Category: Piano






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







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.

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








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.







Surely one of the most played pieces in all the piano repertoire is the third Liebestraum by Franz Liszt. Liszt was 39 years old when he composed a group of three Liebestraume—Dreams of Love. Originally cast as works for voice and piano, #3 became extraordinarily popular as a solo piano piece.

The poem which inspired the piece was written by Ferdinand Freliligrath. The English translation of the German is as follows:


O love, as long as love you can,
O love, as long as love you may,
The time will come, the time will come,
When you will stand at the grave and mourn!

Be sure that your heart burns,
And holds and keeps love
As long as another heart beats warmly
With its love for you

And if someone bears his soul to you
Love him back as best you can
Give his every hour joy,
Let him pass none in sorrow!

And guard your words with care,
Lest harm flow from your lips!
Dear God, I meant no harm,
But the loved one recoils and mourns.

O love, love as long as you can!
O love, love as long as you may!
The time will come, the time will come,
When you will stand at the grave and mourn.

You will kneel alongside the grave
And your eyes will be sorrowful and moist,
– Never will you see the beloved again –
Only the churchyard’s tall, wet grass.

You will say: Look at me from below,
I who mourn here alongside your grave!
Forgive my slights!
Dear God, I meant no harm!
Yet the beloved does not see or hear you,
He lies beyond your comfort;
The lips you kissed so often speak
Not again: I forgave you long ago!

Indeed, he did forgive you,
But tears he would freely shed,
Over you and on your unthinking word –
Quiet now! – he rests, he has passed.

O love, love as long as you can!
O love, love as long as you may!
The time will come, the time will come,
When you will stand at the grave and mourn.

Quoting the poem at length gives us an idea of the depth of emotion inherent in so much of art—music and otherwise—in the mid-19th century. And of course, it also shows the inspirational interplay between and among the arts.

I especially like the phrases: “And if someone bears his soul to you, Love him back as best you can” and “The time will come, the time will come, When you will stand at the grave and mourn.” We don’t HAVE to think these thoughts while playing Liebestraum, of course–or anything like them–but it’s instructive to know that Liszt was inspired by them.


The 5-minute piece is divided into three sections, each one separated by a fast cadenza requiring great technical skill. Vanessa Benelli Morell (b. 1987) is an Italian pianist with a wide-ranging repertoire and with the skill and emotional depth to play Liebestraum quite convincingly. Morell is equally at home in both the 19th and 20th centuries–she has already become known as both a Liszt and Stockhausen expert! She is also the featured artist in this month’s International Piano.

Personally, I find her attire–not just in this video–quite distracting. Like Yuja Wang, she wants audiences to look at her as much as they listen to her. But–her playing is magnificent.







Johannes Brahms was one of the major composers of piano music. There are many who would say that, aside from Beethoven, his works for piano were the most substantial (not necessarily the most numerous—that would be Liszt…) of the nineteenth century. That would certainly be true if we were speaking of works only in the Germanic tradition.

He composed two gargantuan and well-loved piano concertos, three very substantial sonatas, six very challenging sets of variations, and many large-scale chamber works involving the piano. ALL of his works for piano are still, and always will be, in constant play by pianists the world over.

After the composition of his Paganini Etudes, Opus 35, Brahms was never again to write a large-scale work for piano, instead writing—abundantly—smaller pieces. He wrote 55 of these, most often grouping them together—a certain number of pieces per opus number. Although one fairly often hears entire opuses played on recitals—say, Opus 119 (four pieces) or Opus 10 (four pieces)—each one of these 55 pieces stands very well on its own.

One of these groupings was his Opus 76 pieces—eight of them. One of the best-loved pieces from this set is the Capriccio in B Minor, a whimsical, playful piece in a gypsy style, reminiscent of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. Not flashy, but nevertheless requiring a fully developed technique, it is performed here by Gila Goldstein. Goldstein is chair of the piano department at Boston University and an active concert pianist, performing all over the world.

Not surprisingly, there are quite a few versions of the B Minor Capriccio on YouTube. Goldstein’s is from a live performance at a Manhattan church. I greatly admire her interpretation, and the full resonance of her piano was captured better than any other version.

I hope you have been enjoying these Piano Gems. Once one starts down this particular path, the riches are endless.







In his lifetime, the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz had not one, but four, self-imposed sabbaticals from playing in public. Always fighting depression, never admitting to his homosexuality, and extraordinarily sensitive to criticism in reviews, Horowitz—one of the great pianists in history—first stopped playing in public from 1936 to 1938, then again from 1953 to 1965, 1969 to 1974, and finally from 1983 to 1985. I have mentioned before in these posts that Tiraje and I were lucky enough to hear his third “comeback” recital in 1974 at the Metropolitan Opera House, which was quite a memorable experience.

I was still in high school when I bought the LP’s of his second comeback, at Carnegie Hall. Although the entire 2-LP set was wonderful, there was one piece that I kept returning to again and again—the Scriabin C-sharp Minor Etude. I had never heard it before. It was so hauntingly beautiful. I simply had to learn it myself. It was my first Scriabin.

Years later, in college, I became acquainted with—and fell in love with—Ruth Laredo’s Scriabin recordings. Meeting her in person—she was a close friend of my roommate—was a highlight of those years. Laredo’s and Horowitz’s Scriabin playing became the inspiration for my eventual doctoral thesis—on all 24 of the Scriabin Etudes.


The C-sharp minor etude is not an etude in the expected sense—it is anything but a technical whirlwind. Instead, it is an exercise in obtaining the appropriate dynamic balance between what is important and what is not so important, and in phrase-shaping and phrase-building. The most astounding fact about this etude—a work of extreme emotional depth and pathos—is that it was written by a 15-year old. It was, in 1887, one of the first things Scriabin ever wrote.

I chose Scriabin to write about and study—back in the day—for two reasons, both equally important. First, there was the beauty of his music. Scriabin was absolutely obsessed with Chopin as a young boy, sleeping with the Chopin Nocturnes under his pillow. Up to a certain point in his life, the titles and content of his works reflect this love—Mazurkas, Preludes, Etudes, Waltzes, Nocturne, and so on. It was after a certain point in his brief life—he died at the age of 43—that his music took a decidedly different direction. This coincided with his interest in theosophy, and a belief that he—and his music—were to play a messianic role in changing the future world. This—Scriabin’s philosophy of life as reflected in his music—was my second interest.


But, as always, one need not know any of this to plumb the depths of introspection to be heard in this Etude, so amazing for a 15-year old boy.

There is no lack of performances of the etude on YouTube. It is a very popular work, played either as an integral part of a recital or as an encore. My affinity for Ruth Laredo’s playing of this etude is so strong, though, that I cannot even imagine posting a different recording.

Pics: Scriabin as a young man. Ruth Laredo.







In much the same way that Mendelssohn composed 48 Songs Without Words, which were short piano pieces which were accessible to intermediate-level pianists—but sounded that much better in the hands of artists—so Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) composed his 66 Lyric Pieces. The Lyric Pieces were published in 10 volumes over a 34-year period from 1867 to 1901. The Nocturne (Notturno) in C Major from the Opus 54 pieces was composed in 1891 when Grieg was 48.

Opus 54 was the fifth book of the Lyric Pieces, and there are many musicians who consider it the best. Certainly, Grieg himself was fond of this opus, and of the Nocturne in particular. He had been experiencing some writer’s block in late 1890, and after an excursion to the Jotunheimen Mountains, he felt once again invigorated enough to compose. The six pieces from 1891 that comprise Opus 54 were the result. In two concerts that Grieg gave in 1891 and 1892, he performed pieces from among these six, including the lovely Nocturne. He even thought highly enough of the work to transcribe it for orchestra some fourteen years later, placing it among the pieces in his popular “Lyric Suite” for orchestra.

Grieg is not considered by most musicians to be one of the greatest composers—but he was certainly no slouch, either! If there is an honor being among the highest in the second tier of great 19th century composers—and there is—I think such a categorization would definitely include Edvard Grieg. Grieg’s use of harmony in the mid-section of this Nocturne presages is a pleasant, and surprising, harbinger of the harmonies that Debussy would soon be utilizing. I have read somewhere of Rachmaninoff’s very high opinion of Grieg, citing Grieg as the most substantial influence on his own writing. Rachmaninoff is quoted as telling pianist Arthur Rubinstein, that the Grieg Piano Concerto was the best concerto ever written—which is pretty high praise.

Like so many of the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, this beautiful and calming Nocturne from Edvard Grieg is but one of the Lyric Pieces that I’ll be posting from time to time as a Piano Gem.


I have mentioned before how lucky it has always felt, to both Tiraje and myself, to have attended Juilliard when we did and to have become friends with so many great artists. One friend from our Juilliard days is Janina Fialkowska. After a prize-winning performance at the 1974 Arthur Rubinstein competition, Rubinstein himself took her under his wing as a protégé, thereby launching a major career. Fialkowska has performed all over the world, and has an impressive discography, most notably of the works of Chopin. Rubinstein said she was born to interpret Chopin.

Fialkowska underwent a critical 18 months following the 2002 discovery a highly aggressive cancer on her left arm. She underwent a surgery that left her arm almost useless. But during her convalescence, she continued to perform all the repertoire that had been written for left hand—by Ravel, Prokofiev and others—re-writing all of that music for right hand only, an amazing feat by itself. She received rave reviews for these performances, and finally made a triumphant return to two-hand playing in 2004.

We have been lucky here in the Miami Valley to hear Janina perform in our area several times in the past decade. One would never know that she had ever had a problem.

Janina is Canadian and is now considered Canada’s Grande Dame of the Piano. This performance is from a 2013 CBC performance in Montreal.





OPUS 19, NO. 1


Felix Mendelssohn certainly had a melodic gift. Of the works he wrote for piano, the most cherished are his 48 Songs Without Words. Mendelssohn wrote them over the course of sixteen years, from 1829 to 1845 starting when he was 20 years old. They were published in eight books of six pieces each.

As I’ve noted before, the middle class in Europe in the early nineteenth century was growing both in size and prosperity. By the time of Mendelssohn’s brief life, many homes had a piano as the centerpiece of their house. Consequently, there was a huge market for piano music, particularly piano music that was accessible to the average player. The 48 Songs Without Words were ideal for such consumer consumption. They are playable by most players of average ability, yet they are also true masterworks in the hands of accomplished players.

By 1830, many composers were already writing short works for this insatiable market. But Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words were a cut above most of them in quality. His lyrical gift is evident in every piece. The songs seem to beg for actual words, and actual singers, to perform them. Mendelssohn resisted the constant begging from friends and admirers to do just that. It was the “indefiniteness” (his term) about the SWW that he felt was their strongest characteristic.

Mendelssohn was not as enamoured with giving titles to his piano works as was his good friend Robert Schumann. Of the 48 published SWW, he titled only about half a dozen—and three of these he gave the same title—“Venetian Boat Song.” Publishers, though, could not resist adding titles to many of the others. “Sweet Remembrance” was a title given to Opus 19, no. 1, and which is still included in many editions.

I’ll have occasion to return to the Songs Without Words for other piano gems. This is the very first one of the forty-eight. Listen to it twice and you’ll be humming it the rest of the day. Such a calm and happy melody.