Saturday, January 31, 2009

A man and a mic

Thinking about William Kapell yesterday, I started thinking about something else that should become a recurring feature on this blog.

The square 1950s announcer!

I love these announcers. I had a great one on an old Nat Cole recording I had. You could hear the guy saying: "Well, King Cole, and what do you have for us now?"

And thinking about Kapell reminded me of this Kapell video with Alistair Cooke, pictured above. You can watch it here.

In the video Kapell plays a dreamy Chopin nocturne and Cooke cuts in before it is over. That is a classic moment! I love how Kapell's face never changes. But he conveys his displeasure subtly with his body language.

The last piece does not sound like what the world associates with Kapell. I do not think Kapell captures the piece's Spanish flair and sexiness the way Pennario would have. I thought Kapell's version sounded like a player piano. I thought: Imagine what Pennario would do with this.

But as for Kapell, not bad, not bad.

Heck of a pianist.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Shut up and play

Herewith we kick off an occasional, recurring feature on the dumb things musicians say. Which, nothing against these musicians. We will view these quotes with affection specifically because the people who utter them are so gifted. It is a pleasure to realize that fine musicians are capable of uttering dumb things. It makes them human.

Today's quote comes to us courtesy of William Kapell, the immensely gifted pianist tragically killed in a plane crash in 1951, when he was only 31.

"Music isn't enough. Performers aren't enough. There must be someone who loves music as much as life. For you, and remember this always, those of us with something urgent to say, we give everything."

Now, I greatly admire Kapell's playing. He was a good friend of Leonard Pennario's, too, which makes me like him as a person. I certainly sympathize with the tendency to take the above quote seriously, he wrote it in a letter to a friend shortly before he died.

But not long ago I found myself staring at that utterance, thinking, "Huh??"

"Music isn't enough. Performers aren't enough." What alcohol-induced ramblings are these? Mr. Kapell, with all due respect ...

Shut up and play.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Opera man

Tomorrow, I promise, I will write about someone other than Mozart. Tomorrow I might write about Louis Moreau Gottschalk. We heard from a Gottschalk fan -- a hard-core Gottschalk fan, I might add -- yesterday on the Leonard Pennario blog. So I will have to get back to him.

For today, I only have a few minutes until midnight so I have to be quick. I always want to blog by midnight so it counts for today. I do not like to skip a day! Skipping a day blogging is for weaklings.

Who out there has seen that film of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" by Ken Branagh?

I had never heard of it!

Then yesterday I found it and I keep looking at it. Well, I kept looking at it until I got caught up in this Grammy Awards business.

The opera is in English, which, I do not normally like operas translated into English because first of all face it, when they are in English, you usually do not understand them anyway, and secondly, as Mammy says in "Gone With the Wind," "'tain't fittin.'"

"Tosca" in English, 'tain't fittin'.

"Goetterdaemmerung" in English, 'tain't fittin'.

But this "Magic Flute" somehow strikes me OK. English to German is not that big of a stretch. Maybe that is part of the reason why. To tell the truth I do not care for the translation of Papageno's first aria. But other than that, it seems impassioned and interesting and I am intrigued and would like to see the whole thing.

Here is the overture.

In this clip you can see Rene Pape as Sarastro. Also that glorious "March of the Priests." When I was a teenager and worked sometimes as a church organist I used to play this piece at Mass at Christ the King and no one was the wiser.

Here is the Papageno aria I find fault with. The singer is good, though. And cute! Benjamin Jay Davis is his name.

Here is the "Papageno, Papageno" scene. I have heard other singers do a better job with the stammering at the beginning of the scene but the way they stage this is so cute. This music always brings tears to my eyes and I am not sure why. It affects me more than the love music between Pamina and Tamino.

I wonder if I am the only one who feels that way.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mozart's magic

What with today being Mozart's birthday I have to tell a Mozart story. Above is a sexy statue of Mozart that you can see in Vienna. I saw it there. I made the pilgrimage. But that is not what this story is about.

This story takes place here in Buffalo.

Once I was at the Twentieth Century Club giving a talk. That is a picture of the Twentieth Century Club up above. It is an august Buffalo women's club. And after my talk we all gathered for lunch in this beautiful dining room. We all started drinking white wine and as the saying goes, in vino veritas.

In wine, truth!

The conversation turned to Mozart and we began discussing his marriage. That is what happens when women get together. And this one woman went onto this tear about how she didn't think Constanze was right for Mozart, she did not think Constanze had a proper appreciation of his music, she did not think Constanze was good at running the household, etc.

That is a picture of Constanze. I started to defend her. But in the middle of it I realized I was doing that mostly out of duty. Then it hit me: Here it is 200 years after this guy lived, and look... we are all a little in love with him!

It is the truth! And there was something very touching about this woman carrying on about Constanze to me. This elegant, wise, worldly woman, and here she is emotionally involved with this musician who died over two centuries ago. As am I! I admit it!

When I view the situation rationally, though, I like Mozart for marrying Constanze. She was this ordinary girl from this middle-class German family, from the town of Mannheim. Her sister, the girl he was originally in love with, was a dazzling singer. But still. Look at their last name, Weber. It means "weaver" and it is a plain-Jane Buffalo name. Like Weber's mustard. We all know people named Weber.

Mozart chose this Weber girl and he settled down with her and he was happy. That beats Beethoven who, for all his carrying on about defying nobility, always fell in love with noblewomen he could not have. Again and again he broke his heart doing that. Deep down he was impressed by nobility far more than Mozart was.

Here is a Mozart piece I fell in love with when I was 14 that I do not think we hear nearly enough. It is hard to play which might explain that. There is this passionate part that begins at around 2:00 into the piece, and then again at ... let's see ... 5:38. Look at Isaac Stern's face as he plays it. He feels it too!

I am fussy about that passage because I love it so much. It is like looking right into the face of absolute beauty. Here is another recording I like because the violinist digs into it more. They do not credit the violinist but he or she reminds me of the performance I loved as a kid, by Josef Suk. I still think that performance by Suk was the best I ever heard. I only owned it on a scratchy terribly primitive homemade cassette I made when I was 14. But I kept coming back to it and now I can hear it in my head.

One of the greatest things about that piece is how it ends.

It leaves you wondering.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Giovanni's room

This morning when I went to 9 a.m. Mass I finally got my act together and so I was able to listen to Palestrina in the car on the way there.

Let us all bow down. Because here is what I had to do to pull that off. No. 1 I had to see the Palestrina CD where it was lying on the table near the door, on top of a pile of neglected mail. No. 2 I had to pick it up and put it in my purse. No. 3 when I got into the car I had to remember it was there and put it into the CD player.

For months I have not been able to do that!

I have a story about Palestrina, whose portrait graces today's post, and how I came to love his music. It was about three years ago and I was on my way home from a June in Buffalo event. It wasn't quite a concert. What had happened was, the contemporary composer Steve Reich was there with his wife, Beryl Korot. (Well, of course he is a contemporary composer, duh, or else he would not have been there. That is something to think about.)

Steve Reich and his wife showed a movie called "Three Tales" they had made about the Hindenburg disaster, the Bikini Island nuclear test disaster, and I forgot what other disaster. There was another disaster but I am afraid it is lost to the mists of my memory, which is probably just as well because I have enough these days to stress me out! What I do remember was, oddly enough, I enjoyed the evening. I do not remember being impressed with it music-wise but I came away from it with all kinds of ideas it had given me, about how you could put a story together, new ways to organize things and think things out.

When it comes to organizing things I need all the help I can get!

Anyway, as I was pulling out of the UB parking lot I turned on my car radio. And this music came out of it. And I knew right away it had to be Palestrina. I had heard Palestrina only here and there but this music, this music was magic. It was so luminous. I am thinking I tend to overuse that word "luminous." I use it too often and then you run into music that actually sounds as if it is lit from within, and you don't know how to say it.

That was a wonderful evening to be hit with Palestrina because my mind was so open and so ready for it. "This is Palestrina," I thought. "This has to be Palestrina." If you love music you have probably had moments like that, when you are missing a link -- maybe something you have not gotten around to listening to -- and all of a sudden you find it and right away you know it, you recognize it.

So today, ladies and gents, I give you a motet by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the man whose music I fell in love with that night on my way home from UB. I think this psalm epitomizes his music's timeless, luminous feeling. The artwork to this video is nice too!

And here is the transcendent Kyrie from the great Pope Marcellus Mass. What is that big "1" doing there? We talk about the mysteries of music. That is one (1).

C'mon, you have time for one more. Here is a Credo, sung by a choir of men and boys at what I gather to be Westminster Cathedral in London.

I like how the narrator describes the final "Amen" as "a beautiful cascade of sound."


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Interview with the vamp

Such things of which we speak! Yesterday on my Leonard Pennario blog, remember, we spoke of Leopold Godowsky, the piano virtuoso. And a certain F.K. wrote in a comment about Godowsky's daughter, who was a vamp in old silent films.

That is Godowsky's daughter pictured above. She certainly looks like a better time than the old man, I have to say that. Look at that come-hither look! Dagmar Godowsky inspired people to art. Here is a picture someone once drew of her.

Poor Godowsky, though, Dagmar seems to have been quite the liability for him. The actress, as F.K. pointed out, slept with everyone in Hollywood, men and women. She wrote a memoir in 1958 called "First Person Plural." As Wikipedia says, it contained the sentence, "I lived only for pleasure and I spoiled my own fun."

Her dad died 20 years before that book came out. I feel bad for him, though, because his last years were so unhappy. His younger son killed himself, and then Godowsky's wife died, and all I can imagine is that this daughter was an additional source of stress. It makes me think of Ronald Reagan and Patti Davis. You work so hard to get where you are, and now you get this willful turkey of a daughter. Not good!

Darn, I can find no Dagmar Godowsky on You Tube. But she appeared with Rudolph Valentino in "The Sainted Devil" in 1924. So here is Valentino in "the controversial rape scene" from "Son of the Sheik."

"I may not be your first victim but by Allah, I will be the one you remember!"

What a scene to be witnessing over my morning coffee! Sometimes I cannot believe what my life has turned into.

But let's give the old man the last word. Here is a Godowsky performance I love. We generally think of him as this titanic virtuoso but here he is kicked back, playing "Morgengruss" from Schubert's "Die Schoene Muellerin." This is an enchanting song. I think Schubert captures just the moment when you are falling in love. Godowsky's arrangement turns it into something different -- those ultra-romantic arrangements of Schubert songs always do. But it is beautiful in a new way. It sounds like Bill Evans.

Listen to Godowsky's easy technique. How relaxed he sounds.

He must not have been thinking about his daughter.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Happy endings

Today gets a happy ending for me because I am writing in this blog. It is almost midnight but I am going to make it, under the wire! I will always blog, without fail!

Speaking of happy endings, I loved Prof. G's comment yesterday about Haydn having mastered the art of the ending. I agree.

As long as the curtain is falling fast on today, I think it would be fun to list a few endings I think are great. This is a game anyone can play. You can occupy yourself for hours with it.

These are just off the top of my head. Maybe some other time we can set the bar higher and narrow the category somewhat: best endings in British music, say, or best endings in ecclesiastical music. But here are a few endings I have always admired.

1.) Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, or his Third, or the Second Symphony, etc. I love how Rachmaninoff lurches toward an ending. I have gotten to write about this in the paper now and then and it is always thrilling. It always reminds me of a sled, or a toboggan -- you reach a certain point and it tips over the edge and you are just flying, there is no stopping you. Then he ends with his signature rhythm: Rachmaninoff. You just have to laugh out loud with delight. It is that much fun.

2.) Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony is too obvious an example so I will say Mozart's "Linz" Symphony. That ending to the last movement! You just wait for it!

3.) The ending to "Der Rosenkavalier." Operas are a whole other category, but this one is just so cool, with the little boy running out and grabbing up the handkerchief. Who doesn't cry seeing that?

4.) The end to "The Magic Flute" makes me cry too, that big chorus. As soon as orchestra introduces it I get tears in my eyes. I have to stop drinking wine before I watch operas!

5.) I am thinking too much about Mozart tonight. But the other day I was playing through the slow movement of that great beginner sonata, K. 545. I was trying to improvise the way the pianist Robert Levin was teaching us to when he was here. That is another story for another day. Anyway, I am always so moved by the ending to that movement. You get that sudden passion and then that final, simple G major chord. I think that is enchanting.

6.) I normally do not think Beethoven is that good at endings. There are some times when he hits the same chord over and over and you are thinking, uh, Beethoven, come on, wind it up. Wind it up now. But he got it right in the ending to this sonata I love, the great Opus 109. What an ending, so quiet, so right.

7.) Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder." That last line, "Wie in der Mutter Haus."

8.) Chopin's "Aeolian Harp" Etude. It is too late at night to try to spell "Aeolian" so I hope I got that right. I have this etude memorized so I play it at parties and my friend Gary, whenever he is there, he points out the greatness of this ending, the little trill Chopin throws in in the bass. Gary always shuts everyone up and makes them listen to that.

9.) I am going for 10 now! No. 9 will be .. OK, I have it. Respighi's "The Pines of Rome." You cannot beat that! You just see the sun sparking off those Roman soldiers' shields! That is Ottorino Respighi up above. He is not a composer whose picture you normally see!

10.) Oh, I can't help it. I'm going to give this slot to Mozart too, why fight it. He was so much the master of the ending. When I was a kid I thought the "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" had the neatest, niftiest ending in the world. I still think so. You take it for granted but it does.

11.) Another good one: the ending to the finale of the 14th piano concerto, in E flat. That little chromatic flourish at the end kills me.

12.) Let's throw in Haydn because he was the one who started this discussion. The Symphony No. 104! It's thrilling how he declaims that last magnificent theme one last time and then builds on it.

Wow, that was fun, coming up with those!

On that note...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

'She Never Told Her Love'

Today as it was getting dark I was skiing around the park and I was thinking about Haydn. The reason I was thinking about Haydn was I do a lot of listening to music in the park, when I am walking around, not skiing. I listen to a personal CD player. At least I used to, before personal CD players became obsolete. You cannot find them any more. My last one broke and I cannot replace it so to tell the truth, I do not listen to music in the park any more.

But once when I was walking around the park I was listening to Haydn songs. I was listening to "She Never Told Her Love." It was a song Haydn set to Shakespeare.

I still remember exactly where I was when I was listening to that song. I was walking counterclockwise on the Ring Road, with the Scajaquada Expressway on my right, and I was just about at the top of the hill. It is funny how you remember sometimes where you were when you first hear something that comes to mean a lot to you. The reason I remember all the details about that particular song was I was startled that I find that when it ended, I had tears in my eyes.

You do not normally think of crying when you are listening to Haydn.

People used to cry listening to him, I guess. I read about "The Creation," how when it was first performed, people would come out of it in tears, overwhelmed by what they had heard and unable to describe it. It was close to impossible to get tickets to it. But we do not often see Haydn that way these days. I know I do not, not usually. We are used to Mozart and Mozart is more passionate.

Still, Haydn did have that elusive gift for nobility, for making music noble. I mean look, he did write the melody that became "Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles." Whatever you think of Germany, that is quite a theme. It inspired men to fight and to die. If you asked the average guy who watches the History Channel who wrote it, I doubt he would guess Haydn.

Back to that song I was listening to, "She Never Told Her Love." There was something about it. About the last line, "She sat, like Patience on a monument, smiling, smiling at grief." About the way Haydn sets that to music.

Haydn knew a thing or two about unrequited love. That is for sure.

I went on You Tube when I got back from skiing and looked for a performance of this song. The best one I could find, which is not saying much, is this one. It is kind of cute. That squat little singer! Maybe it is how the recital was filmed.

Looking through the You Tube offerings, though, I get the idea that I am not the only person with deep feelings for this song. One woman posted a video of herself singing along with this guy's performance! Too funny.

And too sad, this song.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A complicated life

Will you look at those gowns?

That is Mrs. Leonard Bernstein at left, with the classic hairdo. My father mentioned once how beautiful she was, and exotic, I remember him saying. Which she was, judging from this picture. In the middle with the dark hair is Bernstein's sister, Shirley. They were photographed at the opening of Lincoln Center Philharmonic Hall in September 1962. I found it on the Life Photo Archive and promptly ripped it off.

What I am about to write will not advance music scholarship but it is funny all the same. Lastnight I was lying around as Howard played the piano and I was reading a book on Bernstein, called, well, "Bernstein." It is by a writer named Joan Peyser.

This book is one of the dozen or so reasons I cannot go back to the library. It is about a year overdue. I borrowed it for I forgot what reason. I think I wanted to see how other writers set up their books because I am working on that book myself. And I was attracted to what the author wrote in her foreword: "Nothing in my professioal experience is more exciting than the process of interpreting a complicated life," she wrote.

That is for sure!

So lastnight I found myself reading about Bernstein's friendship with the jazz pianist John Mehegan. Apparently Mehegan was gay and Bernstein was attracted to him and he and Marc Blitzstein always used to go to Mehegan's gigs. The author interviewed Mehegan's wife -- her name was Gay, what are the odds -- and quotes her as saying, "John was a remarkably attractive man. Brilliant, funny, cynical, he conveyed a masterful presence. He entered a room like a hurricane, sweeping into it in his trench coat with the collar turned up -- and everywhere people's heads would turn. He was extremely left politically, fiercely independent, flaunting, with a mocking sense of humor. He spent 17 years on the Juilliard faculty and never agreed to attend a party."

I love that, how he never agreed to attend a party. That is a good detail. Here is a picture of John Mehegan. I wish I could have found a picture of him in his trenchcoat.

Now how is this for a coincidence? I am reading all this and then my eyes stray to this pile of books sitting right near where I had just picked the Bernstein book up from. They were Howard's books. There was a pile of jazz books by, you guessed it, John Mehegan.

"Howard," I said. "I am just reading about this John Mehegan and look, you have all these books of his." And I explained what I had just read.

Howard said, "Oh, no wonder Bernstein wrote the foreword to one of the books."

And it was true!

We always talk about music's mysteries but here is one of them solved.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mozart mania

Here is a cartoon about Mozart's Piano Sonata K. 545. Someone posted it on a piano discussion group on the Internet that I look in on now and then. I think I have watched it 10 times.

Today's picture, by the way, comes from a dandy site devoted to Mozart portraits. Can any other composer claim a site like that? I ask you.

You can waste hours on that site and I love to do that.

I am funny about Mozart. I do not mind joking around about him but I do not like it when people turn him into a joke. Maybe that's because when I was growing up he was still suffering from those misconceptions that his music was "elegant" and that was it. And that he was this perpetual child. That was not true!

Around that time certain musical groups would hold these Mozart birthday celebrations that would get wild and silly. People would be running around the room yelling stuff about "Wolfie." God, I hated that.

But I am no prude! I do love joking around about Mozart, as long as it is in the right spirit and not ignorant or annoying.

There is the matter about how Mozart looked like my brother George. Wow, that was one of the first blog posts I ever wrote! So much water over the dam since then.

And here is another thing I think is a riot.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Organists are people too

On Sundays we will discuss church music. I would like to start with a funny video I found on You Tube. Well, other people might not think it is funny but I do. It is a video of the great organist Olivier Latry playing the opening antiphon at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Just watch this guy!

Look at how he kind of fidgets while the choir is singing and he has nothing to do. He fusses over his hair, puts his hand over his mouth. And the face he makes when the piece is over.

That is organist behavior!

I know, because I have worked as a church organist, albeit a schleppy one. And I behaved like that! Artists who are mediocre, like me at the organ, like to feel they have something in common with the greats. People always want to have something in common with the greats, no matter what field you're talking about. I read somewhere that is why everyone savors little human details about the greatest artists. You like to know that Mozart liked to go bowling because you like to go bowling. Beethoven liked his wine, and so do you!

Speaking of which, check out the picture above. That is Olivier Latry posing with this concert organist, Carol Williams. They look just like two people in a bar in North Tonawanda. Ha, ha!

Just so Monsieur Latry does not kill me if he ever finds this blog, here is a clip of him where he gets to pull out the stops, as we say.

Once I was at Mass at Notre Dame. My brother George was with me and so were my mother, my Aunt Marilyn and our friend Peggy Farrell. This was in 2001, about three weeks before the terrorist attacks. I wish I could discuss the organ playing I heard at Notre Dame but all I remember was hot hot I was. It was in August. I actually remember looking around for the nearest exit thinking I was going to faint, and that it would be nice to get out before I did. But I was wedged among so many other worshipers that I couldn't move. I wound up staying where I was.

We were fanning ourselves with our Mass booklets. I do recall taking my camera out and taking a picture of a miserable, sweating George. I will have to find that picture so I can scan it and run it.

I wonder if Olivier Latry was there that day. As I understand it, he is one of three organists at Notre Dame.

Now I wish I had popped up into the organ loft and said hi.

Because now, I feel as though I know him.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Getting physical

Lastnight I was over at my mom's and WNED-FM started playing Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony. Wow, the radio puts you in tough situations sometimes. When I was a teenager I read Hermann Hesse's "Steppenwolf" (didn't we all?) and I remember how somewhere in there, the Steppenwolf character complained that the radio put great music into places it had no business to be. That was the situation lastnight.

I cannot tune out something like the "Jupiter" when it is playing in the background. And my mother wants to talk through it. At the same time, if you propose turning it off, she gets all confrontational. That happened in the car once when I wanted to turn off this Brahms that was on the radio and was just tearing my heart out. "Don't you like Brahms?" my mom said, all angry.

Once I walked into an office and I was talking to whoever I had gone there to see, but there was this music trickling out of a speaker, so soft you could hardly hear it, and it kept distracting me. I couldn't even hear what it was, that was how quiet the music was. But it kept grabbing my subconscious. Finally I got closer to the speaker. And it was the slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth!

No wonder it was getting me!

There are so many things I love about the "Jupiter" and lastnight I kept thinking about them, partly because I was actually trying not to listen to it. The first movement, I love its spirit of triumph. In the last movement there is this moment when the the theme is climbing and suddenly Mozart freezes the bass line, he just stops it and holds it. It is as if the floor falls out from under you.

Mozart was such an artist with sound that sometimes you do feel his music physically. He knew how to accomplish that. There is that theme in the last movement of the "Prague" Symphony that climbs and then dips and whenever I hear that, I actually feel as if I am on a roller coaster. I also felt it physically the first time I saw "Cosi fan Tutte," two or three years ago. This subtle twist seemed to take place and I felt as if I were in one of those funhouse rooms where the floor is tilted and your balance is shifted. Wow, that was weird. I will never forget that.

That is what happens when you listen to music with your whole self, when you really concentrate on it. Funny physical things happen.

Something else happened lastnight too that I have to comment on. The "Jupiter" was part of the Pittsburgh Radio Symphony Orchestra broadcast. It was a good performance too -- one of the fastest I had ever heard, but that was OK. However. After the "Jupiter," would you believe it, they played some little symphony by Luigi Boccherini.

What in the world??

The "Jupiter," no one should have to follow that act. I mean, it ends with what could well be the greatest 20 seconds in all of music. But to follow it with a Boccherini symphony? Poor Boccherini! He is so not up to that!

Who gets paid to make these decisions?

Another mystery of music.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Rachmaninoff or bust

Yesterday I was walking around thinking about that picture of Johannes Brahms, and it got me thinking about how musical times change, in funny little ways.

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, first getting into music, you never saw pictures of a young and good-looking Brahms. All we saw was Brahms with the big beard!

Also, back then, the official World's Greatest Composer was not Mozart. It was Beethoven. I thought Mozart was greater but I was the voice crying in the wilderness.

It is odd how the fashions change.

Rachmaninoff is another situation. I think about this sometimes in connection with my book on Leonard Pennario, because Pennario excelled in Rachmaninoff. There was a time it was fashionable to look on Rachmaninoff's concertos as flashy showpieces. Later, that changed, and people saw them for the masterpieces they are, albeit in, yes, a very romantic style.

Well, the other day I peeked in on the blog of Jeremy Denk, the pianist who was at the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert series a few months ago, playing the Hammerklavier. I loved that concert. And Denk's blog is cute. He doesn't write in it very often but a few things he has written have cracked me up.

But the other day Denk began griping about Rachmaninoff. It was part of a post that was about other things too, but he was writing something to the effect of everything Rachmaninoff touches, he screws up. You can read it here.

And I looked at the comments. There were a bunch of them, giggling about various aspects of the post. What hit me, though, was that no one, not one single person, raised his voice in defense of Rachmaninoff. No one wrote, "Uh, Jeremy, you are full of bull."

Which makes me wonder if Rachmaninoff's reputation could be again headed south.

If it's true, it's a pity. I love Rachmaninoff.

Love his looks, too. He was a good-looking man in his own austere Russian way, although you could not tell that from the bust in the picture above. Doesn't that picture crack you up? I found that on the Life Photo Archive.

Here is a nifty picture of Rachmaninoff that I never saw before. He is with his daughter and his dog.

And here is a nice glamour-puss shot.

Rachmaninoff will always be tops on my blog, that is for sure. There have been times when I didn't like someone's music and later I learn to like it. But it never goes the other way around.

Once I love something, I love it for good.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Long-ago love

I am tired of hearing about the great love affair between Robert and Clara Schumann. I don't know why. I just am.

On the other hand I am fascinated by the situation between Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

Why is that?

Could it have something to do with Brahms' looks?

Or songs like this?

Such are the mysteries of music.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A tall order

Wow, this blog is so bad for me! Just now I read back what I had written and I thought, well, it wouldn't hurt to listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing "Das Wandern," just once, on this snowy morning when I am behind the eight ball as usual.

Watching it once might not have hurt. But then I watched it again.

And again!

Then I went on to "Wohin," the next song in Schubert's "Die Schoene Muellerin." It is on the YouTube video too, which, if you want to fall victim to it the way I did, you can find here.

I grew up listening to Fischer-Dieskau, not watching him. Now I found myself entranced watching him. My coffee got cold as I sat and stared. He is such a tall, graceful man. So handsome, too. He was 67 when that video was shot. He is in his 80s now and I guess he is still handsome. Between him and Leonard Pennario I have great taste in octogenarians, I will say that.

What strikes me most about watching Fischer-Dieskau sing, though, is how natural his movements are, and how connected he seems with the audience. I love how in "Wohin," he absently caresses the lid of the piano. Then he folds his hands. Then someone in the audience sneezes or something, and you see him glance up. He radiates such warmth.

When you are a performer so much depends on your manner toward the audience. You see some people, their performance might be OK but they just project being uptight, and that is bad. Cecile Licad, when she played the Rachmaninoff Third with the Buffalo Philharmonic, she walked out as if she were being led to her execution. I remember she did a good enough job with the concerto. But your perception of it was clouded because she looked tense, and you found yourself absorbing some of the tension.

That is Cecile Licad up above. She is beautiful. And she has chops. Now, if she could just relax! I got into an argument about her with my mom. She said, "Well, it's hard to play that. You can't expect the pianist to look the way you want her to look and behave the way you want her to behave."

I said, "Well, yes, I can!"

Being a concert artist is tough! It is a tall order! Otherwise, heck, I would be one.

Oh, look. In that link above, after the Chopin, Licad plays the same Rachmaninoff prelude I have Pennario playing today in my other blog. We can listen to them both performances side by side!

It is always interesting to compare and contrast.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Prof. G, thank you for the comment yesterday and for reading my new blog. I do not feel like such a loser, getting a comment from Prof. G. And this is what I had in mind, our having discussions like this.

About "Pictures at an Exhibition," I almost wrote something about that yesterday! But I was trying to keep the post short, and suddenly I felt I was rambling on and on, so I hit "delete." I will not hit "delete" today!

I prefer "Pictures" on the piano. There is no contest in my mind. If I turn on the radio and they are playing the orchestral version, which they usually are, I always wish I were hearing the piano version. Darn, I wish I could post some of Pennario's performance. But it is not on You Tube.

In the "Promenade" sections I like how a great pianist will change the colors as you move from one painting to the next. The orchestra can do that, but to me it does not seem as subtle. In "The Great Gates of Kiev," I think those big piano chords paint the picture better than chords heard in an orchestra. You can see and hear those great gates. The texture of the piano is more concrete than the sound of an orchestra. You can feel the shining surface of those gates, imagine them clanging shut.

Here is a video of the Irish pianist (and Pennario fan, which I admire him for) Barry Douglas playing "Great Gates."

Another thing: There is this obscure song cycle, "Kraemerspiegel," that Richard Strauss wrote when he was pretty young. It included this one piano solo that is ravishingly beautiful. When Strauss was old and writing "Capriccio" his son or someone told him, "What's that beautiful piano piece doing gathering dust in that old song cycle? Nobody ever listens to that song cycle. Put it into an opera." So Strauss orchestrated it and put it into "Capriccio," where it became the Moonlight Music that opens the last act.

The Moonlight Music is beautiful. But it has a whole different feel from that piano piece! Plus I am not even sure it fits in properly with "Capriccio." That might be because I knew it first as part of that obscure song cycle. Then again, I am not sure it belongs there, either. I just find it more affecting on the piano. It is more delicate. In its orchestral version it sounds overblown.

"Overblown." That word is getting me somewhere. I think Ravel's treatment of "Great Gates of Kiev" sounds overblown, too, compared with the piano part. I think I like the economy of the piano. That is why I think pieces written originally for the piano tend to sound overblown in orchestral arrangements.

I also prefer songs with piano accompaniment to songs with orchestral accompaniment. Think of Richard Strauss. He wrote so magnificently for piano. That is another issue to consider. The greater the composer's skill in writing for piano, the tougher it is to do justice to the composition when you orchestrate it.

Wow. Look at this. It is Jussi Bjoerling singing Strauss' "Staendchen." Listen to that 1950s introduction!

But I still like it with piano better. Here it is sung by the great, great Nicolai Gedda. They do not say who the pianist is but I am pretty sure it was Gerald Moore. There is Nicolai Gedda up above. His "Staendchen" is my favorite version because I loved it as a teenager. Teenagers should not be allowed to listen to stuff like this but nobody was supervising me and I did. I must have listened to this particular performance about a thousand times.

The pictures they put with the Gedda version! Like Frank Frazetta! Well, it is an extremely sexy song. One of these days we will list the sexiest German lieder and surely that will be near the top of the list.

With piano, of course.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Lost in translation

The other day I was driving into work and WNED was playing Ravel's arrangement of his own "Le Tombeau de Couperin." That is Ravel in the picture up above! And while I was listening to "Le Tombeau" I had this thought:

I do not know of any piece written for piano that has been improved by orchestrating it.

I am just saying.

Judge for yourself with the Prelude from "Le Tombeau de Couperin." Here is the piano version, played by Leonard Pennario, who besides being my buddy was one of the great Ravel interpreters. He was especially famous in that regard for premiering the solo piano version of "La Valse."

Here is the orchestrated version played by Charles Dutoit and the Detroit Symphony.

It is like a different piece, with a whole different mood! And I am sorry, I just like the piano version better.

It is OK to disagree.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Into the unknown

I am obsessed with music so I started this blog. On my other blog I love to joke around and report on how my book on Leonard Pennario is going. And it seems there are some people who read that blog who are into music, and I thought this blog would give us a place where we could kick things around and trade opinions. Plus, I could write highly personal and self-indulgent stuff that would not fit into either the Pennario blog or Artsbeat, where I blog at The Buffalo News.

You would think two blogs would be enough for anyone. But no! For me it is not!

A few minutes ago I was sitting here thinking how I should start this, because starting something new is always daunting. And I started remembering what it was like when I went to California to see Pennario. I was starting something new, and I was -- well, there was one ten-minute stretch when I was scared. That was the day before my flight to California, when I was leaving the office.

I thought, what am I doing??

There were fewer than 30 full-time music critics in the country and here I was one of them and look, I was giving up this job that I loved -- and this paycheck that I loved -- for three months so I could fly to California to write a book, which I had never done before, about a man who, two weeks before, had been only a name to me. What if he changed his mind? What if my job was not there for me when I got back? What was I, crazy?

Up until then I had been fine. Now, all of a sudden, I was panicked. I got into the car and sat there. Then I saw this CD on the seat and it was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert's "Die Schoene Muellerin." I love Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I had a crush on him when I was a teenager and he was nice to me and sent me a couple of pictures of himself. I still think he was the greatest singer who ever lived and looking back I congratulate myself on my good taste. That is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau up above, laughing with violinist Isaac Stern. Isn't that a wonderful picture? I found it on the Life magazine photo archive.

Back to my panicked night. I put the CD into the player and started the engine. And I heard that first song, "Das Wandern." I do not have to translate that because you can tell what it means. This is the song where the hero of the song cycle, the young miller's apprentice, makes the decision that he is going to take off into the unknown and see where life leads him. If you know the rest of the song cycle you will know that his story ends in sorrow. But you have to take a chance!

Let me tell you, that song gave me courage the way no pep talk would ever have been able to. As soon as I heard the first notes, I was smiling. I pulled myself together and I told myself well, whatever is ahead, it will be an adventure and I am going to get on this bus and see where it goes.

So here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing "Das Wandern" and that seems as good a way as any to start our Music Blog. Isn't it great, the stuff you find on You Tube?

And here is a nifty version of the song with guitar. The singer here is the great tenor Peter Schreier. The tempo is a little slow for me but I love the guitar. It makes the piece sound like a folk song.

Oh, look! There is a real folkie version of the song on You Tube too. Check it out.

Perhaps that should bother me but it does not. They consider "Das Wandern" a kind of folk song in Germany and Austria. It has entered the folk song realm. And I like the montage that goes with this performance, the paths and rivers leading this way and that. That is the feeling the song has, that you have to go where life leads you. That is what picked me up on that October night when I was panicked.

It is great when you can use music to self-medicate. I do that quite a bit.