May 23 Birthdays: Alicia de Larrocha and Jean Françaix

For your Friday enjoyment: A fabulous performance from 1997 of the seemingly-ageless Alicia de Larrocha (74 at the time) playing the Ravel Piano Concerto in G with Jesus Lopez-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony. As someone learning the ropes in the television world, I’m coming to appreciate really great camera work in shooting orchestras – far easier said than done! After a little rooting around on the Interwebs I discovered it was the handiwork of Brandenburg Productions, in tandem with Cincinnati’s PTV Station WCET 48.  (Turns out it was the CSO’s national television debut.)   For an example of the terrific camerawork, check out the beautiful harp close-up at about 5 minutes in.

Then there’s De Laroccha. Her usual ferocious technique, but at her age it’s also economical and elegant. No wasted movements or theatrics from this stately Queen…but utterly faithful to the energy and verve embedded in Ravel’s music!


nicolenarboniAs for Jean Françaix (1912-1997). I had always admired the froth and effervescence in his music (and he wrote for virtually every combination of instruments known to man), as well as the man’s craft, wit, and unpretentiousness. Then I got to know it a lot better when I got involved executive-producing a CD devoted to his complete piano works with pianist Nicole Narboni.  (You can also check out her video about the project here.) Like his Cinq Bis (Five Encores”)  – wherein the composer offers a tongue-in-cheek Chinese Menu of choices for pianists to play, depending on the success of the recital.   As Nicole explains in her liner notes:

Perhaps the most comical of all the works contained on this disc are the Cinq Bis, or Five Encores, from 1965.   In the preface, Françaix  quotes the 18th-century French author Nicolas de Chamfort …Quand vous êtes sur une scène, si vous n’êtes pas un peu charlatan, l’assemblée vous jette des pierres… (“When on the stage if you are not a little of a charlatan, the crowd will stone you.”)
These pieces have all the elements of great encores.  Pour Allecher l’auditoire (“To entice the audience”) is a sarcastic warm-up; Pour les dames sentimentales (“For romantic ladies”) is a wonderful combination of silly and serious.  The last three Bis are best saved for a third or fourth curtain call:  En Cas de succès  and En cas de triomphe  – no translation required!.  The fifth and final of the Bis, En cas de délire (“In case of delirium”)  suggests a scene from a Victor Borge concert…

Besides Nicole, the only pianist I know who plays these “Cinq Bis” with any regularity is the excellent Aussie pianist Simon Tedeschi…the acclaimed “stunt double” for actor Geoffrey Rush in the David Helfgott biopic Shine.  (Those were Simon’s hands you saw tickling the ivories in the close-ups!)  Here you can watch his fingers fly through all five of the Françaix encores!

 

 

 

 

Mahler and “Truthiness”

mahlercolbert

From biography.com comes this missive on Mahler and Truthiness – “An uncanny face off between the fake news anchor and the 19th-century composer.

 

 
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Pickin’ Banjos: Celebrating “Great Galloping Gottschalk”

Today’s birthday to celebrate is that of American original Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Check out the nice web piece my WGBH colleague Cathy Fuller put together a couple of years ago, pairing up Gottschalk’s iconic (and, I would say, groundbreaking) 1855 composition The Banjo with Gloucester, Mass., painter Fitz Henry Lane’s New York Harbor,  “composed” during the same year, and now hanging at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.   As Cathy puts it,

The year is 1855, and the two artists come from very different circumstances. One of them was forced to stay in one place all his life; the other was famous for globetrotting.

The painter Fitz Henry Lane (1804-1865) lost the use of his legs before his second birthday. The paralysis was thought to have come from ingesting poisonous jimsonweed. He would never recover.

The musician Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) became America’s first traveling virtuoso – a pianist/composer who did an unbelievable amount of touring. He gave uncountable concerts in Europe, Central America, South America and Cuba. Sometimes called the “Chopin of the Creoles,” he worked into his music the syncopations of Louisiana and the Caribbean, creating pieces that anticipated jazz and ragtime. His music really had little to do with Chopin’s, but his spectacular control of the instrument was caricaturized by images of a wild pianist with hundreds of flying fingers.

 

Music and Art: Louis Moreau Gottschalk & Fitz Henry Lane

Actually, there IS a pretty significant connection between Chopin and Gottschalk, as we discovered in one of our Radio Chopin episodes called “Chopin Comes to America.”   Sample grab:

When Gottschalk was 13, his father packed the young piano prodigy off to Paris to study at the world-famous Conservatoire which at first REJECTED his application, his examiner declaring, “America is a country of steam engines.”

But Gottschalk chugged through and by 1845, he was making his Paris debut at the Salle Pleyel. On the program: Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor. In the audience: the composer himself.

Chopin met Gottschalk after the concert, and heaped praise on the young American, predicting a brilliant future for the teenaged pianist. Hector Berlioz was there too, and spoke of Gottschalk’s “exquisite grace, brilliant originality, and thundering energy.”

Episode 14: Chopin Comes to America

As for his signature piece, it’s amazing what a wide range of interpretation it gets, and if YouTube is any indication, how much it represents “America” to foreign audiences as much as any work by Copland, Gershwin, or Bernstein. I first discovered Gottschalk through the mid-70s by pianist Ivan Davis, a few of which you can find on YouTube.  Later, in DC, I was blown away by the sound and incredibly solid playing by pianist Lambert Orkis, who recorded a lot of Gottschalk on the composer’s instrument of choice: a 9-foot Chickering, made right here in the Hub of the Universe.

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As for recordings of more recent vintage…. I usually admire the unusual repertory – and performances by the eccentric Cypriot pianist Cyprien Katsaris.  But he seems to take the “Serenade Grotesque” subtitle a little too much to heart, dropping and adding notes as he pleases while he buzzes through it like he’s on a bullet train to Bejing.  Irish pianist Philip Martin, on the other hand, gives it an almost ponderous opening at this performance in Mexico City.  And then there is this highly nuanced (and nicely shot) performance by Dutch pianist Regina Albrink.  I’d never heard her playing before but i’ll be listening for more after hearing this!

 

 

 

 

Four Songs for a Brahms Birthday

A somewhat off-the-beaten track selection to share for Johannes’ 181st….

Ever since I played these pieces in college i’ve adored the Four Songs for Women’s Choir, Two Horns, and Harp, Op. 17, dating from the time Brahms founded, and subsequently wrote a lot of pieces for, The Women’s Chorus of Hamburg. Brahms’ father was a horn player, which adds a poignant touch to this gorgeous – and I believe unique – combination of voices and instruments.

And Brahms picked some pretty interesting texts, too…who knew that he set Shakespeare?

The Four Songs are, in order:

1. .Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang (Harp Notes Ring)
2. Lied von Shakespeare (Song of Shakespeare)
3. Der Gärtner (The Gardener)
4. Gesang aus Fingal (Song from “Fingal”)

Texts and translations can be found here.   The video features the Choir of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona’s storied opera house, led by the Italo-Argentinian conductor José Luis Basso.  Not bad for a live performance, but if you want to dig deeper there are a number of excellent recordings.  Used to be that this piece was hard to find on disc — my original copy was an LP on the long-forgotten Onyx label.  No, not this recent startup, I’m talking about the old staple of the cutout bins.   But today, it’s a different story: Classical Archives lists no fewer than eight recent albums containing this work.  I think my favorite is a domestic product: a shimmering performance by the Kansas City Chorale, led by former Robert Shaw disciple Charles Bruffy.

Brahms Kansas City Chorale

 

 

Tatiana Nikolayeva, Shostakovich, and Bach

Since I’m knee-deep in Shostakovich producing the NEC Truth to Power concert at Symphony Hall for video (more on that later,) can’t help but observe that today would have been the 90th birthday of the legendary-in-the-Soviet-Union-but-dimly-known-in-the-West pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, (1924 – 1993), one of the few Russian pianists known for playing the keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach.

That all started in 1950, when Nikolayeva traveled to Leipzig to compete in the Bicentennial edition of the Bach competition.  As her biography states:

On the jury that year was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who was greatly impressed with Nikolayeva’s performances of Bach’s preludes and fugues of which she could play any from memory. Shostakovich wrote his set of Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 for her between October 1950 and March 1951. Nikolayeva telephoned him every day during the period of composition, going to his home to hear him play the most recently written prelude and fugue, and gave the first performance of the complete work in Leningrad in 1952. Their friendship lasted until the day of his death, more than twenty-five years later

Check out the Maestra at work. Stunning.

 

Joy For J.S.: Simone Dinnerstein & Xuefei Yang

Revisiting one of our special evenings in the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio we called “Sonatas and Partitas” featuring pianist Simone Dinnerstein and Xuefei Yang, one of the first Chinese guitarists to play in the West….

 

 

 

 

C.P.E. Bach IV: Magnificat

One of the pieces by Carl Philipp Emmanuel that has never fallen out of favor in his native Germany is his Magnificat in D Major, a work that perhaps deliberately shares the same name – and even key signature – as one of J.S. Bach’s most famous choral works. It was composed in 1749, just a year before the death of Bach the father.

And there is some supposition that the C.P.E. wrote this expansive work originally as an audition piece to succeed J.S. as the Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.   “Originally,” that is, because despite writing this Magnificat at an early age C.P.E. Bach revived this piece on several occasions during his career…and, like his father, recycled a lot of the movements into other sacred works of his.

Regardless, it stands as one of C.P.E. Bach’s greatest works – with many touches that suggest that the son learned well from his father…starting with the sound of the joyous natural trumpets at the opening of the piece. But you’ll also hear suggestions of the great choral works yet to come by Haydn and Mozart.  And how’s this for a little piece of history, courtesy of music scholar Jason B. Grant, who happens to be working on publishing the complete works of C.P.E. Bach this tricentennial year:

That C.P.E. Bach thought highly of his Magnificat is shown by his including it in a concert of 1786, a program which included the Credo of his father’s B Minor Mass, portions of Handel’s Messiah, and his own double-choir “Heilig.” Although it was a work from much earlier in his career, Bach clearly valued the Magnificat as a composition that could stand alongside not only his later Hamburg works, but also the great choral masterpieces of the previous generation

Check out these three sections in a very spirited performance by Czech-based Visegrad Baroque Orchestra, (“Barbara Maria Willi founded in 2006 Visegrad Baroque Orchestra in order to engage in collaborative work most talented musicians in Visegrad countries: Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Czech Republic”) and the Ars Brunensis Chorus,