Beautiful Music: Borodin

Not much posting recently, sorry. Busy trying to learn enough WordPress to do a site for real. (And not as easy as it looks!)  Also, sort of bingeing on Borodin after the Met’s Prince Igor b’cast a couple of weeks ago. What an opulent score!

Here’s another bit of Borodin to share: Dmitri Hvorostovsky singing “For the shores of your far homeland” in recital.


The text is Pushkin,

 For the shores of your far homeland
 You left this strange land;
 Within this unforgettable hour, this hour of sadness,
 I wept lingeringly before you.....

Nothing matches hearing him in person, but this gives a sense of his extraordinary sound and presence.

Reasonable Words: Getting past the “Love of Difficulty”

Reading a lot about playing the piano, in particular, how to practice effectively, something I’ve never mastered despite decades of playing. I got “The Musician’s Way” for Christmas, and successful practicing is a main theme. Early on in the book author Gerald Klickstein lights on this quote from Duke Ellington,

“The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.”

This hit me sort of like a zen koan–effective practicing starts by selecting pieces you have a chance of gaining some mastery of, or at least competence at. It’s a theme that is echoed in another book I’m thumbing through,”The Well-Tempered Keyboard Teacher,” which provides advice on ways to respond to students who bring in music that is just too hard for them, either at the time, or perhaps ever; the author’s advice: tactful refocusing the student on music that is pedagogically useful, musically rewarding, and not a challenge merely for a challenge’s sake.

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 9.51.47 PM
First page of the Goldberg Variations. Not in this lifetime for me (and not in this ridiculously Romanticized Czerny edition for anybody probably!)

Such good advice, so why is it so hard to follow? (and not just in matters musical.) What is the love of difficulty about–why do the “hard” pieces count, and the easy ones seem trivial? And whose yard stick applies? (particularly in an activity like playing the piano for pleasure for no audience)? Bach’s Goldberg Variations are beyond me (now and forever), but the 2- and 3-part Inventions are within my reach. For me, they have tricky bits–something I doubt they present to Peter Serkin, but that these tricky bits are surmountable is part of the fun.

So corollary to “play what you can master” is “choose profitable difficulties.” I remember years ago reading in a biography of Paul Erdős that he told a mathematician he was mentoring to “forget that problem, it’s too hard for you, do this one instead.” (Or something to that effect.) On the face of it pretty demoralizing, but if you put aside the ego and the worry about status, how wonderful to have a mentor who could keep you from burning up in pursuit of something he could see would not get you anywhere, but help you choose a “Goldilocks” problem–neither too easy or too hard, instead. The take away being that “hard” “easy” isn’t the important spectrum, and maybe not even a linear spectrum after all, but at least in part personal response depending on where are you are starting from. Different people could get different things out of the same experience based on who they are and what they were going for.

A nice idea, and perhaps one that will lead me to be happy with my “3-Part Invention” level of piano playing and get better in a feasible way…

No doubt not to the level of Andras Schiff. And I’m okay with that.

Beautiful Music: Prokofiev

I have, over the years, watched a lot of classical music on TV (yes, there is classical music on TV, once there was rather a lot of it.) But I’ve never seen something shot quite like this, a video of the last movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata #7, “Precipitato” given a strong performance by Denis Kozhukhin.

The photography and the editing border on the hyperactive, but then so does the piece, starting with its jumpy 7/8 time signature.

Prokovief, 7th Piano Sonata

In fairness to the composer, it is good to remember that his art encompassed not just music that was driving forward in relentless ways, like the 7th Sonata, but works music with tunes, that, as Andre Previn once remarked (of the 5th Symphony I think), he must have sold his soul for.

To wit: the second movement of the 8th Piano Sonata, with Ashkenazy weaving the magic spell.

Beautiful Music: CPB Bach on Flute & Harp

Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 7.56.23 AM
The manuscript (but perhaps not in CPE’s hand) of the Flute Sonata in A.

CPE Bach’s music, long overshadowed by his father’s achievement, has been finding its way back onto concert programs. I heard Peter Wispelway give one of Emanuel Bach’s Cello Concerti with the Boston Symphony a few years back and was delighted by the charm and scale (the teeny-tiny little development section in the sonata-form first movement was clearly done tongue in cheek.)

I encountered CPE, like many student pianists, through the Solfegietto in C-minor (page 12 or so of ’59 Piano Solos You Like To Play’) courtesy of my childhood piano teacher. (She couldn’t help sniffing at it a bit, the junior Bachs, no matter how revered in their own era, have been overshadowed by JSB).

Years later, I’m no longer worried whether CPE was an epigone, or a fine composer in his own right, today I simply enjoy listening and playing his music both for the feeling of expressive improvisation, sly virtuosity, and also a very tender way with a slow movement melody. So what if the father built cathedrals in sound, while the son merely finely-wrought pieces of classical furniture? There is room for both.

To wit two examples:

A gorgeous performance by flautist Denis Bouriakov of the Solo Sonata in A Minor.

And a harp sonata of his that I found on YouTube, while looking for an acceptable performance of the Solfeggietto (couldn’t find one). This is harpist Marie-Claire Jamet recorded from an old Nonsuch LP (complete with surface noise, which I somehow find endearing). The performance is droll and lively: a beautiful, optimistic way to start your day (which in Cambridge is a perfect wash of September sun with a touch of briskness).


Beautiful Music: Haydn Andante

Listening to a lot of Haydn, and even playing some.  Have gotten a bit of a crush on an Andante from the D major Sonata #30 (XV:19). It winds and unwinds so winningly, a small amount of material from which he makes such a finely drawn musical drama.

Below is Rudolf Buchbinder, in somewhat weird sound, but you can get the sense of the characters stealing on and off the scene so craftily. His “notey” version of the last movement doesn’t do it for me, lacks the required lightness and humor. (Save your pomposity for Liszt and Brahms, as Artur Rubenstein coached.)  But still, the skill of the composer comes through.

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 10.27.00 AM

Beautiful Song: Some Other Time

A little tardy in posting, and lots of interesting news to ponder, including the Bradley Manning verdict. But instead, I’ll just share Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” from On The Town. I saw a charming production of the musical at Boston’s Lyric State a few months back, and was struck by how good the score is, particularly this ensemble number that could pass for Sondheim.

The shore leave for our heroes is over and they are bidding farewell to their girlfriends, with bittersweet backwards glances all around.

Here it is in a solo version by Jane Monheit.

Tad overproduced, yes. But mix a martini and seems just right.

And then this oddly affecting version from a Swedish jazz singer I didn’t know, Monica Zetterlund, accompanied by the great Bill Evans.

From a Swedish doc, subtitled in Swedish (I think) and with old Monica listening to young Monica. Probably a media theory term paper in their somewhere.

Finally, Evans by himself.

Selah. Happy Wednesday.

Beautiful Music: The Mysterious Barricades

For today, a bit of haunting music by François Couperin (1668 – 1733), “The Mysterious Barricades,” a keyboard piece from his vast output, four volumes of harpsichord music, each with many “orders” of individual works. He taught extensively, and used these pieces to demonstrate keyboard and compositional techniques. (It’s striking that so much extraordinary keyboard music over the centuries was pedagogical in origin: in addition to lots of French baroque examples like this, there Bach’s WTC I and II, the Chopin Études, the Four Opus 7, Études of Stravinsky, and sets for children by Tchaikovsky and Schumann. Easily a whole program’s worth of first rate material.)

But back to Couperin: this is a rondo, meaning a musical structure that sets out one idea, then introduces new material, comes back to the first idea, another new idea, return, etc. Kind of like life.  This one has a gentle motor like rhythm hidden within, and according to an unusually full wikipedia entry for a piece of baroque music, evokes the (unknown to Couperin) world of fractal mathematics.

That’s a stretcher, but, it does seem other worldly. Here’s the piano maniac Georges Cziffra playing it. (For some reason there is a two and a half minute tail on the video.)

And then there is Igor Kipnis playing it on the harpsichord,

Kipnis’ is the first recording I ever heard of the piece, on an LP 30 years ago, and I am still struck by how the structure of piece comes through in his playing. Using the lute stop on for contrast is so touching somehow, as is the elegance of his ornaments–a big deal, no the big deal of 17th & 18th century music, and much clearer on this instrument than the piano.

As for Couperin’s enigmatic title, for me it evokes passages as you move back and forth to the theme, as well as motion down a road. But what might it have meant to Magritte, who used the same title for this artwork?

Screen Shot 2013-03-26 at 8.57.40 AM

The Margritte example was found via an engrossing site about the piece by a philosophy prof/composer who is evidently even more smitten with the piece than I. He has, among other things, many examples of visual art related to the piece, and the factoid that it shows up as background music for Brad Pitt in Tree of Life.

Beautiful Song: Serendipty, Carlos, and Martha Argerich

Looking for something else on Naxos Music Library, I happened upon a trove of Carlos Guastavino piano works. Trove, as in treasure, and his elegant, nostalgic piano writing helped turned my mundane home office into a Buenos Aires café, and my template coding task into something like sipping Fernet-Branca and reading Pessoa. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine listening to the incomparable pianist Martha Argerich, playing Tres Romances through a distant window. Of course, that didn’t do much for the coding!

And as a bon-bon, mezzo Teresa Berganza, another musical hero, singing one of Carlos’ songs. (And yes, I know Pessoa is Portuguese, not Argentinian, but he seemed like better company for this day dream than Borges.)

%d bloggers like this: