Category: Piano

#424 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA IN A-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 26

#424

BEETHOVEN

PIANO SONATA IN A-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 26

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

Continuing our Beethoven Sonata survey…

Beethoven wrote the A-flat Major sonata in 1801 when he was 31 shortly after he composed his first symphony. The calmness of this sonata and the exuberance of the first symphony would seem to indicate that Beethoven was experiencing a peaceful time in his young life. The sonata was published in 1802.

When pianists think of Opus 26, they immediately think of its unusual form. Of the four movements, not one is actually in sonata form, the prevailing formal structure involving the development of two themes in a tightly regulated harmonic scheme. Each one of the movements, rather, is like a separate character piece. The pianist Angela Hewitt likens the sonata to a divertimento, which was a loosely gathered set of pieces that have no thematic relationship to each other.

The theme and five variations of the first movement are comforting, almost “religious,” as Beethoven’s prodigy Carl Czerny regarded them. The sparkle of the second movement scherzo is followed by a surprise funeral march third movement. Very ambiguously—and with no explanation—Beethoven subtitled this third movement, a “funeral march on the death of a hero.”

Chopin regarded the Opus 26 sonata as his favorite Beethoven sonata, playing it often and teaching it. (It would have been a relatively “new” work at the time, written just 30 years previously.) It seems likely that the part of the sonata that Chopin was most attracted to was the third movement funeral march. His own second sonata has a slow movement funeral march, which has become the most famous funeral march in all of classical music.

The fourth movement is very much like an etude, with running sixteenth notes throughout. Hewitt speculates that Beethoven was influenced into writing such an etude-like piece by his recent acquaintance with John Baptist Cramer, the transplanted German living in England who wrote many similar etudes for the purpose of finger development.

My personal feeling about not only Opus 26, but the sonatas of this period of Beethoven’s life—his late 20’s and early 30’s—is that his etude-like movements such as this one are really very much FUN to play. In Opus 26, Beethoven omits a flashy brilliant conclusion in favor of simply fading away.

As always—Richard Goode’s playing of Beethoven is exemplary.

Let me parenthetically say, in this post, that we are approaching the half-way point in the sonatas. I do hope that, in addition to reading and listening to these Beethoven sonatas here in Facebook, you’ll take the time at some point to visit my music-i-love.com site and click on the BEETHOVEN SONATAS on the right-hand side, which will allow you, should you desire, to listen to all the sonatas chronologically as Beethoven wrote them or in any other way that suits you. As I’ve mentioned before, the Beethoven Sonatas–along with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier–are considered to be the CENTRAL, indispensable portions of the entire piano repertoire.

Movement timings:

1st mov’t 0:00
2nd mov’t 7:39
3rd mov’t 10:17
4th mov’t 15:57

Pics: young Beethoven; John Baptist Cramer; theme of variations first movement.

 

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#421 SAINT-SAENS PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN G MINOR, OPUS 22

#421

SAINT-SAENS

PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN G MINOR, OPUS 22

FIRST and THIRD MOVEMENTS

VERDA ERMAN, PIANO
ISTANBUL STATE SYMPHONY
NEZIH SECKIN, CONDUCTOR

Back to 1868…like being in a time machine…

French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) was a genius. Because he was a musical prodigy, a career in music seemed inevitable—and that is exactly what occurred. In his long lifetime, Saint-Saens became one of the best-known and most-performed musicians alive. But he also distinguished himself in the study of French literature, Latin and Greek, theology, mathematics, philosophy, archaeology and astronomy. He was particularly drawn to astronomy. He could have made a career in any of these fields.

As a musician, Saint-Saens was primarily a composer, but he was also the organist at the magnificent church La Madeleine, the church of the Empire (where, among others, the memorial services of Chopin and Faure were held). His teaching career at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris was brief by choice—just five years—but it was substantial enough to hand down a revered legacy to his student Faure and Faure’s student, Ravel, both of whom regarded Saint-Saens as a genius of the highest order.

*****

Saint-Saens wrote five piano concertos. In a previous posting, we heard Saint-Saens Fifth Piano Concerto (Music I Love # 244), nicknamed the “Egyptian” after its exotic second movement. The “Egyptian” does not get played that often, although in recent years French pianist Jean Ives-Thibaudet has become a vigorous champion of the work. One hears much more often the Second and Fourth Concertos. And, of all five concertos, there is no real question that the one with the most immediate audience appeal is #2. Saint-Saens wrote it in three weeks (!) when he was a young 33 years old.

The outer movements of the concerto, in particular, are replete with the fireworks that one would expect from a composer who is also a magnificent virtuoso pianist. The first movement is dramatic and serious, the third movement light as air, but both require impressive technical abilities.

*****

Anyone reading my posts from the outset in 2017 will see that I have been delving deeper and deeper into Turkish music—music both modern and ancient, instruments both familiar and not so familiar, and performers both popular and classical. Obviously, being married to a first-rate Turkish musician—as well as having an extraordinary sister-in-law pianist—there have been some inevitable pro-Turkish musical influences on me. But Tiraje has never been one to push onto anyone her preferences or opinions (on anything). So, although she has always pointed out Turkish musical artistry to me, I find that I am only now hungrily asking her opinion about this and that music, this or that performer, and so on.

*****

Verda Erman

There is no lack of great modern classical Turkish musicians, and perhaps that is most true concerning pianists. One of the pianists that Tiraje has introduced me to recently is Verda Erman, a pianist with both amazing technical and interpretive abilities. I am posting her playing today because it is so noteworthy.

Verda Erman became a State Artist in 1971, the year the honorary title was created (a title also held by Tiraje’s siter, Meral). She toured extensively around the world as a guest musician after 1971. She enjoyed successful tenures in Belgrade, Paris, Montreal and Bucharest. Pianist Rudolf Serkin invited her to the Marlboro Music School and Festival in the U.S. state of Vermont. She continued to perform with the Turkish Presidential Symphony Orchestra as piano soloist on the orchestra’s European tours. Erman’s death in 2014 from leukemia was a real blow to the world of Turkish classical music.

In today’s links, you will hear that Verda Erman’s abilities are not quite matched by the Istanbul Symphony, good as that orchestra is. Nor is the balance between soloist and orchestra ideal. Nevertheless, from a pianistic perspective, this is an outstanding Saint-Saens Second, one of the best I have ever heard.

For me, listening to Erman’s playing is like being in a time machine. How easy it is to imagine, while hearing Erman’s playing, that you are actually there in the hall as the young Saint-Saens premiered his concerto, with the great Anton Rubinstein conducting. This is amazing playing of an amazing work.

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#418 RACHMANINOFF TWO ETUDES-TABLEAUX

#418

RACHMANINOFF

ETUDE-TABLEAUX IN E-FLAT MINOR OPUS 39, NO. 5
ALEXEI SULTANOV, PIANO

ETUDE-TABLEAUX IN E-FLAT MAJOR OPUS 33, NO. 7
SERGEI RACHMANINOFF, PIANO

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…

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#416 LUIGI DALLAPICCOLA QUADERNO MUSICALE DI ANNALIBERA (ANNALIBERA’S MUSICAL NOTEBOOK)

#416

LUIGI DALLAPICCOLA

QUADERNO MUSICALE DI ANNALIBERA (ANNALIBERA’S MUSICAL NOTEBOOK)

CIRO LONGOBARDI, PIANO

Twelve-tone beauty–not an oxymoron…

First off, let me apologize for all the references in my posts about my college years, whether at Juilliard in New York or at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati. I can imagine that they get tedious. Other musicians though, I know, can relate to their collegiate years as being, for them personally, like the blooming of a flower or maybe the process of metamorphosis in butterflies, a time of intense and rapid and exciting and unanticipated growth.

And so it was for me. For me, maybe even more so than other pianists I knew because—whether by nature or choice or the narrow scope of my music education prior to college—I was a musical conservative. As I entered Juilliard, I considered most music of the 20th century to be an aberration—a large and continuous but nevertheless real aberration, a mistake. Bela Bartok, for me—one of the pillars of 20th century music whose works will live on as long as music is performed—was a bridge too far for my consideration. You get the idea.

With my head firmly buried in the sand, I entered into my collegiate years. I would love to say that my “conversion” to openmindedness—and to seriously understand that music has its own evolution—was something that happened spontaneously. But it actually took some time.

By the time I was in my doctoral studies, I was no longer so stuck in this conservatism—no longer exercising that knee-jerk rejection to music that was in some way “different.” While at CCM, one of my required courses was Modern Piano Music—or some such title, I actually forget what the class was called—for all grad student piano majors. It was taught by Jeanne Kirstein, a woman with a lovely personality, a pianist with a national reputation as a modern music champion, and who looked (in my retrospective remembrance) like a less severe version of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s U.N. ambassador.

Although my stance toward the modern had softened somewhat, I let her know that I was hardly a proponent of serialism—the system of music composition devised by Arnold Schonberg in the 1920’s.

Serialism is one of the larger sub-topics in all of 20th century music. In a single post like this, laying out the particulars of serial music is neither necessary or possible, but the foundational fundamentals are important to know with regard to the Dallapiccola, so bear with me.

Serial music, in its initial and purist form, is music composition in which the form of a piece relies on the arbitrary arrangement of the twelve different pitches within the octave, C-C sharp-D and so on up to B, as a basis for a composition. These twelve tones can appear in any order the composer desires, so long as no pitch is repeated. That particular arrangement is then referred to as the “row” for the piece. The intervallic arrangement of the “row” can be then be inverted or the notes of the row can appear in reverse order (“retrograde”), and the composer is free to create chords using combinations of these pitches as the work progresses.

This is the briefest possible explanation of 12-tone music. Some musicians—like pianist and fellow composer Artur Schnabel—hailed 12-tone serialism as the greatest “spiritual breakthrough” in the history of music. Many others lamented it as being the death of art music. As it no longer relied on—indeed, it completely abandoned—harmony as it had been known, it was a totally different kind of music. “Atonal” music—with no harmonic centers, no aural markers or boundaries–seemed—again, not to all, but to many, including myself—to have taken a very wrong path.

The great Leonard Bernstein had written in his Joy of Music book that traditional harmony such as had been in existence for centuries was the NATURAL evolution of music and that he expected it to NEVER go away, regardless how long humanity existed. Serialism—12-tone music—seemed to put a dagger in the heart of that kind of philosophy.

From our perch here in 2019, I think it is correct to say that serialism will ultimately be regarded as a lengthy but temporary phenomenon in art music.

*****

But to return to my Dallapiccola. So, I had let Jeanne Kirstein know about my aversion to twelve tone music. She said she would like for me to learn Luigi Dallapiccola’s Quaderna Musicale di Annalibera, a twelve-tone work, and play it for the class. I begrudgingly accepted the assignment. And I was very glad I did. Kirstein was very encouraging to me, telling me that, in spite of my predisposition against the work, I had given an exemplary performance and that I ought to consider going down that very broad road—which certainly had room for me–of modern piano music.

*****

The Quaderno is a work written by the Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola in 1952 as an “exercise book” (quaderno) and dedicated to his 8-year old daughter Annalibera. It is a work that, to my ears and I think in the ears of many other musicians, makes serialism not just palatable, but enjoyable.

The work is comprised of eleven brief pieces. I could list their names here, but they are all essentially musical terms that have no bearing on the emotional content of each piece. The work, in total, is dense but includes enough references to traditional harmony—as when, say, three pitches of a recognizable major or minor chord appear simultaneously or in quick succession—to help listeners—like I was, anyway—relate.

I am certain—very certain—that this piece will not appeal to the majority of my readers. But I do think that the Quaderno contains beauties that are there for us to behold if we allow ourselves to step “outside the box”—and that it will definitely make its mark in some listeners’ imaginations.

*****

Ciro Longobardi is one of the most highly revered pianists of 20th and 21st century piano music. He and his Ensemble Dissonanzen perform all over the world. He is professor of piano at the Conservatorio G. Martucci in Salerno, and has also taught at the Manhattan School of Music and the University of Chicago.

Pictures are Dallapiccola, and Dallapiccola with his daughter Annalibera.

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#413 SCRIABIN ETUDE IN B-FLAT MINOR, OPUS 8, NO. 11

#413

SCRIABIN

ETUDE IN B-FLAT MINOR, OPUS 8, NO. 11

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.

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#410 CHOPIN PRELUDE IN E-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 28, NO. 19

#410

CHOPIN

PRELUDE IN E-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 28, NO. 19

EVGENY KISSIN, PIANO

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.

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#406 BRAHMS PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 83

#406

BRAHMS

PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 83

EMIL GILELS, PIANO
CHICAGO SYMPHONY
FRITZ REINER, CONDUCTOR

The greatest piano concerto?

For a classical pianist, there are certain works that are so awe-inspiring that they are difficult to write about. Where does one begin? The inadequacy of words, the lack of effective metaphors, the paucity of comparisons to anything in nature—all are obstacles to speaking about such works.

Rather than make clumsy attempts at natural comparisons—the Brahms B-flat Concerto is the Everest of piano concertos, the Brahms B-flat is the planet Jupiter, the Brahms B-flat is the Amazon jungle, etc—all of which fall short—I’ll just say I consider it to be the greatest piano concerto. There are many, many other pianists who would say the same thing.

At 45 minutes in length, it is also one of the longest. There are, to be sure, concertos that are longer—Busoni’s and Furtwangler’s, for instance. But in terms of magical content, the Brahms B-flat is packed with beauties that other concertos lack.

*****

Warning: lengthy personal story to follow that has very little to do with the music!

I first heard the Brahms B-flat when I was a junior in high school. You may remember my habit, already acquired at that age, of reading record review magazines. This habit was not only so I could hopefully fill my life with qualitatively fine listening experiences, but it was also out of financial stinginess—I knew I could only spend whatever money I had ONCE on the recording of a given work, so it had to count. Consequently, it did not take me long to discover that the recording of the Brahms Second by Russian pianist Emil Gilels, with the Chicago Orchestra under Fritz Reiner, was highly regarded by many as the best of the best. I bought it.

For whatever reason, a strong first memory I have of the work occurred on an overcast, autumn Saturday morning. I had been listening to the record for the entire previous week, and I was out in the street, passing football with a friend. So strongly was the music going on in my head that I could only peripherally pay attention to catching and passing the ball. It was like I was sitting in the front row of a great concert by a great performer–while passing football.

I thought to myself, I hope that SOME DAY I’ll be able to play this great work. As it turned out, I did get that opportunity, but not exactly in a way I had hoped for.

Eight years after this football-with-Brahms morning, I was in the doctoral program at CCM at the University of Cincinnati. I had won the piano concerto competition playing the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto. In those days, the orchestra conductor, who would have been one of the judges of the competition, asked you what you would like to play with the orchestra, and whatever concerto you chose would be on a concert the following school year. I grabbed the chance to say the Brahms Second. He said fine, let’s plan on it next May—a whole year away.

That sounded great to me, it would give me plenty of time to learn and get comfortable with this behemoth of a work, perhaps playing it through with a second piano accompaniment dozens of times in preparation for the orchestral concert.

That contest occurred in May. I went to Istanbul during the summer to marry Tiraje. But after we were married, Tiraje had to wait three months before she received clearance to come and live to the U.S.—a standard wait time even in those pre-terrorism days. So, I arrived back in Cincinnati in mid-September by myself, thinking of course that I still had plenty of time to learn the Brahms.

By complete chance, in early October, I happened to glance at a calendar of events for the fall and saw that the conductor had moved the concert from May to early December, giving me just two months to learn the piece, which I had not even started on.

Needless to say, it was—for me—a gargantuan and tension-producing task. I found an opportunity to try the work out in late October in a South Carolina concert, and felt reasonably confident with it. As it happened, the very day I was scheduled to play with the orchestra was the day Tiraje, pregnant with Jason, arrived in Cincinnati, with all her suitcases and her cat, Peanut. It was a hectic day. The concert came and went, and was a good—and memorable—experience.

My experience of having to learn a challenging work in a short period of time is, by the way, in no way exceptional for pianists. It just happened to be MY particular experience.

*****

This is Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. The First was hardly less imposing. That one had been written in 1858 when Brahms was just 25. Although it has but three movements—compared to the four of the Second Concerto—it is also a lengthy work, demanding a lot from both the pianist and orchestra.

Twenty-three years went by before Brahms revisited the piano concerto form. By that time—1881—Brahms was known all over the western world as one of the greatest composers. The reception the concerto received at its premiere performance–with Brahms as soloist, of course–was overwhelmingly positive–just as it has been right up to the present day. Being the landmark of pianism and concerto-writing that it is, the Brahms Second, throughout its history, has attracted the finest pianists, playing at their very best. Concerts featuring the work are predictable sell-outs. Because of its length, the concerto is often either the entire first, or entire second, half of a program.

Just a couple of other remarks.

• Brahms thought of his concertos—two of them for piano, one for violin, and one involving both violin and cello—as being SYMPHONIC in nature. The natural evolution of the concerto had been such that the performance of a concerto appeared to be conversational to an audience—one felt that the soloist and the orchestra were two entities having a musical conversation: sometimes one would speak, sometimes the other, and sometimes both at the same time. But Brahms integrated the solo instrument into the very fabric of the composition. One could easily—and correctly—think of his concertos as symphonies in which a solo instrument is woven into the overall fabric. The piano and the orchestra are one.

• It cannot be overstated how great a pianist Brahms himself was. It is obvious from his compositions, as well as the historical record, that he was one of the greatest pianists of his day, from his late teens onward. He had it all—enormous power, the widest dynamic spectrum, agility beyond belief. His works—especially this concerto—demonstrate this truth. Octaves, trills, scales in thirds, huge fortissimos that must cut through the sound of a full orchestra, the tenderest pianissimo phrases played with the most legato touch—everything is here.

• Not that it is necessary to know, with reference to the B-flat Concerto, but Brahms’ style was essentially set by the time he was twenty. Early Brahms, late Brahms—it is all cut from the same cloth. The denseness of his harmony—eight note chords being not uncommon at all—and the presence, within the same composition, of drastically differing moods—the alternation of the martial with the tender. One hears these things just as much in his first pieces as his last.

*****

The work has four movements. As is so often the case with multi-movement great works like this one, it is not for me to suggest one movement over another. The majesty of the first movement, from its opening horn motive—the tumult of the second movement, with its incredible pianissimo (and fortissimo) octave passages—the lyricism of the third movement with its lengthy and beautiful cello solo, performed here by the great Janos Starker—and the grace of the fourth movement, which sounds light and breezy but is treacherously difficult to actually play—these are just the briefest descriptions of this work.

What I can tell you for certain is that everything I’ve said about the work falls woefully short of describing its glory.

1st movement 0:00
2nd movement 16:04
3rd movement 24:17
4th movement 36:21

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#405 DEBUSSY L’ISLE JOYEUSE

#405

DEBUSSY

L’ISLE JOYEUSE (THE JOYFUL ISLAND)

ANNA TSYBULEVA, PIANO

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:

A-B-C#-D#-F-G-A

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

A-B-C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A

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

A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A

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.

 

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#399 BACH GOLDBERG VARIATIONS

#399

BACH

GOLDBERG VARIATIONS

ANDRAS SCHIFF, PIANO

When thinking about Bach’s Goldberg Variations, it is hard to know where—what topic—exactly to start with. The significance of the “variation” in music history, a form through which composers showed their mastery of the compositional art over the centuries? A summary of the Goldberg Variations themselves, one of the peaks of the entire keyboard repertoire? The differences involved in playing the Goldberg Variations on piano as opposed to the harpsichord, for which it was originally written? Or the many significant recordings available of this major work?

Or, the place it occupied in Bach’s mind, whether it had any particular significance for him?

The Goldberg Variations are such a monumental work that each one of these topics could require its own separate post. Alas, I will have to settle on the quick summary method. 🙂

*****

The story that is most often associated and recounted, generation after generation, regarding how the composition of the Goldberg Variations came about goes like this:

A certain Russian ambassador named Keyserlingk often visited Leipzig while in Germany. Supposedly, on one of these visits, he brought along Johann Goldberg, a friend and harpsichordist who Bach already knew as a result of teaching him when he was in Leipzig. This Keyserlingk was not in great health and frequently had insomnia as a result.

His expectation from Goldberg is that when he (Keyserlingk) would have insomnia that Goldberg would play music on the harpsichord to soothingly lull him to sleep. Keyserlingk asked Bach if he could write something appropriate for Goldberg to play during these sleepless nights. Bach accordingly wrote a set of variations—a theme and 30 variations—for Goldberg to play.

It is amazing—to me, anyway—that this story continually gets repeated. It absolutely has to be untrue:

• This information comes, supposedly, from one of Bach’s sons (Wilhelm Friedemann) who supposedly related the story to Johann Forkel, Bach’s biographer. So, it is second-hand information, even if it Forkel did hear it.

• Forkel’s biography was written 52 years after Bach’s death, and 61 years after the composition of the Variations.

• Goldberg would have only been 14 years old at the time when the variations were composed. Even if he had been a competent harpsichordist, it is not likely he could have even played the Goldberg Variations, which is one of the most challenging keyboard works ever written.

So…the story is not too believeable. One wonders why has the “Goldberg” appellation has stuck like glue to these variations?

*****

What we do know is that Bach felt that this work was one of his very best, a creation he was proud of. Quite exceptionally for him, he had the work published—Bach did not ordinarily have his works published. Publishing was expensive. And, for a work of the complexity of the Goldberg Variations, Bach’s expectation would not have been that it would be widely performed. As he himself stated in the title page upon publication: “These variations are for composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits, by Johann Sebastian Bach.”

*****

Variations, as a form in which music was written, had already, in Bach’s time, been the conduit through which composers showed their true creative worth. Most often, a simple theme was written (or, as was often the case, “borrowed” from another composer or another composition of one’s own) followed by variations on that theme, each one increasingly complex. If the set of variations were long enough, the composer would also vary the emotional content and mood among the variations, giving the listener, at the conclusion of the work, the feeling of having been on something of an emotional journey. Such is the case with the Goldberg Variations.

They rank with other sets of variations as being near (or at) the pinnacle of keyboard variations. Among these would also be Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Brahms’ Handel Variations and Paganini Variations.

*****

The thirty variations on Bach’s “aria”—his theme—are a formidable challenge for the pianist. I say “pianist”—as opposed to “harpsichordist”—because that is the instrument the work is most often played on in our time. Purists—and there are plenty of them—insist that the work should only be played on the harpsichord.

Bach specifically wrote in the score that the work was to be played on a two-manul harpsichord. A “manual” was a keyboard—so, a harpsichord with two “manuals” had two keyboards. Each one of the keyboards would have had a certain timbre which would sonically differentiate it from the other—hence, the illusion of dynamics could be created. It is because certain of Bach’s keyboard works—the Goldberg Variations, the Italian Concerto, and a few others—have these dynamic possibilities vis-à-vis two manuals that we can infer that Bach wanted—desired—dynamic differences to be heard in his keyboard works.

Therefore, at least one reason for playing the Goldberg Variations on the piano is for the greater expressivity possible on the piano, with its infinite gradations of sound. Another reason, of course, is simply that the sound of the piano can project so much further into a performance space than a harpsichord. The use of the damper pedal in Bach—while not “outlawed”—so to speak—is not particularly necessary and is always used very sparingly. Legato—the overlapping of one key to another—is a characteristic of piano playing that was impossible on the harpsichord, and therefore, is opalso used sparingly in Bach (mostly in his slower pieces).

*****

So, with all this as an introduction to the Goldberg Variations, there is just one final thing to mention, and that is recordings. In a previous post, I have mentioned Glenn Gould, and the fame he acquired as one of the great Bach players of all time. He recorded every single keyboard work of Bach (I have those 50 CD’s and they are a treasure). He became internationally known overnight with his 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations. His reputation as a Bach player is so high that, to many, it seems like sacrilege NOT to use Gould as the shining example of any Bach work under discussion.

But, of course, there are many other great Bach players. One of them that I highly admire is Andras Schiff. As you will hear, his Goldberg Variations are a convincing and compelling interpretation, in a live performance.

There are a number of superb recordings of the Goldberg Variations available on YouTube. For a variety of interpretive stances, you may also want to check out:

Rosalyn Turick – a noted Bach specialist, from a 1957 historic and reflective recording

Daniel Barenboim – another amazing live performance

Glenn Gould – the fastest version on the planet!

Keith Jarrett – jazz pianist turned classical harpsichordist

One of my favorite harpsichord versions of the Variations is that of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, who shows his versatility as a classical musician here. YouTube only has the theme and a few of the variations available, but at least this can give you an idea of what this work sounded like to Bach himself.

Aria:

Variation #1:

*****

At an hour and twenty minutes in length, listening to the Goldberg Variations is an experience that requires some commitment. Even if you cannot afford the time to listen to the entire work, you will still gain an appreciation of this great keyboard masterpiece by simply listening here and there anywhere you choose.

Pics: Bach, Adras Schiff, Rosalyn Turick, Daniel Barenboim, Glenn Gould, Keith Jarrett

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#397 CHABRIER ESPANA

#397

EMMANUEL CHABRIER

ESPANA

ORCHESTRAL – DUO-PIANO – BALLET

ORCHESTRAL:
BBC SYMPHONY
LEOPNARD SLATKIN, CONDUCTOR

DUO-PIANO:
ROBERT AND TIRAJE RUCKMAN, DUO-PIANISTS

BALLET:
BALLET ZAMBRA, ANADLUSIA

ESPANA is Emmanuel Chabrier’s most famous orchestral composition. The fiery work is exemplary of the huge musical influence that Spain had on France during the entire 19th century. There are many who feel that French composers were actually the best composers of “Spanish” music: Bizet’s Carmen, Debussy’s Iberia, Massenet’s Le Cid, Faure’s Le pas espagnol, Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnol—and perhaps the most Spanish-sounding of all the French-connection composers, Chabrier’s Espana.

Interestingly, Chabrier (1841-1894) did not devote himself to music composition until he was 39 years old. His family had insisted on his going into a law career, and for over twenty years, his compositional activity was simply a peripheral, but meaningful, part of his life. In 1883, a few years after he finally abandoned all pretense of a law career, he took a vacation trip to nearby Spain. Overwhelmed with the vitality of the music he heard there, he returned to Paris and wrote Espana.

As a result of his having had no formal studies in music, Chabrier felt free, as a composer, to write as he pleased, thus paving the way for French modernism. He was greatly admired by the French heavyweights who followed him—Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Poulenc. Even Gustav Mahler declared Chabrier to be the “start of modern music.”

In the 1880’s decade, Chabrier was quite prolific, concentrating on opera, opera bouffe, and operettas, clearly seeing himself as a composer for the stage. His life was cut short at the age of 53 due to the effects of syphilis. In addition to his body of compositional work, Chabrier also left behind an enormous corpus of letters—nearly 1200 of them which give the reader a glimpse into French music history as well as simply being a fascinating glimpse of the times in which he lived.

Espana is one of the brightest of orchestral works. It is in the repertory of all major orchestras—except in Spain, where there seems, even to this day, to be shunned. Perhaps this has to do with some proprietary sense of “ownership” of the “jota” rhythm, one can only guess. It is an extremely popular orchestral work, traversing that bridge between “serious” and “pop” orchestral concerts.

The orchestral version of the work is here played by the BBC Symphony in Royal Albert Hall—what an incredible venue that is!—at one of the BBC Proms concerts in 2002.

Tiraje and I have loved and played Espana, in its two-piano version, for a very long time. Chabrier had, in fact, first envisioned the work for piano duet, only later being persuaded to arrange it for orchestra. This recording of us playing the work is from a 2000 concert. The video is a little dated.

As you might guess, with such a lively piece, Espana has been choreographed—hence, my inclusion of the link to Ballet Zambra’s wonderful performance.

ORCHESTRAL:

DUO-PIANO:

BALLET:

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