Friday, May 22, 2015

"The Art of" - the Creative Process in Different Forms...

Some years ago, I offered a number of blogs  citing  different forms of the Creative Process, including examples ranging from such  incarnations as the art of making contact with a baseball by way of the writings of Ted Williams;  model railroading;  making breads, such as chocolate or strawberry;  genius in making  war, such as the use of the Ardennes; the multifaceted powers of Albert Schweitzer, etc.
And so I thought, however belatedly, that I should project more material germane to this wondrous, arcane human power:
In a rather well-forgotten movie produced in England in 1942 there is housed a trio of  gifted artists, each in a different field of artistic endeavor.
The movie is titled "Spitfre," and deals with the production of an airplane that stopped Hitler in his tracks.
Upon his conquest of France in 1940, the tyrant turned to his next victim, namely Great Britain, with intent of eliminating the British before turning to the East and Mother Russia. His plan, called Operation  "Sea Lion" was  the invasion of  England, preceded by the destruction of the British defense line, especially on the southeast coast, by his powerful air forces.
And so the air attacks began, resulting ultimately in such severe  punishment dealt out by a relatively small contingent of English and allied airmen, that Hitler was forced to cancel his plans of invasion, which resulted in the two front war that ultimately defeated the Nazis.
All this is well known.
However, let us look into this film more closely.
The main character, Reginald Joseph Mitchell, is played by one of the greatest of  British actors, Leslie Howard, known in America chiefly by way of his acting in "Gone With the Wind." Howard's ability to bring to life the characters he portrayed is testimony to his sense of imagery, let alone his powers  to project  the human emotions needed for character portrayal at a high level.
The  man who wrote the score for this movie was none other than the distinguished British composer William Walton, one of the 20th century's better known musicians. One of the most powerful  creations he gives us is a Cantata titled  "Belshazzar's Feast," a work that should be heard more often than it is in our day, sadly.
That main character R. J. Mitchell was the creative genius who visualized a revolutionary  approach to  airplane design resulting in the Supermarine Spitfire, which along with its partner called Hurricane, destroyed Hitler's dream of enslaving England, and averting, perhaps, what Churchill called a "new Dark Age."
Three creative giants, each with a different art form, housed in a movie not known for greatness and historical accuracy.
Three fellows, out to make a living - like Mozart and Salieri, in a joint concert of their music - just once...

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Friday, May 15, 2015

One Composer Challenges Another, and Live At Different Times...

Maurice Ravel stated more than once that one of the prime forces propelling him to write his magnificent "Gaspard de le Nuit" was his being compelled  to write something more difficult than that gargoyle challenging pianists, titled "Islamey" by the Russian nationalist composer Mily  Balakirev.
"Islamey" appeared in 1869 and has been the center of conversation among pianists ever since; to specify, there seems to be pianists in each succeeding generation who consider it the most daunting piece written for the instrument. Obviously, this is an issue of controversy and argumentation. For instance, I  like to think of Samuil Feinberg's  piano transcription of the 3rd movement of Tchaikowsy's "Pathetique" symphony as tiring as any piece I know of for the piano - and the arguments will go on and on.
Balakirev, who was considered  a virtuoso performer, remarked that there were sections in "Islamey" that he could "not handle."
There are three recordings of this composition that I have a rather assiduous interest in:
Vladimir Horowitz learned and performed it for only one concert season (1950,51}. I do not believe he ever performed it publicly after that period. Fortunately, he  had it recorded 'live,' probably at Carnegie Hall during that one year. That miraculous controlled  neurotic 'edge' to every Horowitz performance is the prime ingredient that propels the legendary pianist to staggering levels that will be experienced by the listener only a small number of times in the available recordings of this fabled player of the piano.
Claudio Arrau recorded "Islamey" at the Camden studios in 1928.  For me, the prime issue  dealing with his performance is the opportunity for the  great Chilean to project poesy into a piece of music that does not bear the weight of greatness, in my view - after all, Balakirev is not included among the great composers.
The genius of the writing is based upon the reality that with all of the stupendous difficulties endemic to "Islamey," the writing for the piano is indeed "pianistic." I was surprised when I came across this recording years ago, as I did not expect  Arrau to be connected with this kind of endeavor; however, he was in his twenties in 1928, and it DOES give us a view of another form of world-class technique which Arrau certainly possessed.
Mikhail Pletnev recorded "Islamey" at Carnegie Hall in 2000, and proves in his performance that he can elicit from his audience a Horowitzian response. His superb stylistics and  mammoth technique (ever hear his transcription of the "Nutcracker?"} make for a truly memorable event. It is great fun to hear this Russian  virtuoso tackle this Brobdingnagian  form of athleticism for piano. 
Listen to these three recordings - it IS great fun.

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Friday, May 8, 2015

The Rachmaninoff Third Concerto - a Perspective Dealing With Three Pianists Who Have Dealt With It...

In the recordings made by many pianists of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto during the past century, are there those under the age of thirty who were able to garner both the immense technical demands and the sublime message left us by the composer and give to us performances of historical import?
After a period of  my mulling over this question, there are three who come to mind.
In his first recording, Vladimir Horowitz was about 27 years of age when he performed  the  Concerto in England with the London Symphony Orchestra. It has been, and remains one of the most important recordings of this or any concerto. There are those who still consider this early Horowitz performance one of the top recordings of the 20th century. For me, that unique neurotic edge  Horowitz had always been known for gives this particular reading a sense of unremitting thrust and direction, in fusion with the colors the young lion  from Mother Russia was capable of bringing into being. For me, this first (1930, as I recall,} of the several recordings  Horowitz  produced of this work, was his best.
Byron Janis studied almost four years with Horowitz, and enjoyed a meteoric career until, sadly, a form of arthritis devastated a kind of promise given to so few. Janis did resume his career; however, those early recordings form a document of  unparalleled promise, let alone worldwide acclaim . The word from the French; namely 'eclat,'  best describes, for me,  Byron Janis in his Rachmaninoff. The bursts of dizzying passage work and absolutely delicious forming and consummation of phrase after phrase, especially in the first movement, make for an unforgettable performance by one in his twenties.
The Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes was, I believe, only about 23 when he recorded the 3rd Concerto for the first time. What he was able to capture and share with us is a truly unique reading  by a superior intellect and artist, let alone a pianist with a mammoth technique. For me, the one great uniqueness Andsnes possesses, in his playing of the Romantics, is the ability, time after time, to evoke a combination of intense beauty in his expressions without a trace of sentiment - I do not recall ever experiencing this in any musician I have ever heard.
Whether you agree, or not, with my choices; do listen to these three.

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Friday, May 1, 2015

More on Musical Legends Performing Together...

As you know, just a few weeks ago I wrote a blog dealing with the epic recordings of Fritz Kreisler and Sergei Rachmaninoff back in 1928.
The subject of such great soloists performing with one another crossed my path this morning; and so I thought that it would be fun to impart more of the same to you, in the event that you are not aware of the following defining performances:
There is a recording of a legendary Russian violinist named Nathan Milstein playing a  Brahms Sonata with a rather well-known pianist - his name, Vladimir Horowitz. This was recorded around mid-2oth century, and can be found. Be prepared for many discoveries!
Try to picture the following:
Leonard Bernstein, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Vladimir Horowitz, Yehudi Menuhin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Isaac Stern - all in one room; all at the same time.
This was a singular occasion celebrating the 85th year of Carnegie Hall.
Imagine  -
Bernstein conducting Beethoven;
Horowitz and Rostropovich playing Rachmaninoff;
Horowitz , Stern and Rostropovich playing Tchaikowsky;
Fischer-Dieskau singing and Horowitz playing Schumann;
Bernstein, Stern and  Menuhin doing Bach;
All of the above standing shoulder-to-shoulder singing Handel -
You can be witness by getting hold of "Concert of the Century" CD.
As for video:
How about a filmed tidbit of Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorksy and Artur Rubinstein, in Rubinstein's living room, merging in a Mendelssohn trio? Nothing at this level may ever be replicated again.
Want more? Do leave a message in "comments."


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Friday, April 24, 2015

My Half-Hour With Scriabin...

A few months after my being appointed to the faculty of the Longy School of Music, a period of spreading interest in the life and music of the great mystic Alexander Scriabin developed among the music colleges of the universities in the Boston area; including, of course, the two two major conservatories.
 The Director of the Longy School, Nicholas Van Slyck, called me into his office one day and asked me if there was a way to portray, in a one half hour radio program, the unprecedented metamorphosis of Scriabin, from his Chopin Period to his final destination, the Mystic Period. I was a bit taken aback by his question, as I thought that a period of about 24 minutes of performance time would be much too short a slot of time  to efficiently portray the incredible transition the Russian genius underwent.
And so I asked Van Slyck if I could have a few days to think this issue over. I remember rather clearly how quickly the answer came to me - why not look over the Preludes, all of which are brief, to see if  a 24 minute program could be organized?
In just a few days, I had amassed a selection of about eight or nine of the preludes that would begin with a few of his early creations, then add a couple or so of the transitional representatives, and end with some of his quartal and quintal  masterpieces of the Mystic Period.
To learn, then play them in a radio recital gave to me  one of the most comprehensive ways I have ever experienced of  getting through the front door of  an  edifice built by one of the great creative minds of his time.
What if penicillin had been there in 1915, when a boil appeared on Scriabin's mouth and killed him in just a few days? What if he had lived on another generation? Would there have  been a Rachmaninoff, as we know him? Or an extended period of a language that was not to be, as it  turned out?
One can only speculate.

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Pianists of the post-Liszt Era - What Does the Vorsetzer Tell Us?...

The miracle called Vorsetzer gives us the exact manner of presentation, as regards the piano luminaries from  the period directly after Liszt through the first two decades of the 20th century(do refer to my blog on the Vorsetzer, if you are not familiar with this defining invention). We hear not only the notes played, but dynamics, phrasing etc. - in other words, a true Time Capsule.
I must divulge to you a reaction that strikes me when I decide to listen to some of these recordings; and that is by way of a question - am I listening, at least in part, to a Dog and Pony Show?
 The piano playing is, for the most part, sensational. The enormous level of radiation emanating from the Lisztian Experience created a plethora of technical giants, which even in our day (and we know a century more about the technology of performance) continues to dazzle us with their levels of  technicality.
But through all of the aural luminescence created by these seemingly super-humans disguised as pianists, I find that the ultimate prize that must obviously be sought  after and assimilated; namely, the making of music - well, I am not often enough witness to it.
For example, in a Vorsetzer recording by Eugen d'Albert, one of only two Liszt students who recorded  by way of this process, I find a fatuous, overly wrought reading of the Liebestraume, aided by a rubato that, for me, is overdone and gives me an example of quasi-narcissism , which does not belong here.
The recording by d'Albert is dated 1913, and many of the Vorsetzer recordings occurred during the first decade of the century, which places these recordings, therefore, in the post -Liszt period.
Another example: Busoni plays a piano transcription from "Rigoletto." Again, the piano playing is positively stupendous in its technical level; however, Busoni's  musical sense is, essentially, naive. The fits and starts  that Busoni gives this listener adds to a kind of artificiality that makes me most uncomfortable.
A recording by Debussy of his "La Plus que Lente" is  so offhanded and  strangely diffident, that it never fails to surprise and disappoint me.
The legendary Paderewski gives me his vaunted piano playing, but very little more.
And on it goes, at least for me.
And so the Base Question, to me,  appears to be " is (was) this period  one of  a  need to prioritize the Playing of the Piano, rather than the Making of Music, because of the Power of Influence created by Franz Lizst?"
I hasten to point out that some truly great music making on Vorsetzer IS extant; for example, the playing of Lhevinne and Hoffmann should be noted.
And was it the likes of a Rachmaninoff;  then a Serkin, or an Arrau, or a Rubinstein or a Horowitz, who reminded the world of pianists that "it takes ten percent of the time to study the notes, and ninety percent of the time to decide what to do with the notes,"  rather than the other way around?
Believe me, I have thought long and hard about the post-Liszt Period, and continue to do so, from time to time...

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Friday, April 10, 2015

Mozart and Gieseking - Two Forces Cross Paths...

Walter Gieseking, the great French-German pianist, possessed enormous powers outside of his world powers as a musician. Two aspects of his veritably boundless gifts were his abilities to memorize and sight-read. To  sight read, at tempo, works of Debussy; or, to read any of the works of Mozart seemingly effortlessly , among others such as Mendelssohn and Schumann, were pursuits this fabled musician was known for.
One of the truly singular memories I have of my younger years was a prized gift at one of my birthdays; namely  the complete solo works of Mozart, played by Gieseking. I remember that it took almost ten hours to listen to these works just once. My mouth must have constantly been agape at the dimension of the solo works of Amadeus, not only in the experience of hearing the reality of his creations, but also at the reality of this pianist being able to, at  any appointed moment during this period of Gieseking's life,  play any of these works from memory.
Later on, as my musical education wore on, I realized that there WAS an omission in this giant Mozart Lexicon; and that was the so-called London Sketches that Mozart wrote during his 8th and 9th years. I can only suppose that Gieseking did not think much of these little pieces the genius child had written during, I believe, a family trip to the British Isle.
For me, Gieseking has always been one of the truly miraculous pianists of his, or any times. His approach to Mozart has such a magnificent sense of direction and purity, let alone a sound the likes  of which can only be heard, and not described.
Even in the years before digital technology, the sounds that Gieseking was able to cajole from a percussion instrument, especially in the music of Debussy - well, listen to the analog recordings for yourself.
I saw him just once, as a youngster - and I am quite sure that not  since his time has there been a pianist with as deep a pool of sound production, other than, perhaps, Michelangeli.
Do judge for yourself!

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