Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Brahms' Second Piano Concerto

What a piece! A real handful for the pianist and an earful for the listener.
I took a cheap cassette featuring the pianist Homero Frankesch to Münster, Germany, with me for my year abroad and must have listened to it 200 times in those nine months. When he actually came to that city to play that piece, I went both nights. The first night I bought a student ticket. The second night I went in after the intermission and heard it again. During the first movement he got flustered and blundered through several measures before landing on his feet again. That show of humanness impressed upon me how hard the piece must be. The second night he played it beautifully.
As with any piece of classical music, there is a huge difference in the listening experience, depending on the acoustics - can you compare listening to a bad recording on a Walkman to the thrill of a live performance in a concert hall? The notes are all there, but I learned that I had a hard time hearing and feeling them all unless I was in a concert hall.
Once when I was working in a record store, where I was responsible for the classical music sales, a customer took me to his home so I could listen to the difference between a cheap pressing of Van Cliburn playing Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and a half-speed master version of the same recording. I sat in the listening chair and he played the first recording on his $5000 stereo. It sounded much better than it did on my $700 stereo. Then he played the other and the difference was amazing. And yet, I asked, why didn't he just go to a live concert if he wanted it to sound as if he were in a concert hall. "With all the people coughing and talking? No thanks," he said. I can now understand him.
Back to Brahms. The piece has accompanied me all these years, winning a place as my favorite music to write by. It is so "beschwingt" - exhilarating - that I just want to jump around while the first and last movements are playing. The Scherzo is nothing if not profound, and the cello solo in the third movement never fails to make me smile.
When Yefim Bronfman played the concerto in Richmond, I was allowed to go to the rehearsals, where Neil Cary played the cello solo. Once Neil came to my apartment on Valentine's Day to play a Bach Cello Suite for my girlfriend and me, so I especially enjoyed hearing him play soli. Needless to say, the virtuoso Bronfman had no problems with the concerto, passing over the technical difficulties with a smile and pulling out the musical delights with delight.
My favorite recording these days are with Vladimir Ashkenazy (Haitink/Vienna) and Maurizio Pollini (Abbado/Vienna). However, I have come to love Elisabeth Leonskaja's interpretation (with Masur/Leipzig) since having the opportunity to hear her several times live here in Germany.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Richard Strauß: Four last songs

Right now I'm listening to Jesse Norman singing "Beim Schlafengehen" and still cannot believe there is such a beautiful thing on this earth! It is so wondrous that everything and everyone else must be made a bit better by it. I first listened to this recording 25 years ago and didn't understand it, much less appreciate it. In 1987 I ran across the sheet music in an antique store in Mittenwald, where I could easily imagine Strauß himself had left it before going to dinner before playing some of his music for the guests in that town. But I'm digressing, something I find quite easy to do here on this blog.
I first came to appreciate "Beim Schlafengehen" while listening to the cycle with Elisabeth Stein, a quite mystically gifted person I got to know while teaching at the Goethe Institut in 1991. She was telling me about a former boyfriend on the Canary Islands who had died suddenly but whose presence was still with her and which entered the room as we listened to the Swiss soprano Lisa della Casa singing the songs that evening. I may also have been feeling faint because we hadn't eaten very much and it was getting late, but I'll bet Antonio's soul was also getting in on the action, too.
What did I not understand about the music the first time I heard it? The operatic quality of the melodic line may have turned me off. The seemingly muddled orchestration - with strings moving up and woodwinds moving down apparently at random - could have confused me. The poetic texts and modern harmonies could have hard to get my head around.
But if you open your heart to these pieces, they will reward you in unknown ways. Listen to them with a lover by the light of a candle (even Nirvana would probably sound good that way!). Kiri te Kanawa's recording with Georg Solti is also worth listening to for the beauty of her voice.
The recording artists were free to arrange the four songs in the order they preferred. I suggest you listen to "Beim Schlafengehen" last because it is - for me at least - the ultimate in the vocal arts. When the soprano and orchestra soar in the last verse on "Und die Seele", I get goosebumps. But they are just getting started! The words and music are woven together perfectly in that verse - "Nacht" is a low note. "Schweben" soars. "Leben" is composed to be sung affirmatively. The soul lives deeply and thousandfold!

Nun der Tag mich mud gemacht,
Soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
Freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
Wie ein mudes Kind empfangen.

Now that day has tired me,
My spirits long for
Starry night kindly
To enfold them, like a tired child.

Hande, lasst von allem Tun,
Stirn, vergiss du alles Denken,
Alle meine Sinne nun
Wollen sich in Schlummer senken.

Hands, leave all your doing;
Brow, forget all your thoughts.
Now all my senses
Want to sink themselves into slumber.

Und die Seele unbewacht
Will in freien Flugen schweben,
Um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
Tief und tausendfach zu leben.

And the soul unwatched,
Would soar in free flight
till, in the magic circle of night,
It lives deeply and a thousandfold.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Gorecki's Symphony No. 3
If there is one piece of music that can calm my nerves, it is this symphony by the Polish composer who died last year in November. I first heard the piece on a drive from Freiburg out to Umkirch to teach an adult education English class. The disc jockey of the classical radio station said the symphony had become a hit on the British pop charts recently. This was 1992 and the techno scene was in bad need of chill music. When the new recording of this work landed in the studios of the BBC and the DJ played the shortest of the three movements (26 - 9 - 17 minutes), the phones started ringing. When I heard this second movement, I thought it was very nice, but the story was for me even more interesting. A classical piece becoming popular? Bring it on!
Three slow movements make up this piece. The first one starts off so softly that you always want to check to see if the disc is spinning, or you turn it up, only to feel the double-basses laying down a fugue-like pattern that swells to a forte and then subsides. The second movement uses the words of a teenage girl, which were written on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell in Zakopane to invoke the protection of the Virgin Mary. The third movement undulates at the rate of relaxed breathing. The music stops after 13 minutes. You breathe a sigh. You wish for more. Then comes a coda, a bit more, until you are totally relaxed. I've never tried yoga or meditation, but I'll bet this has gotten me close on many an occasion. The vocals, be they sung by Dawn Upshaw, Zofia Kilanowicz, or another soprano, lift and waft through the pulsing string accompaniment in a sad yet uplifting way. Is that possible? Check it out yourself!
A few months ago I got the orchestral score from the public library. I played it on the piano and found the experience relaxing as well. I'd love to have a full piano reduction of the piece. 
My love for the piece grew when I was in the middle of a break-up which was particularly messy. All the stress that goes with conflicts of that nature require equal time under the influence of beautiful music. When my heart would be racing, I'd run over to the CD player where Gorecki was starting to feel at home and press "play." I would invariably turn up the volume for the reason mentioned above and wait for the basses to sweep me away. I would try to follow one melodic line but would get caught up in another one which wove itself into the melody's progress. Then I couldn't think of anything else but the music. If I was lucky, I'd be asleep before the third movement ended.
Today I listen to it on those rare occasions when a migraine strikes, or when I just want to chill.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bernard Haitink conducts Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8

OK, let's get a bit rougher here. The Russian's piano music takes a back seat to his work for orchestra and even for string quartet, though he himself was a tremendous pianist and wrote quite a lot of music for his instrument. He felt he could say more by using a larger variety of instruments. I'll have to agree with Dmitri there.
The year was 1984. I had just graduated from college with a German degree and wanted to get back to the old continent to enjoy long breakfasts with friends, have coffee and cake in the afternoons and go to concerts at night, all the while officially looking for a job in "international business". Whatever that might have been.
So I spent eight months back and forth between my old friends in Münster and my sister in Vienna. While in Münster I went back to the foreign students' office and visited the animated secretary, Frau Droste zu Senden, who let me sign up for a week-long DAAD bus trip to Berlin, which was the same type of thing I had gone on back in 1983. Here's the deal: You paid 50 DM and got a week in Berlin - hotel, meals, free concert tickets every night and seminars about East-West relations. Before I write two books about those two trips, let me concentrate on one concert...or two actually.
Bernard Haiting conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 in the first half and Shlomo Mintz soloed in Brahms' Violin Concerto in the second half. I had never heard either live, but was so taken with them the first night that I got a ticket to go back again the following evening. The first evening I was sitting with my girlfriend Gabi and two wonderfully flirty French students, Isabelle and Laurence. We were sitting behind the orchestra, so we watched Haitink's conducting gestures. If you get a chance to do this, too, go for it!
While some say Haitink conducts some pieces too smoothly (Norman Lebrecht faults his style in the new Mahler biography and a conducting professor said something similar to me once), this piece cannot suffer from smoothness. Everything is in there from ppp to fff, from peace to war. Haitink beats time with one hand and motions the phrasing with the other by gracefully opening and closing his fingers. It is magic to watch!
I was fascinated by the symphony, with its opening 25-minute long adagio movement followed by the stormy allegretto and allegro non troppo middle movements. The fast movements march through history, throwing off crises with a glissando here and an almost ad libitum solo there. It is one of my favorite pieces to conduct at home when I'm alone.
The second evening I viewed the concert from the third balcony. When Shlomo Mintz played a Bach encore, the notes flew up to me and disappeared into my ears.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Tatiana Nikolayeva plays Shostakovich's Op. 87

24 Preludes and Fugues,  Op. 87

I'm going to start writing about my CDs and what they mean to me, so watch out!

Right now I'm listening to a copy of the 24 Preludes and Fugues by Dimitri Shots-of-kovich as played by the Russian pianist for whom he wrote them in 1950 after her Bach interpretation stunned the composer as he sat in the jury of the Leipzig Bach Piano Competition. He composed these marvelous pieces within four months, becoming more and more enthralled with the idea and the genre as he went.
My history with the pieces: A girlfriend in college played piano really well, stunning me again and again with the cadenza from Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto whenever we'd go over to the music building together. Her sister played some of the Preludes and Fugues, which was about as much of a recommendation as I needed to pick up the sheet music a few years later. You see, I approach music through people. And so these blog posts will be as much about my encounters with special people as with the music.
So Lorraine's sister's pianistic talent led me to these 48 gems. I have often said that if I had to give up all my music except one piece, this might just be it (we'll get to Mahler's Second later). The fact that some of them are simple enough to sight-read certainly doesn't reduce my appreciation. After leaving the thick book of sheet music up on my shelf for a number of years, I finally got to the point where I could play the pieces well enough to enjoy.
This recording was the first one I heard of the pieces. At the time (1993, I believe), I probably paid three hours' salary for the three CDs. In the meantime I have recordings by Shostakovich himself (a selection), Richter, Caroline Weichert (whom I met while studying in Münster), Keith Jarrett, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Bernd Glemser and Olli Mustonen (selections recorded together with Bach preludes and fugues), Alexander Melnikov and arrangements by the Calefax Reed Quintet and for String Quartet.
Most would guess - and many critics would agree - that Nikolayeva's recording is the definitive one. I find a lot to like about all of them. Nikolayeva's playing is calming in the slow pieces and brilliant when her fingers fly. Her 1987 recording is livelier than the one she made in 1991. Jarrett takes the composer's metronome markings literally, which drags the first fugue out three minutes longer than most Russians' interpretations and twice as long as the composer's own recording.
I find the most interesting of the interpretations that by Olli Mustonen, for my money the most exciting pianist out there. The Finn's phrasing will make you wonder at first if he's taking the music seriously, but after being glued to my seat during a concert in which he played Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata in what seemed like one long breath, I'm here to tell you he's an incredible musician. His own compositions are thrilling. And what he does to the Shostakovich is extraordinary. I hardly recognize some of the pieces the way he phrases them, but that's just because they are so alive.
Bernd Glemser's recording - like Mustonen's together with corresponding preludes and fugues by Bach - is also surprisingly good. Ashkenazy's is worth every cent. Shostakovich's playing is manic in places and the sound quality is not quite as good as what you hear in the later recordings, his having been recorded in exactly 10 years before I was born.
The newest recording of the pieces is by Alexander Melnikov. I haven't listened to them enough to be able to write much about them, but certainly will when the time is right.