#344 SCHUBERT MOMENT MUSICAUX, OPUS 94, NO. 6

#344

SCHUBERT

MOMENT MUSICAUX, OPUS 94, NO. 6

ARTUR SCHNABEL, PIANO

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.

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#343 ROSSINI LA CENERENTOLA – “NON PIU MESTO”

#343

ROSSINI

LA CENERENTOLA – “NON PIU MESTO”

CECILIA BARTOLI, COLORATURA SOPRANO

There are many theories about why Gioachino Rossini—the greatest opera composer of his day, the composer of 39 operas, one of the most famous men in all of Europe, extremely wealthy due to his operatic success, the subject of salon conversations in every country—and who lived to be 76 years old—abruptly stopped composing at the age of 37. He had hinted at this intention to his friend Stendhal years earlier, saying he was hoping to retire at the age of 30!

Rossini had begun composing operas at the age of 14. By the time he was 21—with the appearance of his opera Tancredi—and then a few years later with his very popular Barber of Seville—he had already eclipsed all other living opera composers. His final opera, William Tell—from which everyone at the very least knows the famous overture—was written in 1829. And that was the end of the story, so to speak, as far as Rossini the composer is concerned.

Rossini was quite a gourmand, his girth becoming wider with each passing year. Perhaps it was due to health concerns (not documented) or political reasons—he eventually fled Italy to live (and die) in Paris—that he stopped composing. Or perhaps it was grief at his mother’s death, although this seems unlikely. No one knows for sure.

*****

One needs only to listen to any Rossini aria—from any of his operas—to understand why he was considered such a superlative composer. They are all full of vitality and require truly fine singers. Early on in his career, Rossini began writing out in his scores the ornaments that singers would utilize, not leaving to chance the improvisatory whims of the various primadonnas who would be singing his music.

La Cenerentola—Cinderella—was Rossini’s 20th opera, composed in 1817 when he was 25. He composed it in amazing twenty-four days. In the nineteenth century, La Cenerentola outshown even Barber of Seville. In its familiar fairy-tale plot, when Cinderella is finally reunited with her Prince Charming, the Prince offers his new bride the chance to pronounce sentence on her abusive stepfather and stepsisters. Instead of seeking vengeance, she forgives them, and then concludes the opera with the brilliant aria “Non piu mesta” — “No longer sad.”

You may from remember a previous posting (MIL #115) Cecilia Bartoli singing Vivaldi. In this Rossini aria, Bartoli is equally impressive. Can it be any wonder that so many in the music world feel she is the greatest coloratura soprano of all time? Hearing Bartoli sing arias like this one is an unforgettable aural experience. This performance is from a live Metropolitan Opera broadcast.

*****

Tiraje and I made sure we saw Rossini’s tombstone at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris when we were there. It was emotionally moving to see so many great composer’s graves there. Chopin, Cherubini, Auber, Bizet, Lalo, Duparc, Dukas, and Poulenc all resting in peace there! Bellini’s and Rossini’s remains were sent back to Italy from Paris at the request of the Italian government, but their tombstones at Pere Lachaise still remain…

Hope you enjoy Rossini and Bartoli. Although I’ve never “dedicated” a post before now, I’d like to dedicate this one to my beautiful wife, Tiraje, who is celebrating her birthday today. Like me, she is a long-time Bartoli fan.

Pics: Rossini, Bartoli, Rossini’s tombstone.

 

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#342 TERRY STAFFORD SUSPICION

#342

TERRY STAFFORD

SUSPICION

A penetrating one-hit wonder…

Terry Stafford (1941-1996) was a pop singer and songwriter. His claim to musical fame was his 1964 hit, “Suspicion.” The song had actually been recorded by Elvis in 1962, but Stafford’s cover of the song immediately rocketed up the charts. In April 1964, when the Beatles held four of the top five spots in the pop charts, “Suspicion” held fast at number three. It sold over a million copies and was awarded a Gold Disc by the RIAA.

Stafford had been born in rural Oklahoma, but went to Los Angeles at the age of nineteen, right out of high school, to pursue a music career. Success came very slowly. Only when he had the opportunity to record “Suspicion” did his fortunes change. He had been let go by A&M Records (Herb Albert’s production company) and was picked up by the newly formed Crusader Records. With a single person, Bob Summers, playing all the instruments (including an Ondioline, an electronic keyboard) overdubbed on top of each other, and with some further electronic tweaking in post-production, “Suspicion” became a great success.

Unfortunately, it was Stafford’s only real success. Although he continued to record and compose, he never again achieved the success which he had with “Suspicion.” He divided the rest of his life between Amarillo, Texas and LA, dying of liver failure in Texas at 54.

*****

1964 was a momentous year for me. It seemed like all the events of my young life that year were in Technicolor. I had won a 4-round national piano contest in Chicago involving players my age from all over the country, I was about to “graduate” sixth grade and go on to junior high school—in a different building (!) with hundreds more kids, which I felt would inevitably be really exciting—I had developed a passionate interest in building radios, and the Beatles were the talk (literally) of the world—certainly of my world. So it is with crystal clarity that I remember listening to “Suspicion” on my newly built crystal radio, with its antenna strung out my window to the nearest telephone pole.

Although I could not have verbalized it at the time, the musical elements of “Suspicion” were (and still are) quite pleasing. The alternation between the tonic and minor sixth chord, the jazzy off-beat trumpet playing in a muted fashion, the unity of the backup singers, the rhythmic use of triplets in a duple meter song. Plus, there was Stafford’s voice, which so many people have thought was actually Elvis. His voice certainly had a warm and appealing timbre.

Definitely a pop song I loved.

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#341 GRIEG HOLBERG SUITE, OPUS 40: SARABANDE

#341

GRIEG

HOLBERG SUITE, OPUS 40
SARABANDE

BERLIN PHILHARMONIC
HERBERT VON KARAJAN, CONDUCTOR

Extraordinary beauty in honor of an extraordinary man…

Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) was a writer, a playwright, historian and philosopher. He is claimed by both Denmark and Norway as theirs—he lived in Copenhagen during the dual monarchy of Denmark and Norway. He was the leading Scandinavian intellect of the time, a humanist and Enlightenment thinker. He is now regarded as the founder of both Danish and Norwegian literature as well as one of the great scientific theorists of the 18th century. He lived a life of simplicity, never married, never had children.

Edvard Grieg honored the memory of Holberg more than a century after Holberg’s death with “From Holberg’s Time.” This was a suite of five pieces, originally written for piano and then later arranged by Grieg for string orchestra. The pieces sought to replicate, in music, the dance forms that would have been popular in Holberg’s time. The dances have become known as The Holberg Suite.

Grieg wrote these pieces in 1884 when he was 39 years old in celebration of the 200th year of Holberg’s birth. The version for string orchestra, a little over 20 minutes in length, is extremely popular. And within the set of five pieces, the second one—the Sarabande—is an extraordinarily appealing work. A sarabande was a slow and stately dance—the most dignified and expressive of all the dances of any suite of dance pieces.

This performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, is superb. Karajan’s control and shaping of phrases, the balances he creates, and his tempo—ideal and perfectly maintained—all work together for a wonderful aural experience.

I can’t help injecting my enthusiasm for this work—the emotional peaks Grieg reaches at 2:06 and 3:39 are the kind that make you glad you were alive to experience them.

Pics are Grieg, Holberg, and Karajan.

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#340 LISZT LIEBESTRAUM #3

#340

LISZT

LIEBESTRAUM #3

VANESSA BENELLI MORELL, PIANO

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:

LOVE AS LONG AS YOU CAN

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.

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#339 GREEN DAY BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS

#339

GREEN DAY

BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS

To say that I have an in-depth knowledge of punk rock would be a gross overstatement. My “knowledge” of punk rock has been acquired coincidentally, gained through accidental exposure to just a handful of songs, one of which is “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day.

Punk rock was a genre of rock music that developed in the mid-1970’s, faded in popularity, and then had a resurgence in the 1990’s. Green Day was part of this resurgence. The music of punk rock, both early and later, was characterized by a return to basics—stripped down instrumentation, hard-edged melodies, anti-establishment lyrics, and extreme simplicity of musical design. Participants—musicians and audiences alike—often adopted a certain kind of appearance—leather, spiked hair, heavy eye make-up and so on. Collectively, punk rock musicians were attempting to re-define rock music to exclude sentimentality

Boulevard of Broken Dreams was a song from 2004. I remember scoring a lot of points with one of my Sinclair classes—comprised of twenty kids in their late teens—when I mentioned my fondness for this song at some point during that school year. I was “cool” for the moment.

As all music-lovers know, your own state of mind often dictates what music you are going to listen to. I suppose this is a psychological self-affirmation of “this is the way I feel right now.” As it happens, I just found out that my car—the one involved in last week’s crash—was declared a total. The car was new, only a month old, the result of searching for exactly what I wanted until I found it. But the cost of the repair was truly eye-popping and with no guarantee that there would be no future problems. The frame had been bent… So now I’ll start the car search all over again, the financial calculating, the loan acquisition, the insurance and BMV visits, and so on.

So the grittiness of this song, the repetitive refrain, the self-pity of the lyrics—somehow this music has surfaced in my mind.

I should also say, though, that I have loved this song, for musical reasons, from the first time I heard it, when I was obviously in a fine mood.

Green Day is comprised of Billy Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool. They are a Berkeley, California band. It was with their seventh album, American Idiot, that they were really propelled to fame. They have subsequently won five Grammys, and quite a number of other honors. The stage adaptation of American Idiot—which itself is a rock opera—won two Tony Awards.

Green Day was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility, 2015. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” from their American Idiot album, was the Grammy Record of the Year for 2004.

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#338 BRAHMS CAPRICCIO IN B MINOR, OPUS 76, NO. 2

#338

BRAHMS

CAPRICCIO IN B MINOR, OPUS 76, NO. 2

GILA GOLDSTEIN, PIANO

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.

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#337 SCRIABIN ETUDE IN C-SHARP MINOR, OPUS 2, NO. 1

#337

SCRIABIN

ETUDE IN C-SHARP MINOR, OPUS 2, NO. 1

RUTH LAREDO, PIANO

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.

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#336 GRIEG NOTTURNO, OPUS 54, NO. 4

#336

GRIEG

NOTTURNO, OPUS 54, NO. 4

JANINA FIALKOWSKA, PIANO

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.

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#335 MENDELSSOHN SONG WITHOUT WORDS, OPUS 19, NO. 1

#335

PIANO GEMS: MENDELSSOHN

SONG WITHOUT WORDS
OPUS 19, NO. 1

MURRAY PERAHIA, PIANO

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.

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