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!

 

 

 

 

“A Pianist Who Bucks The Trend”

Marc-Andr Hamelin c. Nina Large6.jpg
Nice story/podcast from my friends at WQXR today lamenting the current state of the encore in classical music.  “It’s a failure of imagination and it’s a failure of artistic expression” huffs the critic from The Telegraph.

Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat, Op 27 N. 2, is wheeled out so often it’s a wonder the audience don’t sing along like the crowd at a rugby match. Traumerai, from Schumann’s Kinderszenen, I’ve heard so often it now has no more significance than elevator muzak. And as for [Liszt’s] La Campanella, if I never hear those bells again it will be too soon.

Then’s there’s this “cake-smasher” of Percy Grainger’s arrangement (kinda sorta) of “In Dahomey…”  If you can read music, follow along…if you dare!

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Freaky Friday with Fryderyk

16 pianists playing a single Chopin Polonaise, with even a few clams thrown in. A tour-de-force of editing, and a remarkable seven-minute-and-nineteen-second tutorial on, oh, I don’t know…technique, style, fingering, cinematography, lighting, dress, culture…. Enjoy!

And a second consecutive day of referencing Liberace, too!

PS – for another mashup involving this Polonaise, check out the 24 pieces crammed into two minutes that chronicles Chopin’s affinity for his favorite key signature.

 

Episode 73: That A-Flat Thing

C.P.E. Bach III: A Double Concerto at the Crossroads….

There are all kinds of terms to describe the period of history in between the Baroque era of Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel, and the dawning of the so-called “Classical Era” personified by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.   “Rococo,”  “Style Galant,”  or to get really German-geeky about it, Emfindsamer Stil:

A musical aesthetic associated with north Germany during the middle of the 18th century, and embodied in what was called the ‘Empfindsamer Stil’. Its aims were to achieve an intimate, sensitive and subjective expression; gentle tears of melancholy were one of its most desired responses.

The above is taken from a surprisingly entertaining site I discovered called Musical Inclinations –  “an online resource examining the differences between the pre-classical and classical style.”

Or you could just listen to this wonderful example of a C.P.E. Bach concerto that sits at this crossroads of history: A Double Concerto for the new-fangled fortepiano, and the old-fangled harpsichord.   And, as it turns out, the very last of the 50-odd concertos he composed between 1733 and 1788.  And, as pianist Danny Driver mused in the NPR story the other day, “It’s literally, from the very first movement, one bar piano, one bar harpsichord, a little bit of orchestra, then something else. The exchange of ideas is so quick….it’s not postmodern, but it almost feels postmodern in the sense that there’s this sort of collation of different ideas and different feelings all sort of rolled into one. I think it’s of today as it was of its time.”

 

 

C.P.E. Bach II: Hamelin Has At It

Here’s another keyboard delight from C.P.E. Bach, this time a live concert performance by pianist Marc-André Hamelin, he of the ferocious talent, and seemingly limitless repertoire and musical curiosity.    Check out the transition into the second movement at c. 6:00, where in the words of one of the YouTube commenters, “Dad walked in.”   And another reminder of what I find so appealing about J.S.’s second son:  How he, in the words of German musicologist Roman Hinke, “disregards all calls for an evenly balanced symmetry.”