#354 MOZART PIANO CONCERTO #16 IN D MAJOR, K. 451

#354

MOZART

PIANO CONCERTO #16 IN D MAJOR, K. 451

WALTER KLIEN, PIANO
WIENEROPERORCHESTER
PAUL ANGERER, CONDUCTOR

Pure happiness and grace…

Although it is somewhat ridiculous to proclaim any of the Mozart concertos to be one’s absolute favorite—since every single one of them can be likened to a different gemstone, the one that you love the most tends to be the one you are currently listening to—K. 451, if I had to live with just one forever, would probably be the one for me.

I remember hearing it for the first time, sitting on an ancient, mildewy fold-out sofa-bed in the basement in the summer of 1979, while studying for my doctoral oral exams. I was trying to cram a lifetime’s acquaintance with hundreds of works into my mind in just a few months. Although such an exercise is, at best, surface-skimming, the rewards—for one’s future—are immediate: THIS is a work I will keep coming back to the rest of my life, THIS one is not, etc. Well, I was so blown away by this concerto that I had to stop and listen to it several times in a row right then and there. How, I wondered then and still wonder, could HAPPINESS and GRACE—visceral, exuberant happiness and such serene grace—be expressed so perfectly in music?

*****

As I mentioned a few posts ago, this concerto, along with K. 450 in B-flat, were two concertos that Mozart composed in his first weeks of residence in the Trattnerhof building in central Vienna. In addition to residential apartments, the building had a chapel, which seated a couple hundred people. Its use as a functioning chapel had been abandoned and it had been converted into a performance venue. Mozart rented the space for the first full two months of his residency in the building (which only lasted nine months in total). He kept his piano in the hall/chapel instead of in his apartment, composing there. The availability of the hall for his private use may have been why he moved into the building in the first place.

Mozart was just 27 years old in January 1784 when he moved into the Trattnerhof building, still a young man in fine health. He and his wife Constanze had been married for 18 months, and as yet had no children (they would have six, only two of which would survive infancy–the average child mortality rate in those days; Mozart himself was one of two surviving children, out of seven).

Mozart had been successfully carving out a reputation for himself in Vienna since he moved there three years ago. Concerto performances had become a primary means of attracting public attention. With each concerto he wrote, it became more and more important to him to impress whoever was hearing him. In those days—and for another half century—composers were the main performers of their works. Self-promotion was vital to the existence of every composer. Presenting himself—his compositional and performing abilities—in the best light was his goal with the Trattnerhof concerts.

K. 450 and 451 required more technical ability of the pianist than any of Mozart’s previous concertos, and were sure to impress. It is hard to imagine these concerts as being anything but resounding successes. Mozart really poured himself into these two concertos. They are a joy both to hear and to perform.

*****

Walter Klien (1928-1991) was an Austrian pianist whose interpretations of Mozart, Schubert and Brahms were highly regarded among both European and American audiences. Before he made his debut in the U.S. in 1969, he had been a prizewinner in the Busoni and Marguerite Long piano competitions. He had also received the coveted Bosendorfer Prize in Vienna. In addition to being a master of all the German solo repertoire, Klien performed in a duo with his wife Beatriz, as well as with pianist and good friend Alfred Brendel.

The Volksoper Wien—the Vienna People’s Opera—is a major opera house in Vienna, which presents an amazing 300 performances to several hundred thousand spectators every year! The Wiener Volksoperorchester is the “pit” orchestra for the opera house. Like the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, it is comprised of Vienna’s finest players.

It was this very recording—Klien and the Volksooperorchester—through which I became acquainted with K. 451. But it is not (only) for sentimental reasons that I am linking to it here. Even though there are other fine versions available on YouTube, for me this is still the best. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, tempo choices often become critically important in the presentation of a work. That is especially true, I feel, in this concerto. Klien’s tempi are, for me, just right. And his crystalline fingerwork is so impressive.

Pictures are Tom Hulce portraying Mozart in “Amadeus”, and Walter Klien

1st mov’t

2nd mov’t

3rd mov’t

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#353 BACHMAN TURNER OVERDRIVE YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET

#353

BACHMAN TURNER OVERDRIVE

YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET

It’s possible you may remember my mentioning the name Randy Bachman last summer in a posting of songs by the Guess Who. The Guess Who had huge international success in 1969-70. But just at the height of the band’s notoriety, Randy Bachman, their rhythm guitarist, converted to Mormonism. Differences with other Guess Who personnel—primarily Burton Cummings, the lead singer—persuaded Bachman to leave the group. Observers and friends were astonished at such a seemingly self-destructive move, leaving a successful band when they had such high visibility.

Back home in Winnipeg, he started putting a band together comprised of himself, two of his siblings, and, at the suggestion of Neil Young, he added a bassist/vocalist named Fred Turner. This group, Brave Belt, had minimal success. But they stuck to what they were doing, and were soon signed by Mercury Records.

They changed their name, combining Bachman’s and Turner’s names with the name of a trucker’s magazine they had seen—”Overdrive.” BTO’s first album, BTO, was a modest success primarily due to the band’s relentless touring. Their second album, BTO II, however, was a tremendous success both in the U.S. and Canada. And the band’s third album, Not Fragile, was an over-the-top success, due in no small part to the inclusion of “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” a track that was initially almost excluded.

Although the band has continued to record—and still tours, to this day, albeit with some changed personnel—the mid-1970’s were the high point for BTO. “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” was their biggest hit, setting a record for the rapidity with which it zipped to number one.

*****

It would be easy to prejudicially imagine—based on their personal appearance, on the years of their popularity (the drug-drenched 70’s), and just the fact that they were a touring rock and roll band—that they would have probably used drugs and lived in a generally bohemian fashion while on their tour-bus travels. But in fact, Randy Bachman had very rigid rules for BTO—no drugs, no alcohol, no premarital sex. So strict was he about enforcing these standards that he fired his own brother, Tim, from the group. They were a serious band, all about making their own kind of music.

What I love about “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” is its simplicity. A repetitive progression—easily heard in the bass guitar, from A (major) down to G (major), down to D (major)—gives the song a modal feel. The juxtaposing of heavy chords with musical silence during which Bachman keeps on with his n-n-n-n-n-nothing’s is something I never get tired of hearing. And, the obligato phrasing of the lead guitar is really just so nice. For me, this is one of the great rock songs.

*****

Interesting trivia:

You may know that the horror fiction novelist Stephen King, in addition to using his own name, also wrote under a pen name, Richard Bachman. At the time, he did not want to over-saturate the market with books under his own name, so he chose “Richard Bachman” as his nom de plume, having been inspired by listening to BTO’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”

*****

And personal trivia: “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” was being played on the radio when I was first getting to know Tiraje in 1974. It totally mystified her that I could be attracted to this (and similar fare) while at the same time loving art music. I suppose it still does.

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#352 ETTA JAMES AT LAST

#352

ETTA JAMES

AT LAST

Etta James (1938-2012)—born Jamesetta Hawkins—was an American singer with diverse vocal abilities—blues, rhythm and blues, rock, and gospel. Her long career, starting at age 16, was often interrupted by heroin addiction, bad relationships resulting in physical abuse, and incarceration. Needless to say, she was a person who felt—who had lived through—many of the lyrics she sang.

In her lifetime, James was honored with six Grammys, 17 Blues Music Awards, and is in three Halls of Fame—Grammys, Blues, and Rock and Roll. Her appeal is universal and multi-generational: Stevie Wonder, Beyonce, and Christina Aguilera all sang at her funeral service.

James prolifically recorded, releasing a total of 31 albums and some 58 singles. Although songs such as “The Wallflower” (1955), “All I Could Do Is Cry” (1960), and “Loving You More Every Day” (1964) all did well on the charts, it is James’ “At Last” from 1960 that is most strongly associated with her–her signature song.

“At Last” was written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the Glenn Miller movie, Sun Valley Serenade. It appears, as an instrumental, several times during the movie. Although the song had great lyrics, it was felt that the movie was already overflowing with strong vocal numbers, so movie audiences only heard “At Last” as filler.

In 1960, nearly twenty years after the movie, Etta James’ R&B version was released. It became a classic case of the “crossover” song, equally popular on the R&B and pop music charts. The lyrics make it easy to understand why “At Last” has long been a much-requested song at weddings and wedding receptions:

At last my love has come along
My lonely days are over and life is like a song, oh yeah
At last the skies above are blue
My heart was wrapped up clover the night I looked at you
I found a dream that I could speak to
A dream that I can call my own
I found a thrill to press my cheek to
A thrill I’ve never known, oh yeah
You smiled, you smiled oh and then the spell was cast
And here we are in Heaven
For you are mine at last

“At Last” has been covered many times by other artists, among them Percy Faith, Bing Crosby, Tina Moore, Stevie Nicks, Cyndi Lauper, Aretha Franklin, and Beyonce. Christina Aguilera, who idolized Etta James, performs “At Last” at every one of her concerts.

“At Last” is an American classic.

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#351 RIMSKY-KORSAKOV SCHEHERAZADE: PRINCE AND PRINCESS

#351

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV

SCHEHERAZADE: THE YOUNG PRINCE AND YOUNG PRINCESS

ALL-STAR ORCHESTRA
GERARD SCHWARZ, CONDUCTOR

Music that speaks to the soul…

SCHEHERAZADE was a symphonic suite composed by the Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1888. It is his most popular work, and represents the epitome of his (already great) orchestrating ability. Scheherazade is comprised of four movements, each one of which represents a facet of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

The Arabian Nights were, in turn, a collection of middle eastern folk tales written in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age from the 8th to the 14th centuries. In the Nights, Scheherazade is the wife of a Sultan, who has plans to kill her. She forestalls this plan by telling him story after story—the Arabian Nights.

Rimsky (as he is often referred to, a shortened version of his hyphenated last name) sought general inspiration from the Nights. His plan was not to depict particular stories from the Nights in Scheherazade. He originally titled the four movements “Prelude, Ballade, Adagio, and Finale”—generic titles with no special literary allusion. He did not want the listener to associate any of the movements specifically with the voyages of Sinbad, which are central to the Arabian Nights. Rather, he said:

“All I desire is that the hearer, if he likes my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond a doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other and composed on the basis of themes common to all the four movements.”

*****

It was Rimsky’s faithful student and protégé Anatoly Lyadov who ultimately—after Rimsky’s death—gave each of the four movements its name, cementing in our minds the four stories:

1. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship
2. The Kalandar Prince
3. The Young Prince and The Young Princess
4. Festival at Baghdad – The Sea – The Ship Breaks Against a Cliff

*****

I think I have mentioned elsewhere that Rimsky-Korsakov combined a career in the military with a life of composition, that he was a member—really the most professionally accomplished member—of “The Five”—those Russian composers who were breaking ranks with Western ways of composing—Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov. His influence on western composition, in turn, can be heard in works by Debussy, Ravel, and Respighi.

*****

Because of the immediacy and emotional depth of the music of Scheherazade, it has become a standard work in the symphonic repertoire. There are very few works of Russian music that are better known or more beloved. Non-musicians—even non-music lovers—have, over the years, become acquainted with it, hearing it as the backdrop for so many figure skating routines.

In particular, the third movement—The Young Prince and The Young Princess love story—is the simplest music of the suite, a simple A-B-A form, and the most immediately appealing. It is just so beautiful, with its long, spun-out phrases, music that speaks with immediacy to the soul.

*****

The All-Star Orchestra is a very interesting project of the conductor Gerard Schwarz. He gathered 95 of the best musicians from the major American orchestras—half from Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Washington (DC), Houston, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Tulsa, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, and the other half from the various New York City orchestras. Together, they filmed 8 programs of symphonic music for PBS utilizing 18 high definition cameras, playing in empty halls—the emphasis was exclusively on the music with no distractions. Scheherazade was part of the series.

Pics are Rimsky-Korsakov and Gerard Schwarz.

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#350 MOZART PIANO CONCERTO #15 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, K. 450

#350

MOZART

PIANO CONCERTO #15 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, K. 450

MURRAY PERAHIA, PIANIST AND CONDUCTOR
ENGLISH CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

The details of a composer’s life, aside from their compositions, have always been extremely interesting to me. How a composer lived seems to provide us with a prism through which to view a composer’s creativity as well as his general state of mind.

In the case of Mozart, one of those details has to do with the building into which he moved in the winter of 1784, the Trattnerhof. Johann Thomas von Trattner was a wealthy publisher and printer who received permission, in 1773, from the municipality to tear down five medieval buildings in order to build a very large residence building—large for the time and locale: five stories high (not counting the ground floor) and about 50 meters long. Mozart moved into the building in January of 1784. He was 27 years old.

I am including two pictures of the building here. Because of the narrowness of The Graben, one of Vienna’s famous centrally-located streets on which the Trattnerhof was built, it was difficult either for sketch artists of the time—or early 20th century photographers—to get a head-on view of the Trattnerhof—so, all representations of the Trattnerhof are something like this one. The Trattnerhof is the building in the right foreground.

These were not inexpensive apartments in which to live, and Mozart had to be frugal with all his non-music related expenses in order to afford this move. Mozart’s apartment was one of the smallest in the building, and certainly one of the darkest as well due to its lack of sunlight. The apartment was on the third floor, and consisted of two small rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom, a total of about 900 square feet. The Mozarts had a live-in maid, but she had to sleep on the kitchen floor. Street noise and the overpowering smell from the stables—just ten meters below the Mozarts’ windows, at the back of the building– were ever-present.

*****

A chapel had been built into the Trattnerhof–whose function as a chapel was soon abandoned. It was turned into a concert space—hardly ideal for audiences, due to its lack of heating, but nevertheless attractive enough and with reasonable acoustics. As soon as Mozart moved into the Trattnerhof, he reserved the chapel/auditorium for several months to serve as a venue for his concerts.

In March, Mozart composed and performed both K. 450 in B-flat major and the concerto to follow, K. 451 in D Major, in this concert space. It is not likely that he even moved his piano from there back to his apartment between concerts. As usual, he would have acquired all the musicians to perform with him, and arranged for all rehearsals and publicity.

*****

These two concertos are technical tour-de-forces, requiring more of the performer than any of his previous concertos. A crystal-clear technique is essential, as is the ability to phrase in such a way as to make it appear that the piano is singing. In a letter to his father, concerning K. 450 and 451, Mozart wrote: “I consider them both to be concertos which make one sweat; but the B flat one beats the one in D for difficulty.” The last movement of K. 450, in particular, is one of the most technically demanding works Mozart was to compose. The second (slow) movement is the first time the Mozart use the theme-and-variations form in a concerto.

Murray Perahia, needless to say, has all the requisite skills to play Mozart masterfully. Today’s link is just another example of that. Although I know I say this with each Mozart concerto I post, this is just thoroughly enjoyable listening.

Tracks:
00:00 – Allegro
11:06 – Andante
16:52 – Allegro

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#349 MACDOWELL FOUR PIANO PIECES

#349

MACDOWELL

FOUR PIANO PIECES:

TO A WILD ROSE
HUNGARIAN
SCOTCH POEM
SHADOW DANCE

JAMES BARBAGALLO, PIANO

Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) was an American composer and pianist. I have always thought of MacDowell as not having had a happy life. He was (and still is) underrated as a composer. Growing up in New York City, he had studied piano with the great Teresa Carreno. At the age of 17 he went to Paris to study at the conservatoire, later studying composition in Frankfurt with Joachim Raff. His music was championed by Franz Liszt.

Yet if his music does not attain to the level of the great Romantic composers, neither does it look forward into the 20th century. He was a man caught between two eras.

His marriage to Marian Nevins, a pianist who had been his student in Frankfurt, was happy but childless—Marian had an illness that prevented her from childbearing. MacDowell’s famous piano piece “Cradle Song” was sadly dedicated to her.

When he ran into financial problems in Frankfurt, he and Marian moved to Boston, where he supported them with piano teaching and composing. He was appointed professor of music at Columbia University in New York in 1896, the first music professorship in the university’s history. This was not to last for long, though. Conflicts with the university’s new president in 1904 caused him to resign. MacDowell’s health took a downward spiral from which he never recovered.

Although MacDowell’s two piano concertos are often considered the best American concertos (after Gershwin’s Concerto and Rhapsody in Blue), it is for his short piano pieces that he will be remembered most fondly.

In the same vein as Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words and Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, MacDowell’s piano pieces—especially his Woodland Sketches and his Etudes—are picturesque and often poignant piano pieces that many piano students learn in their growing-up years. Having said that, though, I should re-iterate—as I did with Mendelssohn and Grieg—that these are artistic pieces, expertly composed, and can sound like the masterpieces they are in the hands of great artists.

*****

James Barbagallo (1952-1996) was a good friend of mine and Tiraje’s while we were all students at Juilliard. It saddens me to think of his too-short life. He could play just about anything—at sight. He was a fabulous player, winning the bronze medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition, and his career was always getting bigger and better when he died of a heart attack. Aside from his musical prowess, though, Jim was simply a super-nice guy, always concerned more about you than himself.

Barbagallo was a Naxos recording artist, having recorded all the Bach-Siloti piano transcriptions as well as the complete piano works of MacDowell. I’ve chosen four of his recordings of MacDowell’s most popular pieces for your enjoyment.

TO A WILD ROSE

HUNGARIAN

SCOTCH POEM

 

SHADOW DANCE

 

 

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#348 CELINE DION BECAUSE YOU LOVED ME

#348

CELINE DION

BECAUSE YOU LOVED ME

When I am mowing the lawn, I listen to music on a headphones-radio. One spring day in 1999, when my son Jason was home from college, I heard Celine Dion—for the first time—while I was mowing. When I came in the house, I asked Jason if he had ever heard of a Celine Dion and did he know anything about her. Obviously, I had been living with my head buried in the pop music sand—he told me she had been around for a while and was way popular.

You would have to live in a pretty far corner of the world now to have no acquaintance with Celine Dion’s singing. Or at least it seems that way. The ubiquity of her songs has been a real phenomenon in the pop music world since 1990. Before that, the French-Canadian singer had a career in Canada and Europe, charting a decades’ worth of French-language pop hits.

Dion (b. 1968) won the Yamaha World Popular Song Festival at the age of 14, and went on to win the Eurovision Song Contest—the same one that propelled Abba and many other great acts to stardom—when she was 20. In 1990, after learning to speak (and sing in) English, she signed with Epic Records and released the first of twenty-six albums, many of which contained at least one single that would reach the top of the charts.

Hearing about Celine Dion’s life is unavoidable—her very popular Las Vegas show, the fairytale romance with her husband/manager Rene Angelil (which ended, sadly, with his death from throat cancer four years ago), and the continual presence for two decades of her voice on pop radio stations–all made Dion a part of American and Canadian and world culture.

An abbreviated list of Dion’s singles would include:

* Where Does My Heart Beat Now
* Beauty and the Beast
* If You Asked Me To
* The Power of Love
* It’s All Coming Back To Me Now
* All By Myself
* My Heart Will Go On (from Titanic)
* That’s The Way It Is

Appearing mid-way in her succession of hit songs was the 1996 song, “Because You Loved Me.” Here are the song’s lyrics:

For all those times you stood by me
For all the truth that you made me see
For all the joy you brought to my life
For all the wrong that you made right
For every dream you made come true
For all the love I found in you
I’ll be forever thankful baby
You’re the one who held me up
Never let me fall
You’re the one who saw me through through it all

You were my strength when I was weak
You were my voice when I couldn’t speak
You were my eyes when I couldn’t see
You saw the best there was in me
Lifted me up when I couldn’t reach
You gave me faith ’cause you believed
I’m everything I am
Because you loved me

You gave me wings and made me fly
You touched my hand I could touch the sky
I lost my faith, you gave it back to me
You said no star was out of reach
You stood by me and I stood tall
I had your love I had it all
I’m grateful for each day you gave me
Maybe I don’t know that much
But I know this much is true
I was blessed because I was loved by you

You were my strength when I was weak
You were my voice when I couldn’t speak
You were my eyes when I couldn’t see
You saw the best there was in me
Lifted me up when I couldn’t reach
You gave me faith ’cause you believed
I’m everything I am
Because you loved me

You were always there for me
The tender wind that carried me
A light in the dark shining your love into my life
You’ve been my inspiration
Through the lies you were the truth
My world is a better place because of you
You were my strength when I was weak
You were my voice when I couldn’t speak
You were my eyes when I couldn’t see
You saw the best there was in me
Lifted me up when I couldn’t reach
You gave me faith ’cause you believed
I’m everything I am
Because you loved me

You were my strength when I was weak
You were my voice when I couldn’t speak
You were my eyes when I couldn’t see
You saw the best there was in me
Lifted me up when I couldn’t reach
You gave me faith ’cause you believed
I’m everything I am
Because you loved me

I’m everything I am
Because you loved me

*****

For me, this is her most appealing song. But everyone has their own favorite. Tiraje loves Dion’s French-language songs.

The singer has been dealing with hearing-related problems over the past couple of years. Even so, her show-stopping Vegas act goes on… Like Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion was born to be a performer.

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#347 RANDY TRAVIS ON THE OTHER HAND

#347

RANDY TRAVIS

ON THE OTHER HAND

A soothing, silky voice…

I can’t say Randy Travis is well represented in my music collection—I only have two of his CD’s—Storms of Life and his Christmas album. I really need to amend that. Travis’s voice is so soothing that I really should have more of his 20 albums. I cannot actually remember the very first time I heard his voice, but I do know I was attracted to it immediately.

If you are not familiar with his name, Randy Travis (b. 1959) is—or was—a great country music singer, songwriter, and actor based in Nashville. His first album, Storms of Life, propelled him to immediate fame in 1986. “On the Other Hand”, taken from the album, was his first number one hit.

Travis has had something of a tumultuous life. With the release of Storms of Life, his career took off. He sold over 25 million records, won six Grammys, ten American Music Association awards, and had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—not bad for a high-school dropout, juvenile delinquent from rural North Carolina.

Travis had a spiritual awakening of some kind around the year 2000. His first 11 albums had been traditional, and well-received, country albums. After 2000, though, when he signed with Word Records, all of his albums have been Christian-country. He received eight Dove awards (the highest honor in the Christian recording industry) in the first decade of the century.

In 2010 though, Travis and his wife of 19 years, Lib Hatcher, divorced. Two years later, events in his life became widely publicized, well outside the C&W community. He was twice arrested for indecent exposure, public intoxication, and resisting arrest. In 2013, he suffered, in quick succession, a bout with viral cardiomyopathy and then had a massive stroke. He was unable to sing or even speak for a year after this. It seems likely that what had appeared to be mental illness the year before was a result of his impending physical illness.

Travis did ultimately recover his voice enough by 2016 to appear at his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

*****

I love “On the Other Hand” primarily for Travis’s silky voice. The lyrics of the song—about a man resisting the temptation of having an affair with a married woman—are standard country fare. But the leisurely-yet-forward-moving tempo and the presence of the slide guitar, which I love under ANY circumstance, make this a special song.

On one hand I count the reasons I could stay with you
And hold you close to me, all night long.
So many lover’s games I’d love to play with you
And on that hand I see no reason why it’s wrong

But on the other hand, there’s a golden band
To remind me of someone who would not understand
On one hand I could stay and be your loving man
But the reason I must go is on the other hand

In your arms I feel the passion, I thought had died
When I looked into your eyes I found myself
When I first kissed your lips I felt so alive
I’ve got to hand it to you girl, you’re something else

But on the other hand, there’s a golden band
To remind me of someone who would not understand
On one hand I could stay and be your loving man
But the reason I must go is on the other hand

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#346 BEETHOVEN SIX VARIATIONS ON “NEL COR PIU NON MI SENTO”

#346

BEETHOVEN

SIX VARIATIONS ON “NEL COR PIU NON MI SENTO”

ELLY NEY, PIANO
HELMUT ROLOFF, PIANO

In 1788, the Italian composer Giovanni Paisiello wrote an opera called “La molinara”—the Miller-Woman—one of his 94 (!) operas. In it, there is a duet between a miller woman and her lover. The duet/aria is “Nel cor piu non mi sento”—In my heart I no more feel. The melody was so popular in the decades after its appearance that it was used as the basis for compositions by Paganini (for violin), Sor (for guitar), Silcher (for flute), and Bottesini (for double bass), as well as by Hummel, Wanhal, and Beethoven. The melody was also included in a book of vocal pedagogy selections by Alessandro Parisotti a century after it was composed, and it has had a place in the development of probably every classical singer in the world ever since then.

Beethoven was just 25 years old when he wrote his Six Variations for piano based on this lovely theme. It is now listed in his works as WoO 70. “WoO” is the designation in a composer’s works that indicates “work without opus number”—usually meaning the composer did not think the work worthy of publication for sale. Little did Beethoven know, of course, that the Six Variations would become part of every pianist’s growing-up years.

I was a fifth-grader in elementary school when I learned these variations. They have a special place in my heart since they were part of my very first public recital. But the fact that I—or anyone—became acquainted with these early in life—in childhood—in no way indicates that they are not to be taken seriously. They are quite lovely pieces, as you will hear.

I am linking to two performances of the set of variations, each about five minutes long. Pianists will probably appreciate these old performances. And, there is an interesting story for each of these players, both linking to World War II Germany.

ELLY NEY (1882-1968) was a German pianist. She had become one of Germany’s leading pianists by the time she was a young woman. She was a traveling virtuoso, playing the world over, specializing in the works of Beethoven. She joined the Nazi Party in the late 1930’s, participating in “cultural education” camps, and she was quite antisemitic. After the war, she was banned from performing in some German cities—especially in Bonn, Beethoven’s hometown. But eventually she regained her artistic footing with the release of many acclaimed recordings.

It might be that for some listeners there could be a knee-jerk reaction of not wanting to give her recordings the time of day, in light of her Nazi collaboration. But really, if we were to do that—if we were to exclude composers or performers based on their moral behavior and/or political leanings, we would find ourselves listening to far fewer works than we do. Ney’s performance of these variations is an attractive one.

HELMUT ROLOFF (1912-2001) is a pianist at the other end of the political spectrum from Elly Ney. Also a German pianist, he actively worked against the Nazis during the war as a member of the Rote Kapelle—the “red orchestra” was the name given by the Gestapo to the resistance group Roloff belonged to. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, but neither he nor his friends betrayed each other. After the war, he was a distinguished piano teacher at the Universitat der Kunste Berlin. His version of the Six Variations is a little more leisurely than that of Ney.

I hope you enjoy Beethoven’s Six Variations on “Nel cor” and that you’ve enjoyed this little dip into pianistic trivia.

Pics: Elly Ney, Helmut Roloff.

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#345 WALKER BROTHERS TWO HIT SONGS

#345

WALKER BROTHERS

MAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF
THE SUN AIN’T GONNA SHINE ANYMORE

From talking with other musicians, I know that their formative and most impressionistic years are the years of adolescence. I guess that should be no surprise. I think I was 13 or so when I realized that there was no time of day or night when I wasn’t hearing music in my mind. Perhaps this had been going for some time, and I just hadn’t been self-conscious about it.

I don’t know whether this experience is common only among musicians, but I do know that I don’t know any musician for whom this is not their daily experience.

One of my earliest memories of really appreciating this phenomenon was waking up in the middle of the night when I was in eighth grade, and while turning over and trying to go back to sleep, I realized I was hearing in my mind, just as loudly as if I had headphones on, “Make It Easy On Yourself”, the Walker Brothers first big hit song. At the time—and still today—I thought that Scott Walker’s voice was really beautiful, that he could make lyrics come alive with meaning.

Neither Scott Engel, Gary Leeds, or John Maus were born with the last name of Walker. When the California trio got together in 1964, it seemed right to them to go to England to try their fortunes there. Going against the prevailing trend of British groups making it big in America, they were an American group going to England–where they achieved great success, for a brief time outstripping the Beatles in popularity. They also underwent their name change: “Walker” meant nothing in particular to them, they just liked the sound of it. So, they became the Walker Brothers.

Although their success was overwhelming in Britain, it did not last long or translate into world touring. They group disbanded in 1968, with each person going his separate way. But these two hits were huge–and they have become forever implanted in my mind.

“Make It Easy On Yourself” was a Burt Bacharach/Hal David song that had first been recorded by Jerry Butler. It was given the full symphonic treatment by the Walker Brothers, replete with the Phil Spector wall-of-sound wordless-chorus backup.

“The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” was similarly first recorded by Frankie Valli, but the Walker Brothers version was far, far more successful. The wide appeal of the song, written by Bob Crewe, is evident in its “afterlife.” It has been covered by everyone from straight-laced Jay and the Americans to the punk gothic Kommunity FK. It was the recurring musical theme of the Alan Rickman movie Truly, Madly, Deeply.

My guess is that the Walker Brothers will be a good musical memory for a number of readers. But if the Walker Brothers are new for you, I think you will enjoy giving them a listen.

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