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

Dvorak’s White Grand – The Saga of the Petrof Piano

Rummaging around in the proverbial shoebox of old photos from an old Euro vacation, i ran across a Throwback Thursday-worthy shot of me tickling the ivories on Antonín Dvořák’s own ivory-colored piano.

BKR at the Dvorak Piano

Did Dvorak actually own this gilded white grand?

The photo was taken at the Dvorak Museum in a leafy section of Prague, in a restored Baroque mansion called – and, no, I’m not making this up – “Villa Amerika” – appropriate for the composer who became so famous in the New World, I suppose!   I recall it was in a different location when I visited there in the late ’90s, but today, the white piano now gets pride of place in a small concert hall on the second floor, perched below an ornate frescoed ceiling.

 

But it got me to wondering about the Museum and more still about its Liberace-esque gilded white grand.  Did Dvorak really live there?  Did he actually play that instrument?  And what kind of a piano was it, exactly?

 

Villa Amerika - the Dvorak Museum in Prague

Villa Amerika – the Dvorak Museum in Prague

Dvorak Museum Concert Hall

The White Piano at home

 

The answers: 1) No, Dvorak actually lived in a small place not far away, on Zitna street.  But the Museum holds a lot of his various artifacts, including his viola.

2) Doubtful. Since I visited, the Museum has subsequently acquired Dvorak’s actual piano, a beautiful mahogany 1879 Bösendorfer, built in Vienna.

3) The piano, it turns out, is a Petrof, the storied family-owned Czech manufacturer run by a fifth-generation descendent of founder Antonin Petrof, born just two years before Dvorak.   And therein lies a tale!

It turns out that the company went into business in 1864 in the central Czech town of Hradec Králové, about two hours east of Prague, after young Antonin returned from an apprenticeship in Vienna and persuaded his father to turn their cabinet-making business into a piano factory.    And the apogee of success happened for both “Tonys” at about the same time: Just as Dvorak was returning from “Amerika” and about to take up the directorship of the Prague Conservatory, Antonín Petrof is appointed by the Emperor as the court piano-builder for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But after that the story becomes a tale of booms, busts, war, and then the advent of the Iron Curtain.  In 1948, the Petrof factory was nationalized, and became a state-run factory of a profoundly diminished reputation until the Petrof family got their company back in 1993.  And if you do the math, that means that the Petrof company is 150 years old this year!

Read more about the Petrof Piano Saga here: an amazing story of courage, determination, and a family’s extraordinary commitment to exemplary piano building tradition...and check out this video visit to the Petrof Piano factory below, replete with the roll call (with a few hilarious misspellings) of Petrof piano artists,including Ray Charles (who even had one in his home), Count Basie, Bill Evans, Mal Waldron, Lynne Arriale, Richard Clayderman (!), and Jacques Loussier.

Ray Charles' favorite piano brand?

Ray Charles’ favorite piano brand?

Further research reveals that the Petrof pianos have long been the house-supplied instruments in the storied Rudolfinum in Prague, where their rather heavy action and even regulation was preferred by such luminaries as Rudolf Firkusny, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and Ivan Moravec.   (One of Moravec’s great recordings: a 1963 disc of pieces by Chopin, Mozart, and Beethoven, was recorded on a Petrof.)

Then there’s the Petrof on display in the glittering concert hall in Prague Castle. Check out this video of violinist Josef Suk and pianist Jan Panenka playing Dvorak, natch:

 

But I was still curious to hear what that gilded white Petrof in the Dvorak museum sounded like.  So, after a lot of interet scouring, I did come up with a grainy video containing Dvorak Romance for violin and piano, Op. 11, as well as Chopin’s Ballade No. 3.  Incomplete performances, sadly, but complete enough to reveal that Dvorak’s white Petrov looks far better than it sounds…

 

 

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.”

C.P.E. Bach I: Pletnev Plays the Keyboard Sonatas

As promised, some favorites by the vastly underrated second (and in my opinion, most interesting) son of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose 300th birthday is being observed this year.

For me, any discussion of inspired recordings of CPE’s works starts with Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev’s recording of C.P.E.’s Keyboard Sonatas.  This CD, along with Pletnev’s inspired reading of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, are close to being Desert Island Discs for me. Pletnev recorded them in the mid-late ’90s, and shortly afterward stopped giving recitals and playing much in order to concentrate on conducting the Russian National Orchestra.  (Though word has it that he’s recently gone back to playing a few select gigs in London and Switzerland….)

What I like about both discs is the way that Pletnev seems to cut through the sentimentality and preciousness that seems to affect/infect a lot of performances from this era, and uncover the passion and emotion that is embedded in the music.   That, and the flashes of innovation, schizophrenia, and downright wackiness that is characteristic in music of this era, especially in the hands of CPE Bach. On the one hand, he’s championing the old man’s legacy and Baroque ideals; on the other, he’s busting out and bending and twisting these tried-and-true forms into new shapes.

Check out “Side 1 Cut 1” on the disc:

 

 

The Sonata No. 17 in G minor.    It starts out like he’s paying homage to the old man’s great Rage Over a Lost Penny?)

 

Chopin’s “Knocked Urn”

Melinda & Ethan getting their Downton on...

Melinda & Ethan getting their Downton on…

Still buzzing from the terrific performance at last night’s “Evening Inspired by Downton Abbey,” featuring soprano Melinda Whittington and pianist Ethan Uslan, playing classical, “jazz,” and other standards from the 1920’s in the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio.

And for an encore, since it was, after all, Chopin’s birthday and all, Ethan had to play one of his signature compositions. I explained to the Downton fans the title was inspired by what happened when poor Moseley the bumbling butler-turned-footman backs into an object d’art in the Crawley household….

 
Episode 183: Chopin’s ‘Knocked Urn’

 

Happy Birthday Chopin; Congratulations, Hung-Kuan Chen

Celebrating Fryderyk Chopin’s birthday today with a gripping performance by pianist Hung-Kuan Chen, of the two Op. 62 Nocturnes.   Chen played them in the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio for a special live broadcast marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Hung-Kuan Chen, one of the most respected pianists and teachers in the Boston area, is about to decamp for New York: He was one of three faculty appointments announced by the Juilliard School just a couple of days ago, joining pianist Sergei Babayan and Juilliard Alumnus (and MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner) Stephen Hough on the school’s piano faculty beginning in the Fall of 2014.   Nice line in the press release too:

Hung-Kuan ChenRaised in Germany, Hung-Kuan Chen’s early studies fostered strong roots in Germanic Classicism, which is tempered with the sensibility of Chinese philosophy, earning him a reputation as a dynamic and imaginative artist.”

 

Watch the video to witness some of those sensibilities at play.   These two late Chopin Nocturnes are favorites of mine, for reasons beautifully articulated by pianist Bruce Murray in our Radio Chopin series for WDAV.    Take a couple of minutes and listen to the episode here.

Episode 5: The Inspired Simplicity of Utterance