July 16, 2012

The Sweetness of Thunder

Plugging away at a Beethoven sonatina, after months of on-again off-again indecision about whether it was worth my time. The other two pieces I’ve learned, a simplified transcription of the Haendel aria “Ombra mai fu” from his opera Serse and Chopin’s posthumous Waltz in A Minor, never lost their initial seductiveness. It was never a question of just putting my mind to the job until I could play them whatever thrill or lack thereof I got after hearing them twenty or two hundred times. They still move me no matter how often I play them, though now I’m more intent on discovering their inner secrets than from recapturing that first, breathtaking rush.

The Sonatina in G Major has been another matter entirely. Like many, many pieces I’ve taken up, then lost enthusiasm for, like a fickle musical Don Juan, the sonatina moved me for a time, then seemed to elude my efforts to get a handle on it–much more so than did the Chopin, though the piece seemed to require less fancy finger work than did the Chopin. I finally gave up on it the way I did so many of those other pieces that tickled my fancy for a time and then lost the sense of urgency I felt first toward them. I felt guilty about not sticking with it, but I told myself, this wasn’t a homework assignment or a paid job. I was playing purely for my own gratification.

But something, maybe that same frustration that caused me to set it aside after so much effort expended on it, drew me back. I might, I thought, at least learn to play it passably well so the time already devoted to it wouldn’t have gone for nought.

But this time I discovered something that made the piece catch fire for me emotionally.

Part of my problem with it was its composer. I have always found Beethoven to be remote–exhalting at times, certainly larger than life, but less relevant to me personally than other composers. Stravinsky is Olympian in the same way. His Sacre has moved me to terror, reaching into deep recesses of my mind I had never experienced before. But I don’t listen to Stravinsky, or much Beethoven. I gravitate toward so-called lesser composers–the Elgars, the Rachmaninoffs.

I associate Beethoven, even a simple piece like this Sonatina in G, with those great symphonies and concertos I no longer listen to (there’s some argument, by the way, whether Beethoven is the real composer of this piece, but we’ll leave that aside for now). And this was the rationale I made to myself why I didn’t finish learning it properly–too remote, too “Beethoven.”

I also made the mistake of listening to how others played it, on YouTube. And that was a mistake not just because it can be discouraging to see how other proficient other amateurs are but because even they play everything fast, if just to show that they can. Besides, I knew there was great sweetness in the piece (it’s even marked “dolce” in some places–Beethoven? dolce?). And that was the cue I needed to rethink it. Maybe it shouldn’t be played “like Beethoven,” at least not by me. All those YouTube performances had thundered away like the composer himself, making spaghetti of the strings on his piano till it was unplayable. Who says genius is its own best interpreter?

The truth was, I hadn’t been playing the sonatina any less authentically that those show-offs in the online videos. Played more slowly and with simple (ha!) attention to detail–the strict value of the notes and the scant dynamic markings–the piece became not less easy to play but infinitely more subtle and thus more interesting. And, once it began to reveal its possibilities, it has become moving again in a way it hadn’t since I first hesitantly sounded its notes.

I don’t think I’ll abandon the sonatina again, no matter how long it takes me to play it to my satisfaction. What’s more, it’s opened up an interest for me in learning other Beethoven. Just as his fifth symphony only truly lived for me once in that performance by a chamber-size Little Orchestra Society I mentioned in my previous blog entry, the “real” Beethoven, or at least “my” Beethoven has been revealed to me in this simple piece, rather like that moment we have when someone we thought we knew well reveals something to us about themselves that makes us see them as if they were a different person.

June 25, 2012


Igor Stravinsky glimpsed through a space between the stage and the wing stage-left, seated on a stool, his bald head hunched over his cane, using it to mark the beat (faster!) as Robert Kraft conducted an early suite of folk pieces. How many of the hard seats in the infield of that stadium (Columbia University’s Lewisohn Stadium), built for track and field, had just the right angle to afford such a candid view of the composer as he waited to conduct his Sacre du Printemps? It was like having a private view of Beethoven, deaf and worn out, waiting to come on stage to conduct his fifth.

More Lewisohn moments:

Van Cliburn, newly minted first American winner of the Soviet Union’s Tchaikovsky competition, playing Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto. That night I sat on the concrete bleachers. I had all but worn out my LP of the Carnegie Hall performance with Kyril Kondrashin. He played seven encores, some of them Chopin. How long and lanky he looked at that piano. How he enjoyed himself, and how that joy communicated itself!

Joseph Kripps conducting the entire Beethoven cycle.

Lily Pons, so beautiful, her voice ravishing despite the ancient sound system and occasional bus roaring past on Convent Avenue.

Richard Rodgers.

Mischa Elman at the end of his career, sadly unable to keep up with the orchestra.

Michael Rabin, memorable because he broke a string and was so upset about it. Still young, he died a few years later of a brain aneurysm.

At the Metropolitan and New York City Opera:

Richard Tucker, also at the end of his career, singing Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. What a marvelous voice, and what a powerful actor. His “La Commedia è finita!” is stamped in my memory. I use the line frequently, albeit in less tragic circumstances.

Norman Treigle in Boito’s Mephistopheles. No human being could make a sound like that, and how in God’s name could it reach me with such force all the way in the back of the last balcony?

And…a performance of Beethoven’s fifth symphony in the 72nd Street bandshell of Central Park. Just thirty-some instruments.  The Little Orchestra Society conducted by Thomas Scherman. The only time I’ve actually “heard” that symphony.

And, of course, December 2010, when I discovered Yulianna Avdeeva via a link on pianostreet.com. Through her not only Chopin but all the solo piano music that had till then remained opaque to me was revealed like the gateway to a magic kingdom.

March 24, 2012

“Mirror, Mirror…”

Ever since I first heard Lydia Mordkovitch’s recording of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto a few years back I’ve been thinking about the role of the performer, their function as mediator between me and the music itself (if there is such a thing). I had not previously known that concerto, and my first reaction was that it was lightweight, even frivolous. But a second and then a third hearing convinced me otherwise. Now I place it among the most moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

But after a couple more hearings I became curious about how another performer, Anne Sophie Mutter, would perform the piece. So, I decided to have a listen.  After just a few minutes, I turned it off. What I was hearing was not the Prokofiev concerto. It sounded so different from the Mordkovitch version, it seemed to be another composition entirely.

What I’ve been wondering since is why. I consider Mutter to be the greatest living violinist. At the time, I was unfamiliar with Mordkovitch beyond that one performance. I had experienced the genius that Mutter brought to Mozart and Brahms, had heard her evolution from wunderkind to mature artist — and beyond. I had thought her performance could only enhance what I had heard in Mordkovitch’s. Instead, it seemed to violate it.

Was I only reacting as I might to any alternative rendering of the performance that had first revealed the music to me? That first hearing of a composition tends to imprint itself on us so strongly that the music and the “interpretation” are virtually indistinguishable. I have nevertheless recognized and appreciated performances that are far superior to my initial experience of a composition, even when that second revelation occurs years or even decades later. A first kiss is a first kiss, but there may well be other passions, perhaps just as or even more memorable.

I can’t speak with any real authority about the work of either Mordkovitch or Mutter, but my experience of their separate performances in this one instance raised a question that has outlived my initial reactions: To what extent is a performer a vehicle, conduit or, as I think of it, a clear pane of glass through which we experience the music, and to what extent are they a kind of second composer whose performance is itself a creation as original as a musical composition?

My thinking on this has evolved. At first I thought I saw a clear distinction: Mordkovitch was that clear pane of glass, an unobtrusive aperture into the essence of Prokofiev’s music; Mutter (and her fellows) a kind of composer in her own right, her performance as much a creation as the composition she’s playing, each new rendering an opus, as it were, just as all of a composer’s compositions can be said to be one single composition in various forms and stages of development.

But nothing is ever so clear-cut, or remains so unless we are so wedded to an idea that we cannot bear to see it overturned or even significantly altered. I have heard recordings that seem to be near-perfect representations of the experience of a concert hall. I know now those recordings are the result of great artistry on the part of sound engineers. Is there an artistry on the part of the performer that corresponds to the skill of those engineers, involving an almost saintlike sublimation of personal ego for the sake of letting the music shine through unimpeded by “interpretation”? Or, does this apparent simplicity involve, as does all art, a great deal of artifice and delusion, the way good prose that seems simple and straightforward is the result of many hours of work on the part of the writer to achieve that “effect.”

There is room certainly for both types of musicians, and I’m not sure we should value one over the other. Ultimately, there may be more of this in the ear and mind of the listener than I have yet explored. But the question, however naïve or tentative, enriches for me music’s, indeed all of art’s, limitless possibilities.

(Read a great piece relevant to these thoughts at Harold Knight’s blog on the occasion of J.S. Bach’s recent birthday and why it is “the most important day of the year.” )

March 19, 2012

Let’s tickle the ivories by David Dubal – The New Criterion

Splendid article about the piano and all it’s meant to so many people, mostly ordinary people. Along with some very sage and reassuring advice for rank amateurs like myself.


March 5, 2012

Speaking of Sarabandes

For those of us who thought Pachelbel was a one-trick pony, I am happy to report that his own sarabandes, one in F# minor and the other in B flat major, are very much worthy of the man who wrote that famous canon. And they are both well within the capabilities of a novice like myself. Although that brings me to another question: Is it easier to play something like these sarabandes than it is to play something more difficult, something requiring a great deal more technical expertise? By “play,” of course, I mean perform it well, not just technically but emotively.

Several years back I had a brief stint as a music critic for a local publication. It was an education for me. I covered a concert at a local conservatory that included one of the Brandenburg concertos and something slow by Tchaikovsky (sorry I can’t be more specific). They played the Brandenburg quite adequately, but the Tchaikovsky was embarrassing. It struck me then that there can be a much greater challenge to performing something simple and “easy to play” than there is to pulling off something that requires more technical proficiency but more or less carries itself along.

I’m facing the same difficulty with these sarabandes. Once you have gotten the execution down, you are faced with something much bigger and much more daunting, and that’s where the performer is challenged to reach down and find something in his/herself to match the greatness of the music. It’s very humbling, actually. But, also very rewarding when you feel that you have at least come up with something halfway worthy of the notes on the page.

February 9, 2012

A Sarabande and a Waltz: Krebs vs. Chopin

I have become enamored of Johann Ludwig Krebs ((1713 – 1780). It’s only in the last hundred years that he’s gotten some of the recognition he deserves. A protégé of Johann Sebastian Bach, he was reputed to be the better musician, but he did not prosper as his teacher did. For one stretch of his life he had, in fact, to work just for food for himself and his large family. And then, to add insult to injury, much of his composition, largely for organ, was attributed to Bach until the beginning of the 20th century. Talk about getting no respect.

The only pieces for piano keyboard (klavier) I have been able to find is a set of twelve pieces called Clavier-Uebung, IIe partie – Suite pour clavecin. A Prelude, Fugue a 3, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte, Minuet I, Minuet II, Scherzo, Polonoise, Cantabile and Gigue. Being still a rank beginner I am sticking with the least demanding of these, which are the sarabande, polonoise and cantabile.

Krebs is said to bridge the period between the Baroque, marked by the death of Bach, and the new music exemplified by Bach’s son and then by Mozart. These twelve are little masterpieces. But I have learned that trying to learn a piece I can’t stand to play 200 or 300 times is  hopeless. My brief piano experience is littered with pieces I’ve taken up that were either too ambitious or for which after a couple dozen run-throughs the thrill was gone. I sometimes think what it must be like for someone, a child especially, to be forced to practice meaningless scales or other exercises that have no emotional appeal. Although I’ve come across at least one accomplished pianist who confessed to loving scales, I suspect someone like him nowadays would get diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive and be medicated long before he became proficient enough at the keyboard to be called a talented musician.

Since I mostly play for my own enjoyment, with only enough pride involved to the point that someone hearing me does not wince and perhaps even takes some pleasure in what they hear, I concentrate on a handful of pieces I do not tire of playing, even though my progress is slow or sometimes hardly recognizable. The first I took on is a simplified version of  the Largo from Haendel’s Xerxes. This was a mistake. The Largo was not written for piano but for voice, and the version I play is itself bowdlerized. And yet I am now into the third year of playing this piece and am still surprised and moved by it.

The second piece I can play through, sometimes without more than one or two mistakes, is Chopin’s posthumous Waltz in A Minor. I marvel that people can play this piece rapidly, not just because I cannot play anything rapidly but because the music is so rich in every respect that to play it more than at a moderate speed seems sacrilegious. Artur  Rubenstein said that Chopin’s so-called posthumous works are actually the pieces  he did not consider good enough to publish in his lifetime. I can’t imagine, if this is true, what Chopin had in mind except that he found this piece to be so simple by comparison with his more demanding works that he thought it unworthy of him. In any case, I doubt I will ever tire of playing it, whether or not I ever learn to play it as well as it deserves.

And now I have Krebs. The Sarabande, the piece I’ve chosen to learn first, is deceptively simple — because there aren’t that many notes on the page, and there are few chords. Yet I’m laboring more with it than I did with either Haendel or the Chopin. Why is that? Is it a matter of my brain not being wired as well for this type of music as it is for the more romantic variety? I’m also experimenting at the moment with a Chopin polonaise, also relatively simple. I can’t help wondering why I can play and already remember chunks of this composition, which includes big chords, and have yet to master the basics of the simpler Sarabande, which I have played many more times.

So far, I don’t feel surfeited by  Herr Krebs, although I find it annoying that the Sarabande doesn’t seem to play itself the way Chopin’s waltz and polonaise do. I’ve given some thought to why this is so, apart from my own ineptitude. I’m assuming these 12 pieces were written for harpsichord. By the way he uses whole notes to bridge an entire bar or to remain sustained from one bar to the next, I suspect that he expected the keyboard player to do this without the use of a sustain pedal. Anyway, that’s the way I play it, a very different matter indeed from the way I play Chopin when, at least in my case, the pedal is more often down than up.

And yet it’s clear Krebs expects this music to sing. How do you make a harpsichord sing? I mean sing with my fingers the way it’s sings in my head when I’m out walking around the neighborhood. I understand Mozart had an instrument that allowed for some kind of sustaining tone, though not the pedal we are used to. Perhaps Krebs did as well, but, as I say, because of his notation I tend to doubt it.

Another “find” who’s staying quality is yet to be proved is Samuel Coleridge Taylor, a British composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His father was African, and Taylor took an interest in African and African-American music. He arranged a number of African pieces, and they sound remarkably bluesy to my ear. Apparently Taylor was extremely popular in Britain in his day. His The Song of Hiawatha was the most performed piece of its kind, running second only to Messiah. So far, his “The Stones Are Very Hard” provides an antidote to my sometimes frustrating efforts with Krebs’s Sarabande, and so, for now at least, Taylor’s welcome is far from worn-out.

January 16, 2012


Siyahamba, “We Are Marching in the Light of God,” the South African freedom anthem. A beautiful performance.

December 30, 2011

More Chopin (More Chopin!)

I’m learning a new “easy” piece by Chopin, the Polonaise in G Minor, BI 1. I have little hope of ever advancing much beyond “easy” in Chopin (most of his work is rated at level 8 or 8+). I can play the Waltz in A Minor, op. posth. more or less straight through without too many mistakes, but I think I’ll have to learn to accept that I will rarely play anything without hitting some false notes. It’s not my fingers’ fault, it’s more a question of vapor-lock. But I can live with that if what I do play expresses the music and my own emotional response to it in a palpable way.

At first I thought playing so-called easy pieces by Chopin would mean playing something less than the real Chopin. I should’ve known better. No great artist is ever anything less than himself or herself, no matter what the medium or the occasion. Everything that is in the more difficult compositions like the Sonata in B Minor, op. 35 or the nocturnes is in these simpler pieces as well. Only, the thundering passages that require the use of both hands moving rapidly up or down, or down and up, the keyboard, in the case of the Polonaise in G Minor minor require the use of only one finger. But, oh, what that one finger can accomplish!

I hear in the Waltz in A Minor all the dread and beauty and anger that I hear in his more virtuosic compositions. After exploring the exquisite beauties and disappointments of what it means to be alive, it progresses to a harsh and despairing pronouncement about where life must inevitably lead, ending with a quarter-note two-tone chord that can only be interpreted as a shrug of disgust and angry resignation. A remarkable ending. And yet, I have not heard anyone play this piece without drawing out that final chord well beyond what the score indicates.

I play the waltz slowly, as I play most things, not entirely out of interpretive preference but because at this point it’s the only safe way for me to play anything. But I find it remarkable that all the other interpretations I have listened to play it rapidly, as if it were a bouncy little piece that Chopin tossed off and then put aside as hardly worth his attention. My saving grace is that it seems you can never play Chopin too slowly — I heard one of the premier pianists, it may have been Emil Gilels, remark that even the Études when played slowly are very beautiful. In any case, I can’t imagine playing the Waltz in A Minor much faster than I do play it without losing the emotional impact I described in the previous paragraph. And I’m not sure I would play it faster even if someone could show me that Chopin himself played it that way. I sometimes think a composer’s, like a writer’s, interpretation of his or her work should be regarded with the same skepticism as anyone else’s interpretation of it.

I have to confess that I only got up the nerve it requires to play this music, or any music, with this kind of expression from listening to the performances of Yulianna Avdeeva — although there was some encouragement to be got from a few of her predecessors, such as Alfred Cortot (1877-1962). If Ms. Avdeeva, or anyone else, could play the work of other composers for whom I feel merely a lukewarm response in the same revelatory way she does Chopin, I don’t doubt new musical worlds would be opened to me.

December 9, 2011

Chopin Documentary – The Women Behind The Music

A BBC film about the influence of opera, especially bel canto, on Chopin’s music. He was apparently enthralled by the great female vocalists of his day, and was perhaps in love with more than one of them. In any case, the documentary makes a good argument that he sought to incorporate that type of singing into his piano music.

The film is a bit too long, perhaps, and at times sentimental. After all, it’s the music that counts, not whether Chopin did or did not have a romance with the Swedish singer Jenny Lind.

The young pianist chosen to usher us through Chopin’s life does a creditable job but is no match for the deep understanding that informs the performances of a Yulianna Avdeeva. Likewise for the young singer who demonstrates the relevant vocal pieces.

Worth a watch, though, especially if, like myself, you already hear that singing quality in Chopin.

December 8, 2011

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” ~Beethoven

“Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.” ~Sergei Rachmaninoff

(With thanks to Janet Song.)