Category: Piano Gems






I’ve had occasion to write about the Rachmaninoff Preludes in previous posts. They are 24 pieces, one in each major and each minor key, covering a vast amount of emotional territory, each one of which has very exacting technical demands for the performer. At least half a dozen of these are of the “greatest hit” variety, works that are firmly entrenched in the fingers of most pianists and in the aural memories of millions of listeners.

Also among Rachmaninoff’s works for piano are two books of Etudes-Tableaux, his Opus 33 and 39, a total of 17 etudes. Almost without exception, the technical challenges of the etudes-tableaux are a cut above the preludes. These are virtuoso pieces.

Rachmaninoff wrote the eight etudes that comprise the Opus 33 etudes in 1911 at the age of 38; he wrote the nine etudes that comprise Opus 39 in 1917.

I thought it might be interesting to contrast two of them, one in the most tragic of keys—E-flat minor, from Opus 39—and one in the most triumphant—E-flat major, from Opus 33. The links I have chosen are pretty extraordinary.


Although it may be difficult for present-day music lovers to understand, being accepted as a serious composer—a composer with musical ideas that had depth and “meaning”—however that is defined—was an uphill climb for Rachmaninoff. Much of his early piano music was regarded as being for the salon. A typical representation of the place Rachmaninoff held in Russian society prior to the 1917 Revolution is shown in the movie Doctor Zhivago in a scene where Rachmaninoff is playing his music in a salon in Zhivago’s in-laws apartment. (In the scene, Zhivago and his father-in-law leave the house-recital to go outside for a smoke, the inference being that coming and going from a salon recital was a barometer of how meaningless the event was.)

But Rachmaninoff’s etudes-tableaux were absolutely meant for the concert stage, and made it clear that Rachmaninoff was a contender.


Opus 39, no. 5, E-flat minor

Several years ago, the British classical music magazine Gramophone published an excellent article on Rachmaninoff, written by Bryce Morrison, from which I am quoting:

“The sticking, and now tipping, point surely lies in Rachmaninov’s unapologetic emotionalism, a quality dear to the Russian soul but one viewed with suspicion and even distaste by a more academic and circumspect mentality. Rachmaninov is now no longer exclusive to Russia but is performed by pianists of virtually every nationality – even the French have erased their once snobbish disdain. Yet if Rachmaninov’s Romantic rhetoric and deep-dyed melancholy are central to Russia, it must be said that even Sviatoslav Richter, Rachmaninov pianist par excellence, shied away from the emotional storms of Op 39 No 5, declaring, ‘Although I love listening to it I try to avoid playing such music as it makes me feel completely naked emotionally. But if you decide to perform it, be good enough to undress.’

If proof of Rachmaninov’s stature were needed it would surely be provided by the Etudes-tableaux, Op 39, his second book of studies and a notable advance in richness and complexity on the earlier but very attractive Op 33 set. Completed in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution and the time of the composer’s enforced exile, they mirror a dark and clouded ecstasy…”

This E-flat minor etude has become, over the past century, a measuring stick of the technical prowess of many, many piano competition contestants. The turbulence of its storm and the darkness of its melody involve audiences from its first notes.

Alexei Sultanov was a Russian pianist from Uzbekistan. His story is pretty tragic. At the age of 19, he won the eighth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He was the youngest competitor in the competition. Part of the Cliburn prize involves performances around the world along with career management opportunity. Sultanov did not need to prove himself further after this win, but he made headlines again in 1995 at the International Chopin Competition. The jury awarded no grand prize, but offered Sultanov second prize, an award he rejected, feeling he should have won—a verdict that many others held—he was certainly the people’s choice.

In 1996, at the age of 27, he suffered what turned out to be his first stroke. He was diagnosed with blood clots in the brain. He suffered a second stroke onstage while performing in Tokyo. A third stroke in 2001 left him only able to play piano while in a wheelchair. Another stroke finally killed him in 2005.

This particular performance is from the 1989 Cliburn competition, which he won.


Etude Opus 33, no. 7 (The Fair)

I remember the first time I heard this etude was in a piano competition I was involved in. It was performed by a girl I knew—who ultimately won the contest—and as soon as I heard her last notes, I knew I had to learn the piece. What starts out sounding like a military march turns, by the last page, into a wonderful cascade of showering sounds. It is a great encore piece.

The moniker “tableaux” was an indication—from the composer himself—that he had been inspired by certain things—paintings, people, events, and so on—for the composition of each piece. He purposefully kept these associations to himself—like Chopin, he was dead-set against the idea of forcing upon listeners extra-musical associations. Nevertheless, when he was asked to allow the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi to orchestrate five of his etudes-tableaux, Rachmaninoff shared with Respighi certain information about the etudes. This particular etude reminded Rachmaninoff of a festive fair—and it certainly sounds that way.

This link is absolutely fascinating. First of all, it is of Rachmaninoff himself playing. It is yet another of Zenph Studios re-creations of original performances, taken from piano rolls, transferred with microscopic precision to a Yamaha Disclavier, and then—via their own software—superimposed with a colorful visual image of the work as it is played, with important notes given a larger appearance and different colors than less-important notes, and with time values accordingly indicated by size. The clip is both aurally and visually mesmerizing.

Two etudes-tableaux of Rachmaninoff…






The etudes of Scriabin hold a special place in my heart. Back in the day, I did my doctoral thesis on the Scriabin Etudes. My choosing them to write about and to play was an outgrowth of the love I had acquired for Scriabin in my undergrad years, listening to as much of him as possible as well as reading everything I could find about him. (Faubion Bowers 2-volume biography of him being at the top of any Scriabin must-reads list.)

I have to say that it was also Scriabin’s non-musical life—the way he thought, the things he thought ABOUT—and the way these things—his mysticism, his theosophical leanings, his grandiosity, his friendships, his fascination with color and synesthesia—the way these things were ultimately reflected in his music that held my constant attention.

When I return to Scriabin again in these posts, I’ll be talking about his five symphonies, each one of which I find compelling. But Scriabin, in spite of his substantial output of orchestral music, will always be associated with the piano.

As an extremely sensitive and impressionable young boy, Scriabin slept with the Chopin Nocturnes under his pillow. So strong was his identification with Chopin that the vast majority of his compositions for piano bear the same titles as Chopin’s work—Nocturnes, Preludes, Etudes, Mazurkas, and so on.

Scriabin had a relatively brief life, dying at the age of 43. Those who write about composers invariably divide a composer’s work into three periods regardless how long the composer actually lived, and this holds true for Scriabin as well. A more accurate accounting of his works, I feel, would be to divide them in half: the first half ending with the Fifth Piano Sonata, the second half with the Tenth.

Nevertheless, when thinking about the Etudes, they do indeed to have a threefold feel. The first set of 12, Opus 8, were written in 1894, and are as close to Chopin as any of his Etudes would be.

The second set of 8, Opus 42, were written in 1903, and reflect what many would consider to be Scriabin’s “beautiful” period—my term actually, but what I mean is that the piano music of these years was harmonically rich, gorgeous, and rhythmically challenging. Cross-rhythms—the apposition of groupings of, say, five notes per beat in the right hand against groupings of two or three in the left hand—were an intrinsic part of Scriabin’s style. They give a kaleidoscopic effect to all his piano works.

The three etudes of Opus 65, written in 1912, are of a completely different order —one might say Scriabin had left earth altogether by then. The first of these etudes is written entirely in parallel 7ths, the second one in parallel 9ths, the 3rd in parallel 11ths. Since he was no longer thinking harmonically in the traditional sense, these etudes produce what, to our unaccustomed ears, seem like dissonance upon dissonance.


I’m mentioning these highlights of the etudes in their entirety to give context to the one I am posting today—Opus 8, no. 11. The Opus 8 etudes—most of which are etudes in the literal sense, meaning they challenge the player in some area of his technique, often requiring virtuosity—also contain several piercingly tender works that would fall more into the category of lyric pieces. One of these, and one of my favorites, is #11 in B-flat Minor.

As I said, there is a strong Chopinesque streak that runs through Scriabin’s early works. It is as though we are hearing Chopin through another genius’s ears. When Scriabin would combine the melancholy he identified with in Chopin with an unavoidable Russianness—he was, after all, Russian through and through—the result is a piece like this etude. It is a deeply soulful work—as though one is remembering sad events from long ago—comprised of unending melody in a harmonic framework that is always, however slowly, moving ahead.

I woke up today hearing this piece in my mind’s ear. I’ve been playing it recently, and I guess that’s why. It is the kind of work that stays with you forever.

I looked through many performances on YouTube until I found one that I think best reflects what Scriabin was after, both in tempo choice and phrasing. Gordon Fergus-Thompson, a British pianist, has obviously lived with this piece his whole life, and we are the beneficiaries of that.

Pics: a young Scriabin, pianist Gordon Fergus-Thompson.







I have mentioned in other posts of selected Chopin Preludes how the composition of these 24 gems came about—the disastrous trip that Chopin and George Sand made to Majorca in order to restore his health but which ended up nearly killing him—the shunning of the two, who were not married, by the local populace—the tiny piano that he had hauled up to a deserted farmhouse where they had to reside while the unending torrential rains poured down and upon which he composed the Preludes—etc.

All of these exquisite pieces are short. The longest, the one in D-flat Major (nicknamed the “Raindrop”), is just four and a half minutes long. Many of the Preludes are not much more than a minute long.

But these are pretty special minutes.

In writing 24 Preludes, Chopin covered every major and minor key—12 major, 12 minor. The arrangement of the 24 published preludes involved going around the circle of fifths and concurrently placing the relative Minor key after each Major key: C Major—A minor; G Major—E minor; etc. In writing such brief pieces, it is as though Chopin cut through every possible extraneous thought and cut right to the core of his creative imaginings. Listening to each one is like walking through a door into a stunningly beautiful landscape. They take your breath away.

In my prior postings—of the D-flat Major, A major, and A-flat major—I suppose it became evident that I have a preference for the major key preludes—the odd-numbered ones. Number 19 in E-flat is one of those. I think you will find that giving a minute of your day to this work is a very profitable time investment.

Another obvious choice in many of my piano postings involves the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, whose playing here is so crystalline, so evocative of Chopin’s beautiful soul.


Just as an aside: Chopin, as you know, died young, at the age of 39. He had suffered—greatly—with “consumption”—which modern-day medicine has retroactively labeled tuberculosis—from his late teens. Aside from his music, it was the other leitmotif of his life—EVERYTHING in his life had to be planned around it. The photo of Chopin in this Prelude clip—which is only one of two actual photographs taken of Chopin—was taken two months before he died. One can almost feel the pain he was in, looking 15 years older than his actual age. In the entire history of piano music, it is one of the standout photos.







There is a lot to think about when considering L’Isle Joyeuse, yet another of Debussy’s great piano pieces and one I have loved since I first learned it in high school—it’s been a lifelong love.

I’ll start with the biographical stuff and move from there into the music.


Debussy’s love life was complicated. Perhaps he is, in retrospect, a psychologist’s dream study—why would anyone feel the need to behave as he did, etc? Or perhaps he was, at bottom, just a selfish, unfeeling cad, momentarily attracted to this beauty and that—like a butterfly moving about the flowers in a field.

Just to recount his primary involvements: Debussy spent his late teens and twenties with Marie Vasnier, a singer. She was his age, and much younger than her husband. She was Debussy’s mistress; her husband tolerated the arrangement. Their relationship ended in 1890—Vasnier wanted a permanent relationship, and Debussy did not. He moved on, in time, to Gabrielle Dupont, a tailor’s daughter. They had lived together for nearly five years when Debussy suddenly left her for her best friend, Marie-Rosalie Texier. Debussy threatened to kill himself—very dramatically—if Texier—who was known as “Lilly”—did not marry him. And she did indeed marry him.

Their marriage lasted less than five years. Debussy was quite bored from the start with her lack of intellectual agility and musical inclinations. When he met the mother of one of his students—Emma Bardac—he fell in love—or lust or whatever it was—with her. Emma was everything Debussy thought he wanted in a woman: a “sophisticate, a brilliant conversationalist, an accomplished singer, and relaxed about marital fidelity.” Not long before Debussy met her, she had been the mistress of the composer Gabriel Faure.

This is where it gets a little complicated—for Debussy. And, this is where the L’Isle Joyeuse enters the story.

After seeing Lilly off for a visit to her parents in the French countryside, Debussy took off with Emma to the island of Jersey, which is near France but was considered an English possession, in the English Channel. While there, Debussy refined L’Isle Joyeuse, a piano piece he had previously been working on. He wrote a letter to Lilly, while with Bardac, making no mention of Bardac, but informing Lily that their marriage was over.

Lilly, upon receiving this letter, attempted to kill herself, lodging a bullet in her vertebrae, where it remained for the rest of her ruined life.

A classy guy, that Debussy.

Bardac and her husband divorced soon afterwards. But Debussy’s marriage to her did nothing to legitimize the relationship with her in the eyes of his friends or of French society. He lost the friendship of Paul Dukas, Maurice Ravel, and many others. Bardac’s family never spoke to her again.

Debussy’s marriage to Emma was not a happy one, but endured for the rest of his life.


The reason to relate all of this prior to addressing L’Isle Joyeuse is also a little complicated. Debussy took as his inspiration for L’Isle Joyeuse the Watteau painting, L’embarquement pour Cythère. This painting, one of Watteau’s most famous, depicts a group of revellers on the mythical island of Cythera in the Mediterranean, the birthplace of Venus, the goddess of love. One cannot tell, when looking at the painting, whether the couples are arriving or leaving the island. Are they just about to begin their time of love and merriment, or are they just concluding it? Underscoring the painting with even more ambiguity is the fact that the three pairs of lovers may simply represent the same couple, but at three points in their relationship—beginning, middle, end.

However one interprets this painting, what is important to note is that it meant something to Debussy, it was something he could personally relate to it.

I’ve noted many times in my posts that Debussy always gave titles to his composition. Sometimes these titles would be right up front—as in the case of L’Isle Joyeuse—and other times, at the very end of a piece, as in the Preludes.

But the importance of specific associations in Debussy’s music can’t be overlooked. There seems to be something very autobiographical about the L’Isle Joyeuse. While revising and refining the piece on the British island of Jersey, Debussy also opted for a British spelling in his title—”L’Isle” instead of L’Ile.


L’Isle Joyeuse was written in 1904. It is certainly a part of Debussy’s output that can be labelled “Impressionistic.” He thought about including the piece in his Suite Bergamasque, but eventually decided on publishing it separately.

The mood of L’Isle Joyeuse can suggest—to those imaginative enough—an enchanted landscape, where amorous instincts and dreams of love are fulfilled. Knowing what we know about Debussy, that may indeed have been his intention.

From an analytical point of view, I think it is interesting to see how Debussy went about creating this kind of imaginative playground, where opaque feelings eventually all come out into the sunshine, so to speak.

Debussy uses three scales to accomplish this:

First he starts with a whole tone scale. Whole-tone scales, with their inherent harmonic vagueness and distance from traditional harmony—were the métier of many Debussy compositions:


Then he eventually merges this whole tone scale into the Lydian mode:


And eventually, at the conclusion of the piece, he writes in a full-fledged major tonality:


This kind of compositional sleight-of-hand is one of the hallmarks of Debussy’s genius.


There are a number of very fine L’Isle Joyeuse’s on YouTube, some of them of real historical interest to pianists, such as those by Horowitz and Richter. One that I’ve come across that I find quite compelling is by Anna Tsbuleva.

Tsbuleva is a 28-year old Russian pianist who won the International Leeds Competition—only the second woman to do so in the competition’s history—just three years ago. She has accumulated “wins” of quite a number of other piano competitions as well. I find that she lets L’Isle breathe just the way it should—she lets the music speak for itself.


Some time ago, I started posting what I call “piano gems”—works that are around six minutes or less in length and are often played as encores at the conclusion of piano recitals. Although L’Isle Joyeuse could fall into that category—and although I am calling it a “gem”—I think it is actually more often played as an intrinsic part of a piano recital, either as a standalone work or in a grouping of Debussy pieces. It is just a more substantial piece, with a longer “story” to tell, than other typical encore pieces.

I hope you’ll enjoy Tsbuleva’s rendition of L’Isle Joyeuse.








I think that not many classical musicians, even pianists, are familiar with Hugo Reinhold (1854-1935). When this kind of thing happens—when a composer sinks into obscurity within a century after his life—it’s usually for good reason. There is probably not much substance there.

And, for all I know, that is basically true of Hugo Reinhold. There isn’t all that much known about him. He was an Austrian composer. He certainly had good pedigree, studying with the great composer Anton Bruckner and the great pianist Julius Epstein while growing up in Vienna. He lived in Vienna his entire life, teaching at the Akademie der Tonkunst. His works were apparently appreciated enough in his lifetime to be performed by the Vienna Philharmonic. So, he was probably no wallflower—composers in any time period had to be relentlessly self-promoting.

But, he is known now by just a handful of works. His most famous work for piano is his Impromptu in C-sharp minor.

As a young teenager, I remember first learning Chopin’s famous Fantasie-Impromptu, which is certainly, in the minds of many, one of Chopin’s greatest hits. Its mid-section was even made into a popular song, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” early in the 20th century. But Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu was among a handful (a very large handful, actually) of works that Chopin did not deem as being good enough to warrant publication. In fact, he specifically instructed his friends and students not to publish it after his death.

Fortunately, that request was ignored and the world has Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu.

In a case of obvious hero-worship, Hugo Reinhold composed HIS Impromptu, modeled on that of Chopin. Same key, same length, same exact form (a strict A-B-A—probably the very reason Chopin did not publish his—he probably felt it was lacking in originality).

Shortly after I learned the Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu, I was assigned the Reinhold Impromptu. I loved the piece and still do. It is quite exciting, and, like Chopin’s, has that requisite singing mid-section. I feel the piece gets short shrift.

Josef Raeiff, the renowned Juilliard teacher, had a strong affection for the Reinhold Impromptu. I wish more people today did. Because it is a suitable piece for up-and-coming piano wunderkinds to play, one finds a slew of clips on YouTube by various children playing it, from (it seems) age 5 on up. That’s kind of a shame because a certain amount of sophistication is called for in playing the piece.

Jungran Kim Khwarg, who has made a career of recording piano music that is off the beaten path, performs the Reinhold Impromptu the way it should be played, without any fuss or pretensions, with utmost clarity and not too fast—a fault of so many players of this piece.

I hope you’ll give this gem a listen.







Mischa Levitzky (1989-1941) was a Russian composer and pianist, actually from what is now Ukraine. He was something of a throwback to a previous generation, the pianist who is also a composer. As a very young boy, he gave his first piano recitals in Antwerp. His father took him, on a business trip, to New York City, and brought him to the attention of Walter Damrosch, one of the most well-known conductors and musicians of his time. Damrosch obtained a scholarship for the young Mischa at the Institute of Musical Art (now Juilliard). Upon graduation—at age 13—he went on to study at the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik under the composer Erno Dohnanyi.

Levitzkty concertized all over the world, touring the U.S., Asia, New Zealand, and Australia. He would often include in his piano recitals works that he had written or works that he had transcribed. He was the epitome of the Romantic era virtuoso. Levitzky died quite suddenly at the age of 42 from a heart attack.

There are a half dozen pieces of Levitzki that will always be performed, often as encores. Collectively, I suppose that they could be thought of as bon-bons, marshmallow pieces. But they are all quite charming, endearing even, as you will hear in The Enchanted Nymph. Levitzki’s elegance has always appealed to Tiraje, who first introduced me to his artistry.

This performance is by Jinsang Lee (b. 1981). Lee’s career took off after winning a string of competitions in thje early 2000’s—the Scarlatti Prize, the Hong Kong International Piano Competition, and the Concours Gaza Anda. He performs internationally now while also teaching at the Korea National University of Arts in Seoul.






Three minutes of melancholy…

As an adolescent pianist, I played only a couple of Rachmaninoff’s 24 preludes. In general, I was Rachmaninoff ignorant. It was not until I knew Tiraje, in our college years, and I listened to her Richter recording of the Second Piano Concerto—which she was wildly enthusiastic about—and which happened to also include a half dozen of the Preludes—that my eyes were opened to this incredibly rich corner of the piano repertoire. I remember like it was yesterday learning this B-flat Minor Prelude, along with a bountiful handful of others, in July of 1975 while home in Dayton during summer break. I would work—as a secretary!—I could type fast—in the mornings, and practice piano all afternoon. It was a carefree time, in retrospect.


Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, Opus 23 and Opus 32, cover all the major and minor keys, with a single prelude “representing” each of the 24 keys. I spoke a couple months ago here of the Opus 23, No. 10 Prelude in G-flat major, a prelude of heavenly beauty that I called “music to die by”—should one have a choice in such matters.

Another of my favorite Rachmaninoff Preludes is Opus 32, No. 2 in B-flat Minor. Rachmaninoff utilizes a siciliano rhythm as the “kernel” for the entire work, the simplest 3-note pattern, up and down, again and again, a slow swaying sad dance. There is no time in the work that you do not hear this three-note rhythm.

The pyrotechnics are here, of course—a characteristic seldom left out of Rachmaninoff piano works—but it is, as you will hear in the final measures, a piece of ultimate resignation. Rachmaninoff’s ability to build a complex and emotional structure out of a three-note motif is so amazing.

Richter’s recordings of just about everything—and did he ever record a lot!—are always noteworthy. His Rachmaninoff Preludes certainly have stayed in my mind.

I think this one will stay in yours.

Pics: a young Rachmaninoff, a lost-in-thought Richter.








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.














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.







Franz Schubert was not responsible for giving the title “Moments Musicaux” to six of his wonderful piano pieces. That was the fault of his publisher—who made two errors with such a title: the pieces are not moments—or miniatures—at all. Some of them, as we’ll see, could last at least six minutes. And, “Moments musicaux” is a corruption of what should have been, in French, “Momens musicals.” But, when the pieces were published in the summer of 1828, Schubert was already dying, and had no motivation at all to have the title changed.

The six pieces are among Schubert’s most attractive—which is really saying something. Number six in A-flat Major has always been one of my favorites. It is an otherworldly minuet, with so many harmonies of momentary richness.

As a barometer of artistic license—and of certain pieces withstanding a variety of tempi and still being enjoyable—one can find on YouTube many versions of this Moment Musicaux, varying from six to thirteen (!) minutes. I’ve chosen this one by Artur Schnabel (at about six minutes) because of the simplicity and straightforwardness of his interpretation. The recording, as you’ll hear, is over 80 years old, yet not sounding that old at all. Schnabel was known as THE great Beethoven interpreter of his day, but his Schubert was also outstanding.

Schnabel also had a penetrating intellect. His book, Music and the Line of Most Resistance, written in 1942, could have been written yesterday, an apropos commentary on the place of music in our modern society.

Poor Schubert, knowing he was dying, and still reacting to his inner compulsion to compose, compose, compose. He wrote more great music in the year 1828 than most composers wrote in their lifetimes. This Moment Musicaux is just a crumb from his table.