Category: Piano






(Images: Diego Valezquez “Portrait of the Infanta Maria Theresa”–the young Ravel–Winnaretta Singer, the Princess de Polignac.)

An early masterpiece…simplicity and magic

A pavane was a very slow processional dance that was common in Renaissance Europe. When Ravel was 24 years old and still studying at the Conservatoire de Paris under Gabriel Faure, he wrote the Pavane for a Dead Princess for solo piano. It is the earliest masterpiece among his compositions for piano.

The piece was not meant to be a tribute to, or evocation of, a particular princess. Rather, it is meant, as Ravel himself said, as “an imaginary remembrance of a pavane that a little princess [infanta] might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court.” Ravel had a passion for all things Spanish, as did a number of other French greats—Debussy and Chabrier among them. The 1659 painting by the great Spanish artist, Diego Valezquez—Portrait of the Infanta Maria Theresa—served as inspiration for Ravel’s Pavane.

An interesting sidebar to Ravel’s Pavane has to do with its dedicatee, who herself was a princess—but not by birth.

At the time he wrote the Pavane, Ravel had a patron in the person of Winnaretta Singer, the American-born heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune. Singer had one of the more unusual lives of anyone living in the era. She was lesbian, but married—twice—to French princes. The first of these princes discovered her lack of interest in men on their wedding night. The second marriage–to Prince Edmond de Polignac, a gay composer—was amicable and happy—a so-called “lavender” marriage between a gay man and a lesbian. It was somewhat coincidental, therefore, that Ravel dedicated the Pavane for a Dead Princess to an actual princess.

The Princess de Polignac’s salon was the heart and soul of Parisian artistic activity, a breeding ground of creativity. Ravel, Debussy, d’Indy, Faure, and Chabrier all wrote works that were first performed there. Literary talents gravitated to her salon as well. Proust’s evocations of Parisian salon life were all first experienced at the de Polignac salon.

She used her enormous wealth to support and encourage a great number of musicians and composers—Stravinsky, Satie, Poulenc (she commissioned his Concerto for Two Pianos), Kurt Weill, and de Falla. She was a patron and supporter of Isadora Duncan, Jean Cocteau, Claude Monet, Sergei Diaghilev, Colette, Nadia Boulanger, Clara Haskil, Dinu Lipatti, Arthur Rubinstein, and Vladimir Horowitz. Hers was truly the centerpiece of artistic endeavor in Paris from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries.

I did not mean to write more about de Polignac than Ravel, but it is all very interesting…

Ravel’s Pavane, being six minutes long, is often played as an encore. A communicative performance of it will leave an audience spellbound. Its simplicity, and Ravel’s luminous harmonies, are its magic.

Ravel orchestrated the Pavane some 15 years after writing it for piano. Both versions are popular. But many people—including myself—prefer the intimacy of the solo piano version, which I am linking to here.

Bertrand Chamayou (b. 1981) is a French pianist. His interpretation of French music is superlative. This is a fine performance of Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess.







Some random thoughts about Mozart…

It is always so easy to project backwards in time, upon the lives of certain great composers, a 2018 sensibility—even if we have no intention of doing so. Since we cannot help but view everything—our own existence, the cosmos, everything that has gone before us—through the lens of our own time, it is inevitable that we will also do so when thinking about many of the great composers.

So I find myself, when listening to the Mozart piano concertos—or any Mozart, actually—frequently catching myself and remembering what it may have been like for him, what his orientation to his own life and time was, and how different that may have been from what we might think about it, if we simply give in to a knee-jerk reflexivity and imagine certain “modern” things about him.

My posting today of K. 449—we’re well past the half-way point in listening to the 21 solo concertos—dates from 1784. Mozart had just turned 28. He would live only another 7 years—not, of course, that he knew that. The recording of sound in the late 18th century was, of course, impossible. It may have been someone’s fantasy, but even that is not likely. Music was written for immediate consumption, and once performed, was not likely to be performed again. The age of ticketed concert series had not quite arrived—concerts were arranged by the church or by a particular court where a composer might be employed. Since Mozart had neither one of these situations during the last ten years of his life in Vienna, he had to arrange his concerts himself.

We’ve already observed how he would take his fortepiano—not yet the heavy, iron-laden thing it would ultimately become, but rather a wooden instrument with detachable legs that could be moved around from place to place via a carriage. He would take his instrument to the large home of a patron or some other important person, and perform his concertos with other musicians, serving as both conductor and piano soloist.

So, there were no concert series, no managers to secure a “booking” for performing in front a large and receptive audience. No adulation or back-slapping—no “way to go, Wolfgang, THAT was some concerto!”

There was also very little, in the minds of pre-Beethovenian composers, in terms of thinking about posterity—that is, how their creative work would fare in—and what it might mean to—future generations. In this regard, things were pretty zen in the art music world. One lived for the day, for the moment. Music playing (for the performers) and music appreciation (for the small-ish audiences that Mozart would have played for) were things that occurred in the moment, so to speak—remembered for a short time by the composer/performer, and forgotten very quickly by those in attendance.

There were no conservatories, brimming with brilliantly talented performers eager to learn your concertos. The age of the concert pianist, who performs a collection of works by other composers on a single concert program, was still decades away. If you composed, you performed. If you didn’t perform, your works would never be heard. Your very transient goal was simply to obtain that next performance of your work, to be heard by someone who might be able to make a NEXT performance of your NEXT work possible.

Although Mozart, when thinking about his operas, would have envisioned them as occurring in large theatres or halls designed for such a purpose, that would not have the case for his concertos—especially being, as he was, the first free-lance composer, someone who had to “make it” by his own ingenuity and through the people-connections that he could acquire. If he had been presented the opportunity to perform one of his concertos in a hall such as we are familiar with today—on a large proscenium stage, with 2000 or more seats, with the furthest seat being, say, 200 feet away–I imagine his first (and instinctive) thought would be that his instrument—the fortepiano—would simply not be heard very well in such an environment! His piano concertos were, musically, much more intimate affairs than we, as seasoned present-day concert-goers, might imagine.

These are some of the things I think about when listening to Mozart concertos. His world was quite removed from the world of classical music as we experience it in our century.

One of the reasons I got to thinking about this anew today is that I knew that, with K. 449, the E-flat major concerto, Mozart suddenly became quite self-conscious about his own work. From this work on, until he died, he kept a meticulous record of his works, arranging them in chronological order, marking dates of completion, writing down the themes of individual movements, and so on. We don’t know exactly why he did this. I think the likeliest guess would be that he wanted to keep a musical diary. And perhaps—perhaps—he was beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, there might be some interest in him after his life was over. As it turned out, this “musical diary” has been quite valuable to biographers and musicologists.

And just one other thing, as I ramble on…Biographers of composers seem to always want to divide a composer’s life into three parts—early, middle, and late—even if the composer in question died young. It is not the most logical way of thinking about a composer’s work. I happened to become very OCD about Mozart about 15 years ago, attempting to learn all the details, musical and historical, about each of his 626 works. I’ve probably spent more time listening to “early” Mozart—say, everything he wrote up to his late teenage years—than most people. And one thing that is very interesting—and one aspect of this concerto, K. 449—is that there are MANY little turns of phrase, many harmonic progressions here in K. 449 that are totally identical to similar passages that he wrote in his earliest works—as a child.

Obviously, this kind of thing is true in every composer’s works—one recognizes stylistic similarities among any composer’s works, from beginning to end. (Well, not so true, I admit, for Stravinsky, but he was pretty exceptional…) The only reason I am mentioning this is that there exists, in the minds of many musicians, a prejudice concerning Mozart’s early works—that they are in some way inferior to his later works. When in fact, they are all cut from the same cloth. One just has to see the cloth in its entirety.

OK enough soapboxing…

I had also wanted to suggest ways of listening to music for non-musicians who know nothing at all about musical forms, keys, and so on. This post is already lengthy, so I’ll save that for the next Mozart concerto. WAM wrote three in a row, as we’ve seen he sometimes did—and K. 450 and 451 will be next up.

K. 449 is an extremely beautiful concerto, regarded by many music lovers as their favorite. Murray Perahia’s performance is exemplary. K. 449 is considered to be the first of Mozart’s “mature” concertos—obviously, a subjective designation, but one which reflects the care that he lavished upon each movement.







There are, among the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, a number that have acquired nicknames—monikers that have become permanently associated with particular compositions and by which everyone now knows them. By my count, there are 12 of these. 12 out of 32.

Beethoven did not intend for a single one of these sonatas to have a “nickname.” They were, each one of them, simply compositions that were reflecting the next stage, the next page, in his creative life. Nevertheless, because of the nicknames, most listeners know these twelve sonatas better than the other twenty—twenty sonatas that are equally interesting, equally beautiful and each one of which moved Beethoven’s compositional evolution forward.

Just for the record, here are those nicknames:

“Grand Sonata” Sonata #4, Opus 7
“Pathetique” Sonata # 8, Opus 13
“Funeral March” Sonata #12, Opus 26
“Moonlight” Sonata #14, Opus 27, No. 2
“Pastoral” Sonata #15, Opus 28
“The Tempest” Sonata #17, Opus 31, No. 2
“The Hunt” Sonata #18, Opus 31, No. 3
“Waldstein” Sonata #21, Opus 53
“Appassionata” Sonata #23, Opus 57
“a Therese” Sonata #24, Opus 78
“Les Adieux” Sonata #26, Opus 81A
“Hammerklavier” Sonata #29, Opus 106

I briefly mentioned this phenomenon when we looked at Sonata #4 in E-flat major, the lengthy and impressive “Grand Sonata”—the sonata that Czerny, Beethoven’s assistant, felt was much more deserving of the title “Appassionata” than the work that actually came to bear that nickname. Nicknames can be handy for us, that is true. But I would wager that the above sonatas, collectively, are listened to far, far more than all the others. And that is certainly true of today’s sonata, the Opus 13 sonata in C Minor—the “Pathetique.”

When we looked at the Opus 10, No. 1 sonata, we saw how Beethoven favored the key of C Minor for compositions that were tragic, full of passion, and profound. The “Pathetique” sonata is another one of these C Minor works that expresses extreme passion and emotion in what I think of as being reminiscent of Greek tragedy—sorrowful and full of pity, life viewed through a tragic lens.

The word “pathetique” refers to this feeling of tragedy—not, as English speakers might presume, pathetic. There are other music works with this same appellation—notably Tchaikovsky’s Sixth and final symphony. Beethoven wrote this sonata in 1798 when he was 28. Many musicians regard the “Pathetique” as the culmination of Beethoven’s first period. Interestingly, there are still some sources today which say that Beethoven DID indeed pick and prefer the “pathetique” label. But in fact, it was his publisher who added the words “grande sonata pathetique” to the title page of the first edition.

It is true that Beethoven could have had the words removed—and did not—so perhaps there is a case for his at least acceding to the sonata being “pathetique.”

The work is in three movements. The first movement, which starts out quite slowly—and is marked “Grave” or “serious”—is no doubt one of Beethoven’s most well-known themes. It is as tragic as music can get. The whole movement is full of sturm und drang. A side note of interest (to me, anyway, and probably to most pianists) about Beethoven’s rhythmic notation is that fairly often in his piano works, Beethoven includes extremely small note values when attempting to “get it all in” in certain measures. It is not uncommon at all in other composers of the time to see eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and even thirty-second notes in their rhythmic notation. But in Beethoven, one often sees sixty-fourth notes, and even, as here in the “Pathetique” beginning, some hundred twenty-eighth notes. This kind of writing would typically occur in his slow movements, some of which appear at first glance—because of the presence of these small note values—to be massive blobs of ink—in which single measures stretch out into two staves of music!

Perhaps you may have been a listener to Karl Haas’s excellent “Adventures In Good Music.” AIGM was a syndicated daily radio program of classical music, expertly presented by Haas. AIGM had a 37-year run and was the most listened-to classical radio program in radio history. It was so popular that it was even kept going for two years—in reruns—after Haas’s death in 2005 at the age of 92. I was a great fan of AIGM. AIGM used as its theme music the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique.” It has become—and not because of AIGM, of course—one of the best-known melodies Beethoven would ever write. It is eminently hummable! Pop composer Billy Joel even used the theme as the chorus in one of his songs, “This Night.”

Finally, the restless energy of the last movement—when combined with the outstanding preceding movements—are obvious reasons that, of all the Beethoven sonatas, this is the first one that “caught fire” and established a fair amount of contemporary fame for the composer. It was a work that he himself played—if not in public, then for close associates—for the rest of his life.

Richard Goode’s performance, as usual, is exemplary.

Movement timings:
1st mov’t 0:00
2nd mov’t 8:35
3rd mov’t 14:06







Image may contain: 7 people, people sitting, wedding and indoor

Painting: Chopin Playing the Piano in Prince Radziwill’s Salon by Hendrik Siemiradzki.

Waltzes were one of the pianistic genres that Frederic Chopin wrote in. These also included Nocturnes (Music I Love #144), Preludes (#283, #243, #215) Ballades (#187, #100, #44), Etudes (#161), Polonaises, Mazurkas, and Sonatas (#19). Among all the works he would write for solo piano, the Waltzes have an unequalled degree of elegance about them.

They were written for the salon, not the concert hall. They were not meant at all for dancing, they have no place in the ballroom. Rather they were written for the salon, for intimate performances for small audiences. Like many of the above genres, Chopin would write waltzes for his entire (too brief) life. His first waltz was written when he was 14, his last when he was 39—the year of his death.

Even casual music lovers are likely to be acquainted with one or two of the Chopin Waltzes, maybe without even knowing it—the so-called “minute” waltz in D-flat Major and the famous waltz in C-sharp Minor are probably the two best known. But, truthfully, all the waltzes deserve to be equally known and loved. Like the Nocturnes and the Etudes, there are no “weak” waltzes.

The exact number of waltzes that Chopin wrote is somewhat unclear. He only published 8 during his lifetime. Five more were published posthumously, and an additional five were published—when they were discovered—since his death, these without opus numbers. That brings the number to eighteen. Depending on the edition of them that one purchases, one will find anywhere from 14 (the minimum) to 18. In addition to these, there are an additional 18 that we know he wrote, but have been lost or are in the hands of private individuals, who have the legal rights to them. (Presumably, they were written as gifts and have been passed down generationally—although I am simply guessing at this.)

At the time of Chopin’s death, Opus 65 was as far as his published works were numbered. In the years immediately following his death, a number of other works—up to Opus 74—were published. After that, all works that were subsequently discovered were published as they turned up, but without opus numbers.

In writing this post, I was undecided about whether to simply post a single waltz—to give a flavor for the rest of them—or whether to link to quite a number of them. I’ve chosen to link to a number of them. Choosing a favorite waltz for me is simply ridiculous, not possible. My favorite Chopin Waltz is whichever one I happen to be listening to.

And I think you also will be happy with whichever one of these you click on…


One of the posthumous waltzes, given the kind of care and attention it deserves in a live concert by Grigory Sokolov.


I was so fortunate, when young, to be given a number of Chopin Waltzes to learn. This was my first. (But see below, Opus 34, no. 2.) And of course—needless to say—I could not then—or ever, of course—play this waltz as well as Evgeny Kissin! He is SO fine. This performance is an encore given after a concerto performance.

OPUS 18 “Grand Waltz Brilliante”

The brilliance of this waltz makes it a frequent program starter—or conclusion. Trifonov’s usual elegance.


I had the great pleasure of judging this young lady in a competition when she was just 10 years old. As soon as I possibly could, at the conclusion of the competition, I found her mother in the audience and inquired, “Ma’am, do you know how gifted your daughter is?” Her mother was totally gracious and smiling—“Yes, we just moved to New York from Hong Kong so Tiffany could study at Juilliard.” She was the youngest student there. This is from one of her Juilliard recitals, when she was a grande dame of 14.


This is a special memory for me in that it was actually the first waltz I played. It was in a simplified version for children, and I had no idea it was a waltz. It was titled and had an accompanying picture! “Stopping at an Inn on a Winter Evening.” It is lovingly played here by Valentina Lisitsa.


Another of the posthumous waltzes, played very elegantly by Dalia Lazar in a live concert.


Krystian Zimerman won the International Chopin Competition in 1975, so he is obviously formidable in the entire Chopin literature. Which is easy to hear here.


Yet another posthumous waltz, performed by—in many musicians’ opinion—THE great Chopin player of the 20th century, Artur Rubinstein. This waltz was written for Maria Wodzińska, to whom Chopin was once engaged–as a “goodbye” piece.


And another Chopin Competition winner–Garrick Ohlsson won the acclaimed competition in 1970. I have mentioned elsewhere that one of the greatest perks of all in attending Juilliard was getting to meet great players and performers who went on to be world famous—and always, for good reason. Garrick happened to be the best friend of my roommate, the late Edmund Battersby. I met him during my first month in New York, just after he returned from Poland and winning the Chopin Competition. He was always gracious, humble and interested in whatever YOU were doing. He has always been a class act, and as you can see, he is a giant of a man.


I think it is likely that if there is ONE Chopin Waltz that every pianist has played, it is this one. Its melodies, and the different character of its sections, are things that stay in an audience’s mind long after the concert is over. I probably don’t need to say that Sergei Rachmaninoff was not just a great composer or a great conductor, but he was also one of the 20th century’s great pianists.


I featured Eric Lu in another Chopin post recently. I really love this young man’s playing! He was born to play Chopin… The melody of this waltz, though written in the traditional time signature of a waltz (3/4), is nevertheless heard by the listener as though it was written in 2/4.







Is there a “most beautiful” Chopin prelude? I don’t know, is there a most beautiful flower? I do know that I personally favor the Chopin Preludes that are in major keys. A few months ago, I posted the “Raindrop” prelude in D-flat Major (Music I Love #215), and today I’d like to post my own personal favorite of the 24 preludes, the prelude in A-flat Major.

If you recall, Chopin wrote these 24 preludes with the same goal in mind that Bach had when he composed his Well-Tempered Clavier, which was to write a piece in every major and every minor key. In so doing, he arranged the preludes as they appear in the circle of fifths, presenting a prelude in a given major key, followed by another prelude in its relative minor key, which is easier to illustrate this way: C major-A minor, G major-E minor, D major-B minor, A major-F-sharp minor, and so on until he reached the end of the circle with F major-D minor. It’s hardly necessary to know this to appreciate any of the preludes, but it is interesting.

Chopin composed the bulk of these preludes in a disastrous summertime trip to the island of Majorca with his lover, George Sand. The disaster had nothing to do with her, rather it was the horrendously bad weather combined with the ostracizing the couple experienced there because they were not married. If ever there is a real-life illustration of a composer producing a sublime work in the midst of tribulations, I think the Preludes would qualify.

And this particular one, in A-flat major, is one that I find breathtakingly beautiful, so attractive.

Eric Lu was a competitor in the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. This is one of his performances from the third stage of the competition. As you can hear, he is an excellent musician, very communicative. I really like his performance.

Just a word about piano competitions. Going the “competition route” is—regardless of what one thinks of its merits–or lack of–has been the pathway for career success for pianists and other solo classical instrumentalists for decades. In the piano world, there are top tier competitions, such as the Tchaikovsky in Moscow, the Van Cliburn in Dallas, the Leeds in England, the Franz Liszt in Utrecht—and the Chopin in Warsaw. There are, of course, scores of other competitions, all of which seem to produce increasingly impressive winners all over the globe—and maybe especially in the United States.

But these “top tier” competitions are the standard by which the others get measured. Contestants must qualify, via recorded performances, to even participate in person in the preliminary round. All of these competitions have multiple rounds, in which the number of competitors decreases in each round, and the level of playing increases. There were five rounds in the 2015 Chopin competition. Perhaps it is not even necessary to say that EVERY competitor in the PRELIMINARIES is a major talent. By the time final rounds are reached, the level of playing—and the nerves of steel—are apparent for all to hear.

Eric Lu was the fourth prize winner in the 2015 Chopin Competition.







In the same way that many musicians automatically and immediately think of Bach and Handel when they think “Baroque”—those two composers towering over the multitude of other composers who lived during the late baroque era—we often think of just three names when thinking of the “Classical” era—Mozart, Beethoven, and Franz Joseph Haydn.

Of these three, Haydn would be the grand old master. He was Beethoven’s teacher during Beethoven’s critical twenties. And he was an older and helpful colleague to Mozart, for whom he had the greatest admiration. His largess of spirit was demonstrated when he told Leopold Mozart (Wolfgang’s father), “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute. He has taste and what is more, the greatest skill in composition.”

Haydn had stumbled into what many consider an idyllic life for a composer, becoming court composer at Esterhazy when he was 28 years old. The Esterhazy family was one of the richest in all of the Hapsburg empire. They had multiple palaces throughout Hungary, and lived, essentially, as royalty. Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, for whom Haydn was employed, was a music lover. Music played an unusually prominent place in his life and his affections. At the Eisenstadt palace—where Haydn was to be employed for the rest of his life–the prince had a glasshouse converted into a theatre in the palace park—just one performance venue that Haydn could choose from.

During Haydn’s years in the prince’s employ, his reputation as a first-rate composer, conductor, and teacher became well-known all over Europe. The prince had no problem with allowing Haydn to write works that were to be played elsewhere (most prominently, in London) and to go there to conduct them.

Haydn’s duties were to 1) continually compose works for performance in the palace theatre(s), 2) hire and fire all court musicians, 3) take care of all instruments—there was an in-house orchestra for which Haydn could compose, 4) archive all the music scores, and of course, 5) to perform and conduct. In his contracts, it was also stipulated that Haydn should know his place—that even though he was the third highest paid individual in the entire palace—indicating the value that the prince placed on him—he was still in fact a servant, and needed to dress and behave accordingly!

At Esterhazy, among the voluminous compositions that Haydn was to write were 52 piano sonatas and about a dozen piano concertos. The harpsichord was still the keyboard instrument of choice when Haydn began his work at Esterhazy, but by the time he composed his final piano concerto (this one, in D Major), the performer was given the choice of harpsichord or fortepiano. The concerto has become the most popular of all his keyboard concertos. It is a delightful work.

I have two memories associated with this concerto. It was the first piano concerto I ever learned. I would have been ten years old. I am certain my playing was not as refined as Sin A Ma’s in the exquisite performance I am linking to. But I always considered myself lucky to have had THIS piece be my entry into the world of piano concertos!

And secondly, I have mentioned my hobby—at one point, an obsession—of listening to shortwave radio broadcasts. About thirty years ago, I was tuning around the dial one night and came upon a particular frequency that I knew was used by Radio Austria. They were playing the most beautiful, heavenly piano concerto—articulately played, energetic, communicative, fun!—WHO and WHAT was this? For whatever reason, in that moment, I was hearing the Haydn D Major for the first time—however it came about, I had no idea what I was listening to. It would be, I suppose, meeting someone on the street that you hadn’t seen for a long time—but who you also hadn’t thought of for a long time—and only after engaging in conversation for a minute did you realize who you were talking with. It was a full thirty seconds before I realized what I was hearing—but those thirty seconds were so delightful that I’ve not forgotten them to this day.

Well, a long and self-indulgent story, sorry.

There are a number of fine Haydn D Majors on YouTube. I’m posting this one, though, not only because it features a young player, but because I think she captures the essence of Haydn better than the other versions I have heard. This was the first prize performance for Sin A Ma, a young Korean pianist, in the fourth international Franz Liszt competition for Young Pianists. She is really superb. She makes it easy for me to visualize Haydn himself playing this with his Esterhazy musicians. I have to say, I am also very impressed with this orchestra, comprised of young players from a Weimar performing arts high school!

Images are Haydn and the music hall at Esterhazy.

Movement timings:
1st movt – 0:00
2nd movt—8:42
3rd movt—15:50







Niccolo Paganini was the great violin virtuoso of the 19th century. He is only inadvertently the subject of this post, but what a colorful person he was! Born in 1782 in Genoa, his musical ability was quickly discovered and encouraged. Although he was equally fluent with both violin and guitar, it was for his violin playing that he became famous. His influence on all violinists was profound. He expanded violin technique well beyond what it had previously been.

In 1813, when he was in his early thirties, he began touring all over Europe, astonishing audiences everywhere. His compositions were all written as vehicles intended to impress listeners with his violinistic pyrotechnics. He was not known to be a good teacher—in fact, pretty much the opposite—but violinists and other composers learned very much about the possibilities of their instrument from his works.

One such work was his 24 Caprices, each one of which was designed to show the unlimited technical possibilities of the violin. The reason that classical pianists—who perhaps have never—and will never—hear a note of Paganini’s violin music—the reason pianists know about him is that he had a profound influence on Franz Liszt. As a young man, Liszt heard Paganini when he played in Paris, and this happening turned out to me very consequential for the history of piano music.

Liszt was taken by two things—#1, the extraordinary technical demands that Paganini placed on himself—and #2, he was impressed by the audience’s reaction to Paganini, the continual ovations and the outpouring of adulation. Liszt seized on this inspiration, and the rest was history: Liszt became the Paganini of the piano, expanding the way pianists and composers have thought about the instrument ever since. One cannot think of Liszt without simultaneously thinking of the technical difficulties involved in playing his music. And of course, to this day, playing Liszt impressively in public is almost a guarantee of a standing ovation.

The very last one (#24) of the Paganini Caprices, in A Minor, is, after all these years, still considered by many to be the most difficult work ever written for violin. It incorporates a simple and catchy melody that has caught the attention of many composers, only the first one of which was Franz Liszt. These composers have used this particular melody as the basis for some profoundly difficult-to-execute works. Liszt in his 6th (and final) “Paganini” etude; Schumann’s arrangement of all the Caprices, including #24; Brahms in his mind-blowingly (!) difficult set—actually two lengthy sets—of Variations based on the melody; and closer to our time, Andrew Lloyd Webber in his Variations, and Lutoslawski’s Variations for Two Pianos. Over fifty prominent composers, generation after generation since Paganini’s time, have composed works based on this melody. It has almost become a litmus test for a composer’s creativity, particularly as it relates to writing technically difficult works.

Perhaps the most beloved of all these Paganini-inspired works is Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody of a Theme of Paganini. Written in 1934, the Rhapsody is in fact the fifth and last piano concerto that Rachmaninoff would write. In 24 variations for piano and orchestra—a very tightly configured interrelationship—Rachmaninoff wrote one of the most beloved works of the 20th century. These 24 variations, played without interruption, nevertheless correspond well to what would be a traditional 3-movement concerto structure, with variations 1-10 being the “first movement”, numbers 11-18 being the second, and numbers 19 to the end being the third.

It is very possible that, at some point in your life, your heard the famous 18th variation—far and away, the lushest and most “romantic” variation of the bunch—in which Rachmaninoff simply turns the them upside down, transposes it into a distant major key, and fires away—you may have heard it in long-ago commercials for sets of “Classical Favorites”: “These great classical pieces will give you HOURS of pure listening pleasure, folks—ALL of the greatest classical music on just THREE long-playing records—EVERYTHING from Bach’s Air on a G String to Beethoven’s famous Moonlight Sonata to Brahms lovely Lullaby to Rachmaninoff’s piercing Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini—don’t delay, folks, this is a limited-time offer!”

Well, you might not remember those commercials, but I certainly do.

The concerto is certainly right up there with Rachmaninoff’s earlier Third Concerto in terms of technical difficulty. The different character and mood with which Rachmaninoff imbues each and every variation—making each one a separate and endearing piece—is quite impressive. The “Rach-Pag”, as pianist refer to it, has always been high up on the list of must-learn concertos for every player.

I’ve been lucky enough to hear the work many times in person, but for me—for Tiraje and me—the cream of the crop performance was by pianist Misha Dichter with the Cincinnati Symphony. Tiraje and I choose to sit within ten feet of the piano soloist in concerto performances (if possible) and Dichter’s performance was as inspiring as any I’ve ever heard, unforgettable actually. I can remember it now as if it just happened.

However, I think that opinion might have changed—in 2013, the year of the attached link—had I been ten feet away from pianist Steven Hough in this performance with the BBC Symphony. Don’t deprive yourself of hearing the whole work by heading for the 18th variation in order to hear it all by itself (it’s at 20:20)—but if you do, please make sure you come back to listen to the whole work. In my opinion, it is the fastest 25-minute concerto every written, so quickly does the time fly by! (Also, Hough’s comments in the interview which precede the performance are informative and very well worth listening to. As you’ll hear, he speaks about music with a naturalness that equals his playing.)

This is SUCH a great concerto, every listening experience to it is as good as one’s first! And this is a truly superb performance.

Images are Paganini, Rachmaninoff, Steven Hough.








Thus far, I’ve posted the first seven of the Beethoven piano sonatas—7 of 32, each one of which I can call a “favorite”. Beethoven wrote 5 piano concertos, in which the pianist performs as soloist with an orchestra. Of these, I can only say that 3 of them are favorites of mine—numbers 1, 3, and 4—music that has slipped into my subconscious mind forever, and those are the ones I plan on posting. Today, I’d like to start with the Third Concerto in C minor.

We have seen, in previous posts, Beethoven’s attraction to the key of C Minor and how the pieces that he chose to write in that key are universally dramatic, each one making emphatic, definitive “statements”. These pieces include three piano sonatas, his fifth symphony, the “choral” fantasy, and the 32 variations for piano. C Minor obviously must have had special psychological meaning, and special utility, for Beethoven.  The Third Concerto belongs to this particular group.

There is actually still some speculation about the exact year Beethoven composed the Third Concerto. For quite a long time, the year 1800 was the date given for its composition, but that date is now in question. We know that the piece was not premiered until 1803, with Beethoven himself as soloist—this, of course, simply being the way it was in those days: composers played their own works. The day of the concert pianist, who made a living playing the works of others, was still decades away. Because the work was premiered in 1803 and not published until the following year, there are some who feel that the year 1800 is simply too early, that Beethoven would not have waited three whole years until having the work performed.

But this little musicological quandary aside, the Third Concerto is as compelling a piece to listen to as anything Beethoven would write. It has always been my favorite Beethoven concerto. On a personal note, the Beethoven Third was the first concerto I ever played with an orchestra. And although the experience of playing any concerto with an orchestra is thrilling, I will always have special feelings associated with this exciting and dramatic work.

Mozart had developed the piano concerto into the major formal structure that it ultimately became. Beethoven picked up the baton, so to speak, and pushed the form well beyond anything Mozart had imagined. This is not a critique of Mozart, of course, it is just something that was inevitably going to happen. Regarding the Beethoven Third, there are a couple of things to note:

• Tuttis. The opening part of a concerto—and anywhere in a concerto where the orchestra is playing by itself—is called a “tutti”. Beethoven extended the length of the opening “tutti” of the third concerto to four minutes, underscoring the fact that his concertos were NOT simply vehicles for a pianist to shine as soloist, but were highly integrated orchestral/piano works. Brahms, in his First Concerto, would extend the opening “tutti” even further to four and a half minutes (or five if the orchestra is lacking vitality)—which feels like an eternity to the pianist who is just sitting there, waiting to enter. Brahms himself referred to his concertos as “symphonies for orchestra and piano,” so tightly integrated had the form become.

• There is a somewhat humorous story attached to the first performance of the Third Concerto. Composers in Beethoven’s time performed with the music in public. The day when doing this was seen in a negative light—when playing everything by memory while playing in public became de rigueur—would not occur until Franz Liszt’s time, some thirty years in the future. Turning the pages for Beethoven during the very first performance was Beethoven’s friend Ignaz von Seyfried, who later wrote: “I saw almost nothing but empty pages; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set it all down on paper.”

Annie Fischer (1914-1995) was a Hungarian pianist, one of the great pianists of the twentieth century. She had won the International Liszt competition when she was just 19 years old. A Jew, she fled Hungary for the safety of Sweden during the war years, returning to Hungary in 1946. Her playing was greatly admired in Europe, and she performed with all the great conductors. She was reluctant to make recordings, feeling that any recording made without the presence of an audience would be artificially constricting. Nevertheless, her recordings of the entire set of Beethoven sonatas, made over a period of 15 years, are one of the treasures of classical piano recordings.

This video of her performance of the Beethoven Third has deservedly been praised ever since its first appearance, which I believe is from some time in the 1950’s. There is a depth of feeling and simplicity of interpretation in her playing that I find really appealing.

Images are Beethoven and Annie Fischer.








Autumnal magic…

If it seems like I have, in my Music I Love blog, posted a disproportionate number of works by Brahms, that is because, from my mid-teen years onward, I gravitated to the music of Brahms like iron filings to a magnet. I am powerless in the grip of his music. So, here is yet another Brahms entry…

I think, when considering the works of any composer, it is informative to think about the context of their life when listening to their compositions, especially when we have—as in the case of Brahms—knowledge of every move he made and every thought he had. Is this kind of “contextual” consideration actually necessary for appreciating his—or anyone’s—music? Absolutely not. But it does provide us with an added dimension—an extended vantage point—that can give us an even deeper appreciation.

Brahms was 60 years old when he composed 20 short pieces—short meaning each piece is less than five minutes long—which we know as four consecutive works, Opus 116-119. If one doesn’t mind playing the role of armchair psychologist—which, clearly, I don’t—these twenty pieces are a kind of summing up of Brahms the composer—kind of a last will and testament—as in “I hereby bequeath these pieces to posterity—this was ME”. At this point in his life, Brahms:

• was the most respected composer in the world, a position he held from the age of 35, when he composed his German Requiem (MIL posts #103-107)

• had absolutely no need for fame and notoriety, which was, incidentally, a lifelong characteristic of the man

• had no need for money—although the honors that had been bestowed on him during his life had made him a rich man, he lived in a small apartment in Vienna—with a bust of Beethoven on the piano and a framed picture of Bismarck on the wall serving as inspiration—and he kept his money in a closet into which he would frequently dip in order to give money to this person or that organization

• was beginning to experience a troubling decline in his health

• had never married, but had a fierce platonic love and friendship with Clara Schumann that was as deep as any love—nevertheless, we do know that Brahms struggled with loneliness and depression in (what turned out to be) his final years

• was well aware that what we associate with the Germanic traits of composition—organization of materials, grounded in functional harmony and a reverence for form—were gradually disappearing in favor of chromaticism and formal ambiguity—perhaps he had the insight to see himself, and to regard himself, as something of a musical dinosaur—the Tyrannosaurus Rex, but nevertheless a dinosaur (this is where the armchair psychologizing—which amounts to guesswork—comes in)

But, as I’ve said, we need know none of these things to appreciate the beauty of these last piano pieces of Brahms. And they were the LAST piano pieces he would write, even though he lived another four years. Compared to the dimensions of his other piano works—the many sets of variations, the sonatas written early in life, and the two gargantuan piano concertos—the pieces of Opus 119 are humble—cottages now instead of palaces.

“Intermezzo” was a catch-all term that Brahms used for many of his piano pieces. He disdained descriptive titles, finding them to be ultimately meaningless, as well as imposing on listeners a kind of imaginary straightjacket. The first three pieces of Opus 119 are intermezzi, all deeply introspective and expressive. An oddity about this entire group of twenty pieces (Op. 116-119) is that the very last piece of the bunch is an extremely extrovertive Rhapsody—as though to put an exclamation point on his body of work written for piano.

#1 As though to reach out to the future of composition, Brahms wrote this dreamy and–at times, as in its very beginning–harmonically ambiguous piece. Although there are other contenders for “most dreamy Brahms piece”, this would be near the top of everyone’s list.

#2 Another poetic and compressed statement. The piece is in an A-B-A form. If you listen carefully, you will hear that the melody, which is clearly delineated and in a minor key (E Minor) in the first “A” section” is simply transposed into a glorious major key (E Major) in the “B” part—before returning to its melancholy appearance in the final “A” section.

#3 Brahms at his happiest.

#4 Rather unusual, Brahms writes a significant part of this virtuoso piece in five-bar phrases, as opposed to the more expected four-bar or eight-bar phrasing of his time. Because of the piece’s character, it is thought—but hasn’t been proven—that this was a piece that Brahms had composed earlier in life, but had withheld it from being published, waiting for the right time—perhaps here, as the final piece of Opus 119—for it to appear.

In an earlier post (MIL #23), I featured another one of these late pieces, the intermezzo in A Major from Opus 118, performed by Radu Lupu, who is, I feel, an ideal interpreter of Brahms.

Pianists will know the experience of listening to many of the great pianists play certain works that they themselves are familiar with, and in many instances, being dissatisfied. “He plays it THAT fast”? “She thinks THAT is being expressive?” “Has he actually LOOKED at the score?” Etc.

My feeling about Lupu’s Brahms is that he is always spot-on correct, very natural, very true to the composer—a real conduit for Brahms. Whether this actually means that he is, or whether I am just looking into a musical mirror seeing what I wish I looked like, I don’t know. But I think these are great performances.

Images are Brahms and Radu Lupu.








Robert Schumann wrote these eight piano pieces in 1837 at the age of 27. They were inspired by the stories written by E.T.A. Hoffmann, who I’ve previously mentioned as being the source of Schumann’s inspiration for his large piano work, Kreisleriana (Music I Love #150). Schumann dedicated these Fantasy Pieces to an accomplished and attractive young (18) Scottish pianist, Anna Robena Laidlaw, who he had recently met and who, it is presumed, was the reason he started composing again after experiencing four months of compositional writer’s block around this time.

For anyone who closely follows the life story of Schumann, this occurred at the very same time Schumann was involved with Clara Wieck, his eventual wife and one of the century’s great pianists—who was also 18 years old in 1837, nine years younger than Schumann. I don’t know what this says about Schumann, or if it says anything at all. I’m just reporting the facts.

Long before Freud and the psychological concepts he set out became commonplace, Schumann was well aware—from a very early age—that there seemed to be two distinct personalities that were continually being expressed in the music he was composing. He even gave names to them—“Florestan” and “Eusebius”—with Florestan representing the passionate, aggressive extrovert side of his personality, and Eusebius representing the dreamy, subjective introvert. In the Fantasy Pieces, these two personalities take their places in the respective pieces, sometimes simply alternating within individual pieces. Schumann was about as explicit, concerning these two sides of himself, as he ever would be, in his description of the Fantasy Pieces:

#1 Des Abends – In the Evening. Schumann only titled this piece after it was complete—a common practice for him. He intension here was to introduce Eusebius, who he saw imagining the dusk.

#2 Aufschwung – Soaring. Quite obviously this is Florestan at the height of his passions.

#3 Warum? – Why? Here, Eusebius reflects on the passionate excess that Florestan has just displayed in Augschwung.

#4 Grillen – Whims. One of my students happens to playing this right now, and we observed the other day how UN-whimsical the very Teutonic opening of Grillen is! Florestan is out in front throughout, with Eusebius making casual observations here and there.

#5 In Der Nacht – In the Night. “Passion together with nocturnal calm” is a good description of In the Night in which Eusebius and Florestan both appear.

If you don’t know the Greek myth of Hero and Leander, I think it’s worth commenting on: in it, Hero is a priestess of the goddess Aphrodite. She dwells in a tower on the European side of the Hellespont (the Dardanelles in modern-day Turkey), a straight of water narrowly separating the continents. Leander falls in love with Hero the first time he sees her, and swims across the water every night to be with her. Hero lit a lamp in her tower each night to give Leander the “all-clear” signal. The swim would have been, minimally, at least one mile. Leander persuades, after some resistance, Hero to make love with him. “Their trysts lasted through a warm summer. But one stormy winter night, the waves tossed Leander in the sea and the breezes blew out Hero’s light; Leander lost his way and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him.”

As we already observed in Des Abends, Schumann only thought up the title—and the association—of In Der Nacht after the fact, after the composition had been completed. But it certainly gives us an idea of the young Schumann’s way of thinking.

#6 Fabel – Fable. Again, a wonderful juxtaposition of Eusebius and Florestan.

#7 Traumes Wirren – Dream’s Confusion. Here, more than any other piece in the set, Schumann’s almost schizophrenic mind is audible: the dreamy Eusebius is simultaneously mixed in with the passionate Florestan. The work is rhythmically very intense.

#8 Ende vom Lied – End of the Song. Schumann regarded this final piece as being a mix of wedding bells—presumably Florestan—and funeral bells—presumably Eusebius.

There is in fact a ninth piece that is seldom played and did not make it into Schumann’s “final cut” of the Fantasy Pieces, just fyi.

These are really wonderful pieces, which can quickly become earworms—wait, what IS that I am humming?—that kind of thing.

Yeol Eum Son is a Souht Korean pianist, now 32 years old and living in Germany. She appeared as piano soloist with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 18, and has a string of competition successes, most notably being the silver medalist in the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition. This performance of Schumann’s Fantasiestucke is taken from the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition. I find it extremely expressive, one of the best I have ever heard. Here are the timings:

0:00 Des Abends
3:16 Aufschwung
6:36 Warum?
8:08 Grillen
10:51 In der Nacht
15:02 Fabel
17:55 Traumes Wirren
20:29 Ende vom Lied

Pictures are Schumann and Anna Robena Laidlaw.