, and four horns–the winds).

Yes, four horns. The work may have been written for a wedding, or it may have been written for some important social event in Salzburg. The presence of four horns is extraordinarily unusual, and by itself suggests that we don’t know enough about the work’s circumstances. Just HAVING four good horn players available for a performance in Salzburg—let alone for a performance at a social event—would have been unusual.

This recording by Neville Marriner and the AOSMITF is, like all Marriner recordings, urbane and polished. I love the entire work, each movement. But, I would specifically recommend the first, second, and sixth movements, which occur, respectively, at 0:00, 5:14 and 24:19. This is happy, carefree music that absolutely should not be dismissed either because it is not “serious” or because it was written by someone so young.

It may interest you to know that Mozart was not fond of the sound of the flute. Yet the flute plays a prominent, and oh-so-happy role here—as it does in countless other Mozart works.

The first and sixth movements feature those four horns. The second movement is a string serenade of exquisite calmness.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes there are individual moments in pieces that appear so beautiful as to take one’s breath away every time you hear them, regardless of how many times that is. In the sixth movement here, that moment occurs for me is the eight seconds (!) between 28:26 and 28:34—the aural equivalent of a sugar overdose, or the visual experience of seeing a field of sunflowers. These measures may do nothing for you—but they are one reason I keep returning to K. 131.

Happy listening (and that’s what it will be).

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#267 KIM CARNES BETTE DAVIS EYES

#267

KIM CARNES

BETTE DAVIS EYES

Billboard’s biggest hit of 1981 was “Bette Davis Eyes” sung by Kim Carnes. The song ranked #12 on Rolling Stones top 500 list and it became the number one song in 21 countries in the summer of 1981. It was written by Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon. After the song won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year and Album of the Year, Bette Davis herself got in touch with everyone involved with the song, thanking them for making her “part of modern times” and someone her grandson could now look up to. 🙂 In what Carnes now considers a career highlight, she Carnes performed the song live for Davis at a tribute to the legendary actress held just before her death. The list of awards “Bette Davis Eyes” won is really quite long.

Carnes’ (born 1945) raspy voice was not new to audiences in 1981. She had been in the music business from the late 1960’s and had enjoyed a successful recording career from 1974. She had notably worked with, and written for, David Cassidy of Patridge Family fame in the 1970’s. Carnes and her band rehearsed “Bette Davis Eyes” for a mere three days before their momentous recording session—with no overdubbing.

Carnes lives in Nashville, and continues to record successfully. In spite of her large talent, though, it is not likely she will ever repeat the phenomenal success of “Bette Davis Eyes.”

On a personal note, long before the song was popular—in fact, in my first acquaintance with Tiraje—I told her that she had Bette Davis eyes—which is true. So, the song, when it came out, became one that had extra meaning for us.

Photos are Bette Davis, Kim Carnes.

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#266 SIMON AND GARFUNKEL 15 OF THEIR GREATEST HITS

#266

SIMON AND GARFUNKEL

15 OF THEIR GREATEST HITS

THE LATE 60’S, REDUX

Let me preface this posting with a quick reiteration of something I’ve said before, but which I feel is necessary to underscore from time to time. And that is, that even though I have very specific and often poignant memories associated with all the popular music I post, every song I post here is music that I love—my attachment to everything is primarily musical. The specific circumstances in my life that I associate with every song I love could have been totally different, but I would not love any song any less. It has ALWAYS been about the music. Even though I sometimes remark that or that song might occasion a walk down memory lane, it is not for that reason—at all—that I post popular music. The music I love is MUSIC that I love.
_______________________

Regardless of your age—but particularly if you are in your 60’s or 70’s—Simon and Garfunkel were probably some part of your life. For me, their prime-time years overlapped my high school and college experiences. I would boil their considerable success down to two ingredients: Paul Simon’s song-writing—which was (and is) impressive by any standard—and Art Garfunkel’s silky high tenor voice.

I first heard Sound of Silence on a dreary Saturday mid-winter afternoon in eighth grade. I was immediately attracted to the simple two-part harmony and lyrics which drew me in like a fish on a hook. I think it was probably The Boxer that formed the other bookend, in 1971, of my Simon and Garfunkel acquaintance.

As it happened in my own life, I spent 1970-76 in New York City. Although one absolutely need not have any “New York” experience to fully appreciate S&G’s music, I would have to say that there are many facets to Simon’s song-writing that are intrinsically part of living in and around the NYC area. Included in his songs were subtle references to the sun setting “so high”—obscured by skyscrapers, counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike, and visiting the Central Park children’s zoo. And also overt references such as the 59th Street Bridge or being the only boy in New York.

These and other New York-specific things give one a dual perspective of Simon and Garfunkel—that they were troubadours for the world, expressing feelings in music and poetry that the whole world could relate to. And, being New York City boys, they had a certain perspective on the world that could not help but come out in their music.

Simon and Garfunkel met in elementary school in Queens, New York, in 1953. By the time they were in high school, they were playing and performing together under the name Tom and Jerry in material that was reminiscent of the Everly Brothers. After high school, they went their separate ways, but regrouped in 1963 when they were signed to make a duo album with Columbia Records. Their first album, “Wednesday Morning” did not sell well, and the duo once again broke up. Their previously recorded “Sounds of Silence,” however, became a major hit in the United States in 1965. They released a second album, started extensive college touring, and after their music was featured in the movie The Graduate, they enjoyed great success, not just in the U.S., for the rest of the 1960’s.

S&G’s rocky relationship was no secret to the music tabloids, or to the music-loving public in general. They finally broke up in 1970—having won 10 Grammys. They reunited—for an evening, anyway—to perform in New York’s Central Park to an audience of half a million. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. They have sold more than 100 million albums worldwide; their Bridge Over Troubled Water album ranks #51 on Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Albums List.

I had the real pleasure of seeing them on their Reunion Tour–maybe ten years ago now–in Columbus. They were still exciting and expressive.

Paul Simon, in my opinion, is a fine poet. One can easily read, and be inspired by, the texts of his songs all by themselves, without music. And, there is no question in my mind that S&G simply would not have had the success they had—regardless of Simon’s song-writing ability—without the purity of Art Garfunkel’s voice.

It may seem like overkill or too much of a good thing (if such a thing is actually possible), but I’d like to link to FIFTEEN S&G tracks here. EACH ONE of these songs is expertly written—with regard for formal construction, timbre of instruments, and an equal repose between melody, harmony and rhythm.

Both Simon and Garfunkel continued to record—Simon especially—after their breakup. Both of them had notable songs and successes. I am limiting this post to what they accomplished as a duo. I’ll list these favorites in the order they came out, chronologically.

SOUNDS OF SILENCE

A generation’s shorthand for alienation. If their producer Tom Wilson had not taken the initiative to overdub a rhythm section over their previously-recorded folk song, it is doubtful we would even know of Simon and Garfunkel. This is the song that propelled their career.

HAZY SHADE OF WINTER

A great example of a marriage between lyrics and music. Written during the year that Simon spent in London, trying to make it there as a solo artist. “Time will go by and you won’t notice until it’s gone. Wasting time in the springtime of one’s life.” Realistic, but not cheery, lyrics.

HOMEWARD BOUND

Another song that Simon wrote while in London. He was waiting for a train in Merceyside—THE heart of British pop music in Liverpool—waiting for a train to go back to London and his girlfriend—when he scribbled this song down. He is the “one-man band” he is singing about. There is actually a plaque at the Widnes train station, commemorating Homeward Bound’s creation there.

I AM A ROCK

A plea to himself to avoid pain and brokenheartedness by avoiding emotional attachment. A sad song.

DANGLING CONVERSATION

Simon felt that both “I Am A Rock” and “Dangling Conversation” were pretentious, his poorest song-writing efforts. He felt they showed him trying to be literary and concerned with “high” thoughts. But the lush string orchestra here serves as a great backdrop to emotional turmoil a couple—who clearly have trouble communicating with each other. The mass popularity of both songs—the extent to which millions could relate to the very feelings he was expressing—attest to the fact that his self-analysis was incorrect.

59TH STREET BRIDGE SONG (FEELIN’ GROOVY)

Maybe the happiest song S&G did? The 59th Street Bridge in New York, also known as the Queensboro Bridge, is a NYC landmark. Many thousands of drivers, bike-riders, and joggers use it every single day. It affords great views of the city in all directions.

AT THE ZOO

Or maybe this was the happiest? A song about the children’s zoo in Central Park.

MRS. ROBINSON

Who can forget Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate? What a great movie. Dustin Hoffman’s debut, too, I think.

SCARBOROUGH FAIR – PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY AND THYME

To me, this song seemed magical, a natural and logical—yet completely unexpected—extension of what S&G had already been doing.

EL CONDOR PASA

I knew nothing about Peru when I was in high school, yet somehow this music transported me there. You could actually call this song a cover—it was written as part of an zarzuela (a Spanish operetta) in the 1920’s by Peruvian composer Julio de la Paz. Paul Simon added his own words to de la Paz’s melody.

BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER

It’s hard to say, but this may be S&G’s greatest song, or at least the one with the widest popularity. A full-throated ballad featuring Garfunkel’s voice, it never fails to make shivers run and up down my spine. Five minutes of bliss. GREAT pianist.

THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK

From S&G’s fifth and final album. Very poignant meaning: Simon wrote it when Garfunkel left him, alone in New York, to make a movie in Mexico. In spite of the wistful sound and cloud-like harmony, the lyrics tell of a young man who is really emotionally hurt. The Only Living Boy in New York was actually made into a (terribly reviewed) movie starring Jeff Bridges and Pierce Brosnan.

THE BOXER

One of my favorite S&G. The lyrics still get to me—at the time, they somehow typifying the loneliness of living in a really huge city, of feeling all alone.

In a clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev’ry glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving…

AMERICA

This is a song about searching. The Kathy of the song was Simon’s girlfriend at the time he wrote this song. If you’ve ever been on the New Jersey turnpike, the endless traffic and often surreal inhumanity of being part of that ebb and flow is something from this song you can relate to. It shows us—perhaps—that “America” is just a figment of our collective imagination.

FOR EMILY, WHEREVER I MAY FIND HER

Yet another crystal-clear example of Garfunkel’s sensitivity. What an expressive singer.

 

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#265 DEBUSSY REFLECTIONS ON THE WATER

#265

DEBUSSY

REFLETS DANS L’EAU
(REFLECTIONS ON THE WATER)

MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN, PIANO

The essence of musical Impressionism…

Impressionism in painting was an artistic movement that started in Paris in the 1860’s. It was characterized by intense colors and opaque renderings of the real world in paintings intended to give fleeting impressions of what the artist was visualizing. For many—certainly including myself—the impressionist painters—Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, and others—were the most appealing visual artists thus far in history. One can easily roll off the names of a couple dozen of these artists.

In music, for all intents, Impressionism is contained in the work of Claude Debussy. There were other composers who, in hindsight, qualify in a limited way as being “impressionistic”—Ravel, Dukas, Respighi, Albeniz, and Griffes. But the qualities of impressionism in the world of art that can be applied to music are best represented in Debussy. As the music world in the late nineteenth century was gradually moving away from music with clearly defined tonal centers—the kind of music that had predominated for nearly 300 years—Debussy became an unintentional leader of the future of music. There are many who feel that Debussy (1862-1918), who died early in the twentieth century, was the twentieth century’s greatest composer. The harmonic and formal ambiguities of his music fit the “impressionism” definition pretty well.

It should probably also be stated that Debussy was not fond of the “impressionist” label. He much preferred to call himself a Symbolist, as he felt he had a much greater affinity for the Symbolist writers such as Verlaine and Mallarme than he had for the Impressionist painters.

Debussy was a major composer of works for the piano—some would say the greatest French composer for piano. He had not come from a musical or particularly well-off family. He grew up in Paris as the son of the owner of a china shop. His mother was a seamstress. His musical talent was recognized early, though, and he was given enough encouragement that he entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten.

Although he was always composing, his ambition was to become a virtuoso pianist. When he saw that this was not going to happen, he re-focused on composition, winning the Prix de Rome (a prize that we’ve touched on in these posts several times) at the age of 23. It is the shorter pieces in Debussy’s piano output that have gained the most notoriety—Clair de Lune, the First Arabesque, Pagodes, The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, and Golliwog’s Cakewalk among them.

Reflets dans l’eau (“Reflections in the Water”) is one of these very popular pieces. It is the first of three piano pieces from his first volume of “Images.” Written in 1905, it is an exemplary representation of what was considered “impressionistic” about Debussy—his use of non-functional harmony, ambiguous key signatures, a general sense of modality—and perhaps most of all, that continually-delayed feeling, so common in Debussy, of a piece only coming to a definite stop, of having a definite resolution, at the very end of the work.

The impressionist painters all had an obsession with light—the sun or the moon—and the way light was reflected on surfaces such as streetlamps and clouds. Debussy was able, in Reflections on the Water, to create this same kind of fleeting impression in music. hat he had a lifelong fascination with water is obvious from some of his other works—piano pieces The Isle of Joy, The Sunken Cathedral, Gardens in the Rain, and Goldfish, to list a few, and his monumentally great orchestral work, La Mer—The Sea.

One of the greatest experiences I was lucky enough to have as a student at Juilliard was to hear my classmates play. Once a month, my teacher Ania Dorfmann would have a master class in which her students would play for each other. In the early 1970’s, one of Madam Dorfmann’s students was the great Polish pianist Marian Migdal (1948-2015). We happened to share the same birthday, and he was as friendly as he was talented. Everything Marian played was golden, including his Reflections on the Water. His in-class performance was the first time I hard ever heard the piece. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the work! The tone colors that Debussy created in Reflections are astonishing.

Marc-Andre Hamelin is a French-Canadian pianist who is something of a throwback to the days of the nineteenth-century super-virtuoso. There is nothing written for piano that he cannot play. His repertoire is phenomenally broad, even for great concert pianists. This particular video of his Reflections on the Water is really wonderful.

Pictures: Monet’s Impression Sunrise, the painting that gave the name to the Impressionist movement; Debussy, Marc-Andre Hamelin.

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#264 BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY #9 IN D MINOR, OPUS 125, FOURTH MOV’T ODE TO JOY

#264

BEETHOVEN

SYMPHONY #9 IN D MINOR, OPUS 125
“CHORAL SYMPHONY”

FOURTH MOVEMENT
“ODE TO JOY”

CHRISTIAN THIELEMANN, CONDUCTOR
VIENNA PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
VIENNA SINGVEREIN
ANNETTE DASCH, SOPRANO
MIHOKO FUJIMURA, ALTO
PIOTR BECZALA, TENOR
GEORG ZEPPENFELD, BASS

Although there may be other contenders—for the classical music tune that the most school children are familiar with even though they don’t know where it comes from—I am guessing that the “Ode to Joy” melody would win such a contest. It is the central theme around which everything else revolves in the fourth and final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Its simplicity—it moves up and down by scale degrees, making it easy to sing and easy to remember—has endeared it to many millions of music lovers, both serious and casual, for nearly two hundred years.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the prospect of writing anything about the Ninth Symphony. It is one of those cases where the more you know about it and the more you know about Beethoven, the less competent you feel in taking on the subject matter—there is just so much there. Beethoven finished composing the symphony in 1824, just three years—as it turned out—before he died, at the age of 57. It is such a towering masterpiece that its mere existence has intimidated all composers ever since.

I have always liked a good analogy. So–if one were to make an analogy, Beethoven’s Ninth would be the planet Jupiter. The works by the next two great symphonists (chronologically) after him—Brahms and Mahler—would be Saturn and Uranus. Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, and Schumann would be Neptune-sized; Dvorak and Sibelius Earth-sized; Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff Venus-sized; everyone else, Mercury. Or put another way, if it were a tree, Beethoven’s Ninth would be a giant redwood, and all the rest would be your regular forest pines and neighborhood oak trees. You get the idea. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was of such scope, and such depth—Beethoven’s compositional output, period, was of such breadth—that everyone coming after him did whatever they could to avoid the inevitable comparison.

Brahms postponed and postponed his own first symphony for fear of it being compared with Beethoven’s last symphony. Mahler, the great Austrian composer whose life overlapped the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—had deep and unshakable superstitions regarding the composition of his own ninth symphony which were related to his feelings about Beethoven’s Ninth. Upon finishing his Eighth Symphony—the Symphony of a Thousand (because of the large number of performers required for it)—he absolutely felt he would die at the conclusion of his next symphony—number 9. He felt that no self-respecting composer should attempt that magical number, it belonged to Beethoven. To do so would be, he felt, sacrilege, and would surely bring bad luck—it would bring death. He actually disguised his ninth symphony by naming it Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). Having felt he had thus cheated death, he went about composing his great own great ninth symphony. Halfway through the composition of #10, however, he did indeed die.

All of this is just to point out the stature of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and to give an idea of the esteem it was held in by composers who had to follow in his footsteps.

The symphony is written in four movements, and requires about 75 minutes to perform. With the composition of his Third Symphony, which requires about 50 minutes, Beethoven had already broken the bonds of symphonic length and form. In the Ninth, he adds a chorus to the final movement, the first major composer to do so in a symphony, thus creating what was, in its time, the longest symphony ever written.

I cannot recall the first time I heard the “Ode to Joy” melody—it probably appeared in one of my earliest piano books when I was seven years old. It is a melody that I could hear forever and not tire of. I first heard the melody in its appropriate context—as part of a symphonic recording—in the Toscanini/NBC Symphony Beethoven set while I was in high school. Like all of my Toscanini LP’s, I played it until it was unplayable.

Here, I’d just like to cover some salient points about the Ode to Joy movement.

• At the time of the Ninth Symphony’s premiere performance, Beethoven had not appeared in public—because of his hearing situation—for twelve years. As with all of his major works, the premiere took place in Vienna. But Beethoven had to be persuaded to allow the premiere to occur there. By this time—the 1820’s—quite a bit of the music heard, in this most musical of all cities, was Italian—Rossini operas, in particular. Beethoven had preferred, and planned on, the work being premiered in Berlin to an audience that he felt would have a deeper understanding of Schiller’s text. In the end, he was petitioned—by popular acclaim of the notables of the city as well as the general populace—to go ahead with the premiere in Vienna, and that is what occurred.

• The premiere at the Theater am Kärntnertor involved the largest number of performers ever assembled for a symphonic performance. I think it is important to imagine this first performance: Michael Umlauf, the Theater director, knew how disastrous it would be for the deaf Beethoven to attempt to conduct at all—which is what both he and the public wanted—let alone such a colossal work. So, a kind of dual-conducting arrangement was fashioned in which the orchestra was advised (by Umlauf) to ignore Beethoven’s conducting and follow Louis Duport—the actual conductor of the Philharmonic—with Duport occupying the conductor’s podium and Beethoven standing in front of it. Beethoven, of course, was hearing his composition in his mind, and would set the tempos before each movement by beating a silent measure for the players and singers to see.

But, he could not help himself from becoming physically involved in the performance. A description has come down to us: “Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.”

It was widely reported—enough times and from enough sources to appear credible—that, since he could not hear, Beethoven continued to conduct after the final notes were played. At that point, one of the female vocal soloists turned him around to acknowledge a staggering ovation from a packed house. The audience did not hold their applause to the symphony’s conclusion, though. They were stunned by every part of the symphony, and acknowledged Beethoven with standing ovations after every movement.

• Beethoven had hand-picked the four vocal soloists. It is interesting that the two female singers were very young women—ages 18 and 20—who would have only been known to Beethoven by the operatic reputations, not from his hearing them first-hand—Henriette Sontag and Caroline Unger.

• You may know the words to the melody as being “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” These English words were added to the melody in 1907 by an American, Henry van Dyke. This is the version found in countless hymnals around the English-speaking world.

• There have been far too many performances of the Ninth Symphony to celebrate this event or that circumstance to list here. Perhaps one performance in our recent collective memory is that of Leonard Bernstein conducting a multi-national orchestra, celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

• One interesting music trivia fact is that the length of compact discs—CD’s—was originally formulated to be 74 minutes long based on the length of time it takes to perform the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. The recording engineers at Philips and Sony felt that if a single CD could contain the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, that would suit everyone in the listening world. As a guide, they utilized the legendary 1951 recording of the Ninth by Wilhelm Furtwangler, which takes 74 minutes.

THE TEXT

• The Ode to Joy poem was written by the poet Friedrich Schiller in 1785. Beethoven added some of his own text additions to the poem. Clearly, to the deaf, lonely, and big-hearted Beethoven, the words of this poem, which would form the nucleus of the final movement of his final symphony, were important. The poem is addresses the unity of all mankind:

O friends, no more of these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
More songs full of joy!
Joy!
Joy!
Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Within thy sanctuary.

Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers,
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.
Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join our song of praise;
But those who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.
All creatures drink of joy
At natures breast.
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!
Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He sent on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
Like a hero going to victory!
You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving father.

Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your creator?
Seek Him in the heavens;
Above the stars must he dwell.

• A formal analysis of the fourth movement has proven to be a subject of disagreement among music theorists and writers—and probably not of extreme interest to readers of these posts. I just want to give my own quick synopsis of the “Ode” movement as a possible listening aid.

0:00 setting the groundwork, reworking ideas from previous movements
3:16 first appearance of the Ode to Joy theme, low strings, unison melody only
4:00 first decorations of the OTJ theme, strings and bassoon
4:45 string orchestra – extremely lovely interweaving around the OTJ theme
5:26 full orchestra OTJ
7:55 melody sung by bass OTJ melody
8:40 soloists sing OTJ melody in ensemble, joined in by chorus
10:24 Turkish March – a different key, a laid-back version of the OTJ theme started by winds, then joined by tenor
12:00 orchestral fantasy involving music from previous movements
13:49 wonderful full chorus/orchestra treatment of OTJ
14:40 slower-paced choral/orchestra re-treatment of theme from first movement

From 19:00 to the end – Beethoven throws everything into the soup, snippets of the Ode to Joy theme continually interspersed in what can only be described as controlled frenzy.

Such brief remarks as these do not do justice to this remarkable movement, let alone the entire symphony. If you already know the Ode To Joy melody, this performance by the Vienna Philharmonic—some 187 years after they premiered it—should be a treat. If by chance you’re hearing it for the first time, it may be a revelation.

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#263 SIBELIUS SYMPHONY #2 IN D MAJOR, OPUS 43

#243

SIBELIUS

SYMPHONY #2 IN D MAJOR, OPUS 43

GEORGE SZELL, CONDUCTOR
ROYAL CONCERTGEBOUW ORCHESTRA

Can a symphony capture the essence of a nation?

When the title of one’s blog is “Music I Love,” then obviously, superlatives about whatever I’m posting will abound. So, here is yet another work about which I cannot find adequate words to describe how much I love this music.

Sibelius wrote seven symphonies. There is nothing wrong with any of the others—the fifth and the seventh are very often performed, and all of them have much to offer the attentive listener. The Second Symphony is the greatest of them all, however. And furthermore, it is simply one of the great symphonic works of the twentieth century.

My students all know that I am not one who easily equates music to “things”—whether they are people, places, or ideas. Nevertheless…there is something about this symphony that evokes the great forests and craggy sea inlets of Finland. Surprisingly to me, these are feelings that came to me immediately and unprompted upon hearing the symphony, some 46 years ago. There is a “northern-ness,” a certain intrinsic Nordic quality, to this music that is unmistakable.

I should also mention that this performance of George Szell conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (of the Netherlands) has been, since 1964, at the very top of many reviewers lists as the very best recording of this work. I’ve heard many recordings of the work. This one is phenomenal. Szell’s ability to control the dynamics of the RCO—a legendary orchestra—is superb.

Jean Sibelius is Finland’s pride. He composed the Second Symphony 1901-02, shortly after the premiere of his popular Finlandia—another wonderful and obviously nationalistic work, but not quite the Everest represented by this symphony. Sibelius called his Second Symphony a “confession of the soul.” He conducted the inaugural performance of the work in 1903 with the Helsinki Philharmonic. Three sold-out performances—the first one scheduled and the additional ones by public demand—indicate the enthusiasm—and the pride—felt by native Finns for this music.

It should be mentioned that aside from the nationally-indigenous imaginings that the piece conjures up, the work—especially its final movement—became a focal point for the Finnish public in their desire for independence from Russia (Finland was part of Russia at this time). Serious music critics of the time were saying they heard the voice of an independent Finland expressed in this music, likening Sibelius to a shaman at work. The unmistakable Nordic sound of the Second Symphony caused it to be championed—by many who heard it—as the “Symphony of Independence.”

It is somewhat ironic—viewed in retrospect—that Sibelius was born into a Swedish family in Finland, and did not enter the Finnish educational system until he was eleven, learning the Finnish language during his teens. Nevertheless, he became a resolute Finn in spirit, and prided himself as a composer for writing music representative of the Finnish people. He was a Finn through and through.

The symphony is written in four movements, requiring 40-some minutes of listening time. As I have suggested before, if you think you might have an interest in hearing this great work—and do not have 40 minutes to spare—then I would listen to one movement at a time. If even this is not possible, then I would plead with you to just listen to the first movement. I do not see how you could regret this. (Plus, I think listening to it will “hook” you for the whole work.)

Sibelius was a master at writing for all sections of the orchestra, but perhaps this is most true of his writing for the winds. And among the winds, perhaps this is most true of his writing for bassoon. The darkness with which he writes for the winds here brings to mind—for me—those winter months in the high latitudes when the sun sets in mid-afternoon and there are less than six hours of daylight each day. The equality of the strings and winds in the first movement achieve a feeling of remarkable Spartan northern-ness.

Sibelius likened the second movement of the symphony to a feeling of broken-hearted protest against injustice, as though “the sun had lost its light and flowers had lost their scent”—a feeling of desolation. The quiet, plucked string bass at the outset, contrasting with the bassoon/oboe plaintive lament – is something one does not forget. Ecstasy via music is certainly something I experience each time within this movement.

The third movement starts off with an angry machine-gun figure for the strings. The winds are given plenty of action again here. One feels this movement is all about preparation for the fourth movement, to which it is conjoined. Some commentators feel a similarity between this last movement and the final glorious movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. (Beethoven also conjoins his third and fourth movements in that symphony.) Its colossal and regal themes are indeed glorious, and are one reason native Finns saw this movement as an unsubtle call for Finnish independence.
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Certainly a topic for future contemplation in these posts is composers who “quit while they were ahead.” We have often made mention of composers who died prematurely. But there have also been some cases of first-rate composers who simply made a decision to stop composing. Sibelius was one of these. Sensing, at the age of 60, that the kind of music he was writing was out of step with the “new” music of Schonberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok, he decided to simply rest of his laurels.

Sibelius died at the age of 91. His reputation as one of the great symphonists of the twentieth century was undiminished at the time of his death—and remains so.

Sibelius’s Second Symphony….

1st movement 0:00
2nd movement 9:26
3rd movement 22:07
4th movement 27:51

Photos are the young Sibelius; TIME’s recognition of Sibelius in 1937; the opening measures of the symphony; Szell’s legendary recording.

[Even though I am in Istanbul at the moment, my (self-imposed) schedule of daily activities—museums, much time spent with friends, and our usual trek to Bodrum in southern Turkey—will necessitate my posting in the early mornings—as I always have. I hope this does not interfere with anyone seeing the next couple weeks of posts.]

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#262 MOZART PIANO CONCERTO #13 IN C MAJOR, K. 415

#262

MOZART
PIANO CONCERTO #13 IN C MAJOR, K. 415

GEZA ANDA, PIANIST AND CONDUCTOR
CAMERATA SALZBURG

We’ve seen already how Mozart wanted to ingratiate himself with anyone and everyone who could help his career when he first moved to Vienna in 1781. The three concertos, K. 413-415, exemplify his catering to whatever circumstance might come his way—all three concertos can be performed with orchestra or with string quartet accompaniment. He wrote both, making sure that, according to the opportunity, he would either play (as soloist) these concertos with a large or small ensemble—anything to perpetuate his reputation among the nobility and musical cognoscenti.

Each one of these three “Viennese” concertos is delightful in its own way. Being delightful and carefree was exactly what Mozart was aiming at in these concertos. Each one was played in a subscription series of concerts in the (large) homes of musical patrons which was organized by Mozart himself. Fifteen of Mozart’s 21 solo concertos were written, over a period of four years, 1782-86, for such subscription concerts. As we noted in an earlier post, these three concertos were written quickly, all within the space of a month. K. 415’s composition overlaps 1782 and 17783, when Mozart was not quite 27 years old.

This performance is by performed and conducted—not an unusual occurrence in the performance of Mozart concertos—by the Swiss-Hungarian Geza Anda (1921-1976). Anda was a master of the German repertoire from Mozart to Brahms, and was the first pianist to record all the Mozart piano concertos. It is possible that you have heard his playing without even knowing it if you are familiar with the movie Elvira Madigan, which featured his playing of the C Major K. 467 concerto.

As per usual, the concerto is in three movements, fast-slow-fast. Also, as Mozart so often would do, the second movement serves as an oasis of calm between the digital dexterity of the outer movements. The cadenza in the third movement was written by Mozart. Cadenzas were the exhibitionistic, quasi-improvisational solo passages inserted into the outer movements of concertos, meant to show off both a composer’s compositional and performing skills. These were often, but not always, written by the composer. Later composers, such as Beethoven, were to add cadenzas to some Mozart concertos, for instance. Generally speaking, Mozart’s cadenzas were so good and so communicative that they are the cadenzas still played by pianists today.

1st movement 0:00
2nd movement 10:02
3rd movement 16:36 (cadenza at 20:21)

Pictures are the fortepiano of Mozart’s time, and pianist Geza Anda.

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#261 CONNIE FRANCIS A BOUQUET OF HER SONGS

#261

CONNIE FRANCIS

A BOUQUET OF HER SONGS

(LENGTHY POST…)

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When I was growing up in white, middle-middle class suburbia, our next door neighbors were the Hunters. There was nothing that was not COOL about the Hunters. How I wished I was part of that family! Stan the husband and father, athletic and well-built, a golfer, able to fix or create just about anything, and clearly in love with Doris, his wife. Doris, loving and always cool in her sunglasses and low-pitched voice. Craig the older brother, the pride of the family, a basketball player. Paulette, the knock-out middle sister, stunningly pretty and everything she uttered seemed like gold to me. And Erick, the younger son and my constant playmate—we played those yellow 45’s that were so popular in the 50’s and spent countless hours on their backyard swingset. The Hunters were American coolness.

They also frequented the Kettering Swimming Pool, a public pool that opened and closed on those summer bookend dates every year—Memorial Day and Labor Day. It was a large pool and continually crowded. In the 1950’s, every house—every house—on our street had between two and five kids. The entire city of Kettering was OVERFLOWING with kids, the first wave of the baby boom.

One clear summer day in 1961, Erick asked me if I could go to the pool with him. Of course I could! Doris drove a car typical of the late 1950’s—a really long sky blue and white Plymouth with “fins”—anyone alive back then will know what fins were. They made every car look as if it were ready to take off, like an airplane. So, I’m sitting in the back seat with Erick, Doris is driving this cool car to the cool pool, and on the radio I hear for the first time—pretty loudly too, because Doris liked her car radio volume high—“Where the Boys Are” by Connie Francis. Wow, I thought, from what UNIVERSE did such beautiful singing come from?

This very first acquaintance with Connie Francis is obviously drenched in “coolness” in my memory…

Aside from my own personal reminiscence, though, Connie Francis was indeed a huge talent. Her voice is painted all over American life in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. I find her life story very interesting, and her songs have always been music I love—though, if you are familiar with her, perhaps not the songs you might expect.

Sandwiched—as one can only see in retrospect—between Doris Day and Linda Ronstadt, the two singers who I feel Connie Francis was so similar to—this New Jersey-raised girl of Italian descent (born 1937 as Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero—does it get any more Italian than that?) became not just an American singing icon, but also Italian, German, Yiddish and Hebrew.

Encouraged by her father to enter talent contests, Francis had some success in them, singing and accompanying herself on accordion from the age of four. She got a break singing on the Arthur Godfrey television show, where she was persuaded to change her name from Franconero to Francis, and to drop the accordion entirely. From this appearance, she received a few opportunities to sing commercial jingles. Her father also purchased four recording sessions for her, hoping for success with a major record company.

MGM did reluctantly sign her to a ten-release contract. Her first record releases—“Freddy” and “You, My Darlin’, You” were commercial failures, and MGM was planning on letting her go. She was only 18 and had been preparing to enter New York University as a pre-med student (she had graduated as salutatorian of her high school) if a singing career did not work out. As it happened, though, the final recording of her contract—“Who’s Sorry Now”—was played by Dick Clark on American Bandstand. Francis’s career took off from that point on, and she never looked back. Within weeks, the song was at the top of the charts both in the U.S. and U.K. For the following four years, Connie Francis was voted Best Female Vocalist by Bandstand viewers.

In her search for a follow-up hit, Francis met Neil Sedaka, who wrote “Stupid Cupid” for her, and which was her second big success. For the next half-decade, Francis would alternate between appealing to the teen and the adult contemporary markets. She went to London to record an album at the Abbey Road Studios of Italian Favorites. This album became a huge international bestseller and showcased her voice in a way that the teeny songs never could. In the years to come, she would record other “Favorites” albums—Jewish, German and Irish—all of which sold well in their respective markets.

In my opinion, Connie Francis’s voice is beautiful because of the intuitive dramatic feel and sincerity she brings to whatever lyrics she is singing. Stupid Cupid, V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N, Lipstick on the Collar, Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool, and Mister Twister were all, from my point of view, throw-away songs only meant to sell to a youth market, not typifying in the least her true temperament.

“Where the Boys Are”—although made to highlight the movie of the same name—had more of a ballad feel than an up-tempo dance song that one might expect from a teen movie. It became Francis’s signature song. [ Trivia fact: Where the Boys are—the movie—started the whole concept of the “spring break” at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. ]

Francis experienced a number of tragedies in her personal life. She was raped in an upstate New York motel in 1974, an experience that traumatized her for the rest of her life. In 1977, she underwent nasal surgery and completely lost her singing voice. In 1981, her older brother was murdered by Mafia hitmen. Shortly after this, Francis was diagnosed with manic depression. A whole succession of tragedies… Very ironically, Francis had to take voice lessons to learn how to sing again in the 1980’s. She was still performing, though, as recently as 2010, with Dionne Warwick in Las Vegas.

Francis was married four times, from 1964 to 1986. She had a romantic relationship with Bobby Darin early in her career. Her father hated Darin and forced him out of their New Jersey house at gunpoint to end the relationship. Francis said for the rest of her life that not marrying Darin was the biggest mistake she had ever made.
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I am highlighting quite a number of her songs here. My guess would be that even if you are a Connie Francis fan, you may not have heard all of them and therefore may not be acquainted with what a wonderful voice she really had. I hope you will sample some—or all—of them. Her voice was so expressive. Choosing just ten was difficult.

WHERE THE BOYS ARE (her signature song)

DIDN’T I LOVE YOU ENOUGH (dramatic!)

FORGETTING (Doris Day-like, a period song…)

WHO’S SORRY NOW? (first hit, propelled her to fame)

MY HAPPINESS (a love song)

TOWARD THE END OF THE DAY (don’t skip this…you’ll love her Italian)

MAMA (heartrending, sad)

MALAGUENA (this is awesome—who would have guessed?)

BABY’S FIRST CHRISTMAS (this is really nice, sentimental, I love it)

AL DE LA (I could listen to her Italian all day)

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#260 MORE THOUGHTS PIANISM 2 – SCHUBERT WANDERER FANTASIE

#260

MORE THOUGHTS
PIANISM, PART 2

SCHUBERT
FANTASY IN C MAJOR, D. 760 (WANDERER)

SVIATOSLAV RICHTER, PIANO

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PIANISM, part 2

Pianists will know how ludicrous it is to set out a “Pianism 101” outline in just a few paragraphs. But I thought that doing so might be helpful to the many music lovers who are not pianists, but may have an interest in knowing just what the pianists they are listening to are actually doing or attempting to do. There are textbooks, representing a number of points of view, that deal with the art of playing the piano. I will not try to capsulize those here. They are too detailed for the average listener. I just want to lay out a few basics for playing the piano that the non-pianist can understand.

As I mentioned in my previous post, it is the Schubert “Wanderer” Fantasy that is more or less prompting me to do this. This great solo piano work demands great pianism, and the recording that I am featuring played a significant part in my own understanding of pianism. So I thought this would be an apropos time to talk about this. Of course, everything I will say about playing the piano here applies across the board to all piano playing. These things are facets of playing that classical players are more attentive to than players of other kinds of music. I would just say that, in general, the more attentive a pianist is to all of this, the better, regardless of what kind of music one is playing.

So, in a nutshell…

Most music listeners are aware that the criteria for evaluating a piano performance are often lumped into two categories: MUSICALITY—being expressive, and TECHNIQUE—how well or impressively one adapts the body, arms, wrists, fingers, and feet to actually playing the instrument. From a distant perspective, this separation into categories seems to make sense. But, the closer one gets to actually playing the instrument, one realizes the two are inseparable. One cannot be expressive without having technique. Technique is a means to an end. For every musical (“expressive”) challenge, there is a technical (“how to”) solution.

So, I want to just list a few of the most basic things that pianists are concerned with, always remembering that musicality and technique are the right and the left, the yin and the yang, of playing.

Pianists are always aware of three primary things: legato, phrasing, and balance.

LEGATO. Unlike other instruments—the violin, the trumpet, the oboe, the human voice, and so on—once a sound is produced on the piano—the instant the sound is produced—it begins to decay, to die. The pianist cannot get louder or softer on a note that he has just played—he cannot keep it going in the same way that other instrumentalists can. This is perhaps THE basic difference between the piano and other instruments. Even on the best grand pianos, when a key is depressed and held down, the sound will fade away completely—the string will just stop vibrating—in about thirty seconds, always getting continually softer. This makes it difficult for the pianist to create the illusion that the piano is a singing instrument.

There is some real irony in this because so much of the piano repertoire relies on the pianist to create this very illusion. One of the basic things that pianists attempt to do, therefore, is to play in a legato fashion. Legato means, literally, bound or tied together. Pianists create this kind of touch by overlapping the sound of one note to another—by holding one key until the next key is played. Doing this well is one of the key yardsticks in measuring the quality of this pianist’s playing as compared with that pianist.

Playing legato for most pianists is a learned skill. I would guestimate that if you lined up 1,000 pianists—classical pianists who make their living playing piano—that only a very small fraction of them have a natural legato—they played legato from the time they first played the instrument as children. For everyone else, it is an acquired skill. Some are more successful, and therefore convincing in what they play, than others in acquiring this kind of touch. But good legato playing is definitely a hallmark of good playing. If you are really enjoying a pianist’s performance, the chances are high that she or he has a good legato.

PHRASING. Phrasing is the intentional varying of loudness in a succession of notes. Let’s say a composer has written an opening melody of a piece that consists of nine notes. The most basic “tent figure” phrase would have you starting softly on note #1, making each successive note louder than the one that came before it until note #5, peaking in loudness on note #5, and then gradually receding in loudness until note #9.

It is important to remember that a lot of music—most music, really—consists of one phrase after another.

The continuous shaping of these melodic phrases draws your listener into whatever you are playing. Some liken phrases in music to spoken sentences. I think that is a fair comparison. In the same way that if you were to purposefully speak in a monotone, even your best friend would soon tune you out—would essentially stop listening to whatever you were saying—in that same way, there is an inverse relationship that all pianists are aware of: the LESS we shape our phrases, the MORE bored our audience will be.

A phrasing challenge for the pianist that I already alluded to above has to do, again, with how the sounds of piano strings fade away so quickly. The challenge—in order to convincingly phrase and make it appear to the listener that the piano sings—is to continually listen to sounds you have already played. This is easier said than done. Let’s say I have a phrase consisting of five notes in which the first note lasts longer than the rest of the notes. After I play that first note, my brain says “mission accomplished” and I no longer listen to it—my focus is on what is coming next. But, because the sound of that first long note is dying away, I am very likely to play the second note too loud, creating an unpleasant bump in the phrase. What I need to do is to match the volume of the second note with what is left of the first note. This necessitates my always listening to notes I have already played.

I realize this is a lot of words for a simple concept, but it is a facet of playing that pianists neglect to their own peril.

Just one more small thing to be aware of when listening to pianists—or any musician, really. A pianist can shape a phrase beautifully—can be in absolute control of the dynamic level he is establishing with each successive note—but then ruin it all for his listeners by playing the very last note of the phrase too loudly. Players don’t do this intentionally—it has to do with being in control of your own mind. And by that I mean—as we get to the end of a phrase, the mind instinctively thinks ahead to the first notes of the next phrase, and then the next phrase, etc. What often happens is that, when thinking about the first note of that next phrase, we stop listening to the phrase we are currently ending, and we often end up playing that note louder than we’ve intended. Pianists have to listen to the very last drop of sound, so to speak, of every phrase to make the piano mimic the human voice.

BALANCE. Balance has to with the relative loudness of THIS to THAT. “Balance” is not the most appropriate term, actually. “Balance” infers that there is an equality between things: when we balance things on a scale, the two sides are equal. That is NOT what balance in music is about. “IMbalance” would be the more appropriate word. For the pianist, creating pleasing balances (imbalances…) is paramount to a pleasing performance.

Orchestral conductors are habitually hyper-sensitive about balance—in a way, they are creating, in front of an audience, a balancing ACT in which the strings are now louder than the other sections, followed by the winds projecting the most, followed by the brass, etc. Sometimes everyone is playing full out, but most of the time they are not. The conductor is listening intently to what everyone is doing, and making real-time adjustments, in his hand and arm motions, to all of his players—you play louder here, you play softer there, etc.

The pianist’s hands are his orchestral players. I think probably every music lover is aware that, because so much melodic importance is given to the pianist’s right hand—by virtue of the shorter, higher-pitched strings being to the right on the keyboard—that the right hand in the vast majority of instances is supposed to be louder than the left. To play them equally loud is confusing to an audience—they must choose between hands to decide, at any given moment, what is the most important “thing” going on.

So the pianist has a balance challenge: he is continually adjusting the relative loudness of one hand to the other. This goes against nature! The brain demands, and feels most comfortable with, symmetry. The brain would love it if the pianist always played both hands the same strength, whether loud or soft. But alas, this is not enjoyable for listeners, and so the pianist attempts to always establish a pleasing “im”-balance.

Further complicating things for the player, in terms of balance, is that very often there will be TWO important things going on in the right hand at the same time—a melody and a counter-melody, say. The pianist, then, has to create two different dynamics levels at the same time in the right hand—in order for the listener to differentiate them from each other—while at the same time keeping the left hand always softer than everything that is happening in the right hand.

PEDALING. Entire books have been written about the use of the pedal. I will keep this simple. If you looked inside a piano, you would see that there are things called dampers—small wooden blocks with soft felt underneath them—that rest on top of the strings. When the pianist pushes the right (meaning, on the right) pedal down, all of the dampers rise, allowing all the strings to vibrate. This creates a pleasant effect, one of which is to allow strings to vibrate longer than they would have otherwise. Perhaps the main thing to remember, when listening to pianists and in thinking about what they are doing, is that the pianist’s foot pushes the pedal down AFTER the notes that he wishes to lengthen are actually played. Fingers down, then pedal down.

This is far easier to actually do than to talk about. But – it is yet another dimension of playing that calls for intensely focused listening to oneself. This has to do with the avoidance of overlapped harmonies. Here is what we mean: in a certain measure, if I am playing notes that comprise a D Major harmony, but the notes of the next measure are a different harmony—say, G Major—and if I want to pedal both of these measures, then the timing of my pedaling has to be so exact that NONE of the notes of the D Major harmony “bleed into” the G Major harmony.

All pianists learn, early on in life, that pedaling is something that is done with the ear. One must be intently focused on the sounds one creates, as they are being created, so that one’s pedaling does not overlap this harmony with that. Of all aspects of what is required of the pianist, pedaling is the one I would liken the most to high-wire walking—with the danger being that overlapped harmonies—through sub-par pedaling—can immediately destroy an otherwise fine performance.
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OK, I meant to keep this as brief as possible. Hopefully, with these things in mind, you will be able to appreciate that much more this fine performance of Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy.

Schubert, you may recall, had one of the briefest lives of the composers that we call “great.” He died when he was 31, in 1828. He wrote the Fantasy in C Major in 1822, when he was in good health. It is a lengthy four-movement work which gets its name (Wanderer) from a song that Schubert had written some years earlier called “Der Wanderer.” In this Fantasy, he uses this theme in each movement—most obviously and poignantly in the second, slow movement.

The text of the song itself describes a wanderer strolling quietly, yet unhappily, as he observes the mountains, a streaming valley, and the roaring sea, always sighing and asking the question “where?”

The four movements of the Fantasy are played without a break—each movement transitions to the next.

I first heard Sviatoslav Richter’s recording of the Wanderer Fantasy during my second year at Juilliard. I remember holding the LP cover in my hands as I listened to it time after time. I was astonished and perplexed.

I was astonished first of all because of the greatness and beauty of the Fantasy, and also because of the variety of emotions it touches on—or plows into, I should say.

And I was perplexed because I could hear that this playing was SO good, but I could not figure out why. (I was still young, you must remember.) It took me many repeated hearings of this performance to discern that Richter was a MASTER of balance between, and within, hands. And I heard, for the first time, what a TRUE crescendo and a TRUE diminuendo were, when every single note—regardless of the length of a passage—is a different dynamic, a different color, than the one that came before and after it. For me, it was a revelation.

There are so many other things I observed that affected my own future pianistic growth. Listening to Richter in this recording gave me a life lesson—one that should already have been obvious to me at age 20. And that is that the VAST majority of my music education would be up to me—listening to music, listening and observing what the great players do, and hopefully, trying my best to replicate whatever that is. This is just the way it is for musicians, regardless of their music preferences.

OK, enough talking. I hope you’ve stayed with me long enough to give this a listen. It is a monumental piece in the hands of a monumental player.

Enjoy.

1st movement 0:00
2nd movement 5:40
3rd movement 12:20
4th movement 16:48

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