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.


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...


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!


Friday, April 3, 2015

Musical Genius; Some of its 'Mutterings'...

Part of the Human Condition deals with  reactive comments to such issues as competitiveness , probably in innate form, especially among geniuses - if not the issue of competition, then simply, perhaps, an observation by one genius of a particular incarnation by another; for instance:
Upon being part of an audience held spellbound by the performer; namely one Franz Liszt, the great Irish composer John Field turned to his companion and asked "does he bite?"
And what of that 'competitive' aspect?
Take, for example, a statement made by one of the great pianists of his time, Artur Rubinstein. Upon his hearing the emerging young lion from Mother Russia, Vladimir Horowitz,  for the first time(this occurred during a period in Europe before Horowitz came to America), Rubinstein remarked "he is a better pianist than I am; however, I am the better musician."
However,  his reaction to Horowitz may have "hounded" Rubinstein - take some recordings that Rubinstein made in the decade following his statement, which includes a reading of one of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies (the 11th, I believe). It  IS recorded, and is positively riveting in its technical power. I would  challenge almost anyone who is familiar with Rubinstein  as  he is known in our time, to identify Rubinstein as the performer.
Was he making a statement in this recording defying his own appraisal of Horowitz?
One of the other coming giants during this period was the Chilean Claudio Arrau, who became one of the legends that brought the Golden Age of the piano into the 20th century along with Rubinstein, Horowitz and Serkin. During the time that both Arrau and Horowitz  were establishing their notoriety in Europe before coming to America, Arrau's mother went to a Horowitz recital. She went straight to her son and said "he plays better than you . You must work even harder."
The statement that one of the great pianists of his time, Serge Rachmaninoff,  uttered upon hearing the 24 year old Horowitz  play  his 3rd Piano Concerto? "He swallowed my Concerto whole."  And how revealing  it is that Rachmaninoff himself would not play this concerto again until  Eugene  Ormandy, many years later, asked him to record all four Concerti with the Philadelphia Symphony  Orchestra.  Rachmaninoff , after hearing Horowitz, simply had extracted it from his repertoire.
Who remembers Ignace Tiegerman today?
Tiegerman was about seven years older than Horowitz, and like Horowitz and Arrau, was busy establishing his reputation  in Europe. It is, perhaps, rather astonishing to listen to the statements made by Horowitz concerning his sense of placement concerning Tiegerman. Horowitz remarked that "Tiegerman is the only pianist I have  fear of. He may well eclipse me."  The word 'eclipse'  was Horowitz's own choice of description, believe it or not.
There are no commercial recordings. Only  recordings made in studios; or in  friends' apartments or homes, and a few radio broadcast recordings of rather poor quality, in Cairo.
He was born in Poland, ending up in Cairo - can you imagine a Polish Jew founding a conservatoire in Cairo? Having some of the royal family's children as students? Teaching there while Nasser assumes total power in Egypt?
Do read about this man - better yet, listen through the murkiness of the few existing recordings, and ask yourself where this frail little man really stands, in historical reality.


Friday, March 27, 2015

Fritz Kreisler and Serge Rachmaninoff - Yes; Together...

For those of us  who follow the great musicians as they emerge into greatness and then leave us, so many of them, thankfully,  have visited our planet during  the Recording Age, and have therefore  enhanced our lives with  rich legacies we can summon at our wishes.
Of course, Kreisler, the great Austrian violinist, and Rachmaninoff, the legendary Russian pianist and composer, have left us with many unforgettable examples of  their gifts. as soloists.
However, some of you may not be aware of a handful of recordings they produced as a duo  in 1928 at the Camden recording studios. Even though they had met back in, I believe, 1903, it took a quarter of a century for them to decide on recording works for piano and violin by such masters as Beethoven, Schubert and Grieg.
Kreisler's  golden sounds and Rachmaninoff's  unique coolness form a language that can never be replicated, in their recordings  of music for  these two instruments. Very often, great soloists who perform chamber music simply overpower the intent of the music by way of the  hubris naturally attached to any great soloist. This is not the case with these two giants, who form a chemistry that is beyond traditional expectation. Do listen this to Miracle. 


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Horowitz and Brahms - Adversaries?? How?...

One of the few recordings made by Vladimir Horowitz and his father-in-law Arturo Toscanini was the immense Concerto in  B flat by Johannes Brahms, which the composer  often referred to as  a "tiny wisp."
This particular recording has often been considered by countless listeners as the most important contribution given to history, as it pertains to this concerto of four movements. As a child, I recall thinking of it as a kind of symphony with piano, probably because of its particular dimensions.
When I get to listen to this recording, along with other recordings of  Brahms played by Horowitz, what comes to mind automatically is the brouhaha  surrounding  remarks, made more than once by Horowitz regarding his personal station concerning his playing of this composer. He, in different ways, felt 'uncomfortable' (his own word)  whenever he performed  the music written by Brahms for the piano.  I cannot uncover   any specific reasons that Horowitz ever divulged for his 'discomfort'. At times he actually said that he did not like playing Brahms in public. For instance, upon his learning and performing the Brahms Second Concerto, his exact words were(he said this two years before he passed away in 1989) "It is not a concerto for me. I never liked it very much, and I played it so badly, and my ideas about the music were so different from Toscanini's... I didn't enjoy rehearsing this performance at all."
And of the First Concerto, Horowitz said "I admit its great message, but it is not my kind of music."
Listen to the Horowitz recording of Brahms' great B flat minor Intermezzo - for me, it is positively ravishing, in its certification of late Brahms at its pinnacle. And yet, Horowitz positively squirmed while playing this and other brief masterpieces of the late Romantic.
So, why did Horowitz play Brahms throughout his career?
Perhaps, his statement about the Brahms First Concerto that I included above; namely, " I admit its great message" is the reality that like all great artists and their commensurate integrity, dealing with the truth  about Greatness, no matter the discomfort for whatever the reason -  that Greatness  must always be recognized for its existence.
Whenever I listen to Horowitz, I think of the different demons that pursued him, and were woven into the fabric which constituted HIS greatness...


Friday, March 13, 2015

Fusion in Music - George Shearing At His Best...

The popular song "My Ship," written by Kurt Weill for the Broadway show "Lady in the Dark," is not generally remembered in our time. It may be the reason that the great pop pianist George Shearing chose it,  in one of his most compelling examples of  the fusion between  the Classics and pop music; a process he promulgated and championed better, arguably, than any other pianist I know of.
In his performance(which is recorded) Shearing begins with "The Engulfed Cathedral" by Debussy, note for note, for a short period. Then Shearing seamlessly causes Weill's tune to appear on the aural  Debussy tapestry - what is essentially as impressive as Shearing's legendary gifts of Fusion , it seems to me, is his choosing of "My Ship," a tune rarely heard. This  can allow the listener, from my view, to be drawn into an even higher sense of the merging of Weill and Debussy, simply due to the state of unfamiliarity of the pop tune. The result can be, especially for the listener who has never heard "My Ship" and has, at best, a partial  conversance with the piano music of Debussy, that the tune was actually  written by Debussy, rather than Weill.
Is that why Shearing chose a tune not generally remembered?
At any rate, this creation by the wonderful British pianist is one of his most important contributions given to the process of  Fusion.