Category Archives: Back-up category

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Carmen Variations

(June 14, 2019)

Where it came from…

For several centuries the greatest pianists on the planet have been famous for taking a theme by another composer then using that theme to freely improvise. Improvisations can be made up on the spot, very common in jazz, but also planned out very carefully for a final version that will remain unchanged. My personal bias is towards the things that are thought out carefully and written down because those ideas can be more complex and more sophisticated. Other musicians, however, prefer improv that is done on the spot.

George Bizet wrote one of the most famous and popular pieces of music ever written. It’s opera, and for the most part that’s not what I’m teaching, so at this time I won’t link to the opera itself. But several themes from Carmen, by far his most popular work, are known world-wide. Carmen is another of those incredibly famous pieces that has been ridiculously popular almost since it was written, but with a catch. Bizet died after the 33rd performance, and a bunch of nasty, incredibly stupid critics wrote scathing reviews. It was the usual story. The style of the music was ahead of its time, so it took awhile for audiences to catch up. If the critics had not been so incredibly stupid, it would have been popular even sooner.

Here is no group of people on planet earth whom I despise more than critics. They generally are 100% wrong about anything important.

Many years later, Horowitz composed these “Variations”, and it always brought audiences to their feet because of the speed, difficulty and inventiveness of the music. Quite obviously there are very few pianists on the planet who can play it well, and no one has come close to Horowitz. Just looking at the music gives me a headache because it’s so far over my ability.

Played by the Chairman of the Board…

There is another version, basically an incomplete copy, and for me it lacks the interest of the original. It does not have as much variation in touch, the dynamics are not as wide, and the articulation is not as sharp. But most of all, it’s a bit like reading a brilliant essay read by someone than then finding out that someone else wrote the words.

Yuja Wang, a copy…

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Reflections in the water

(May 25, 2019)

Reflets dans l’eau…

This is another very famous piece of music by Debussy. Perhaps the most famous recordings of this piece were done by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Here are two different videos by him.

The first is live and probably of lower sound quality, but very interesting because you can see the man playing.

Same piece, same man…

but this time the studio recordings. I don’t care much for the way the music is shown, but it does not disturb listen to it.

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Für Elise

Or for someone…

We don’t know who Beethoven wrote this for, but he wrote it for somebody, a student or perhaps the student of a friend. It was not published until long after he died.

Für Elise (For Elise) is one of the most famous pieces of music ever written for piano. Just about every piano student who has ever lived has played it, usually very badly. It is rare to hear a top artist playing something so well-known and so simple with dead serious intentions, and this is one of those rarities. This, by the way, is the same man who played the “eerie Rachmaninov music”.

And another version…

Here is another player with a different interpretation. The tempo is a bit freer and more what I would do myself, but both interpretations are utterly convincing.

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Death of Love and Trust

(May 15, 2019)

Here is a very different feel:

The Death of Love and Trust, from The Firm, is a very different mood and style from composers like Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov, but it remains very Romantic, in a different way. This is another composition in the key of Eb Minor, which is a very awkward key to write in and to read. It has been historically used by composers for very serious matters.

The composer, Dave Grusin, unfortunately does not write out all the notes. I have them and have taught them a couple times, but I had to listen very carefully to complete the whole thing.

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Claire de Lune

You probably have heard this…

This is the most famous piano piece by Debussy, and this recording is by the composer. It was made in 1913 on a special kind of player piano, and that enabled recording engineers to use the roll to get close to what he played. I present it here for comparison.

To find the best contemporary pianists playing Clair de Lune, you have to find Suite Bergamasque, because this piece is just one of the selections in the whole suite.

Clair de Lune means literally “light of the moon”, and so “moonlight”. This was Debussy’s name, in contrast to “the Moonlight Sonata”, which was a name Beethoven never used.

A more modern recording…

For only Claire de Lune by modern pianists you have fewer choices. Here is one:

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Schubert Impromptu No. 3 in G Flat

Schubert wrote four Impromptus…

But this is by far the most famous and continues to be one of the most famous pieces ever written. I chose this recording, not only because it is excellent, but you can see the player. I’d like to get rid of the stupid chandelier  above, but nothing is perfect.

Here is a biography. Read it if you have time.

Biography of Schubert

But first remember this, most of all; he died at the age of 31. And much of his greatest music was never heard until after his death. He was so poor, he was only finally able to buy his own piano during the last year of his life.

We can only imagine what he would have written if he had lived to age 70.

 

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Another piece in Eb Minor by Rachmaninov…

This time a short Prelude…

The eerie piece I posted last week, also by Rachmaninov, was from very early in his career. There is something unique about music in Eb Minor because there are six flats, and it is a nightmare to notate. Great composers wrote in such keys because they are extremely comfortable for the hands, but they are very difficult to read.

This short piece is also in Eb Minor. I wish I could find one performance that is not so fast, but Ashkenazy is an incredible player.

The last Romantic giant of the piano…

There is an emphasis on speed by most modern players that drives me absolutely mad, as if something great can’t be played a bit slower and yet be as effective or more effective.

I keep coming back to Rachmaninov, (Apr. 1, 1873 – Mar. 28,  1943), because he died just five years before I was born, and if he had lived 20 more years I might have heard him play, at least on new recordings. I have very strong feelings about his music. Not only was he without doubt one of the greatest composers for the piano, his style, the sound of his music remains incredibly popular right to this very moment.

There has not been one great genius from the time of his death to carry on this kind of great music. It is not because of his style – his music is still played everywhere. There has simply been no one following him with the same monumental gift. I continue to hope that eventually someone new will rediscover the lyricism and absolute mastery of piano composition that he had.

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Something very eerie…

(Apr 19, 2019)

The composer himself…

This is by Rachmaninov, and it’s frightening to think that he recorded it in 1940, about three years before his death.

He still possessed a frightening technique. It’s typical of how it is usually played, and probably the best version played in the standard way.

Now something utterly different…

This is the same piece, but it sounds completely different. I don’t know if the composer would have been shocked and insulted to hear it so changed, or fascinated with a new interpretation.

I find it fascinating, with a whole different set of tonal colors. Although this was written about 123 years ago, it might have been in the film score of “The Sixth Sense”, one of the weirdest ghost movies ever made.

Pogorelich has always been one of the strangest performers in history, with critics who loathe what he does and fans who love it. My take: if 50% of your listeners think you are horrible, and the other 50% think you are the best on the planet, you are probably doing something great by shaking things up. You are making people think.

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Chopin 3rd Sonata, final movement

Great young player…

This guy has been around awhile now, and I have not heard a great deal about him lately, but around the time of this recording he was blazing through international piano contests. I don’t like contests. In fact, I loathe them. But every once in a while someone manages to win them without losing his or her passion and individuality.

Lost in a sonata…

Chopin is often said to have been a master of less structured musical forms – preludes, mazurkas, waltzes, polonaises and so on. His sonatas are usually analyzed as flawed, not tightly bound together, with weaknesses.

I would agree with that, and in fact Sonata No. 1 is rarely heard. In case you are interested, here is a good performance. Keep in mind that he wrote this at the old age of – wait for it – 18.

But the last movevent of his last sonata, Sonata #3 in B Minor, I believe is easily one of the best things he ever wrote. Why do we not hear it even more? Probably because tradition is a very powerful force, and it is almost considered “bad taste” to play only one movement of a sonata – a way of thinking I could not disagree with more.

And this is why I say, “It’s lost in a sonata”. If more pianists played only this last movement, it would be as popular as a few other of his compositions, such as the “Minute Waltz” or “Fantaisie Impromptu”.

For those of you who have a bit more time…

Here is the 1st Sonata. As I mentioned above, Chopin was only 18 when he wrote this. It is obviously not one of his greatest works, but I think it is worth listening to a couple times, out of interest.

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Chopin Polonaise in A♭ major

(Apr 9, 2019)

Polonaise Héroïque; Polish: Heroiczny…

Again, more than one recording.

  1. The first by a talented 14 year-old. There are mistakes and some minor problems, but overall it’s incredibly impressive for such a young kid.
  2. Then a second by the pianist who by many was considered the greatest interpreter of the music of Chopin, Arthur Rubinstein. One of the reasons for the huge power was his hand size. He could grab large chords and hit them solid, while most players roll those chords, which is a weaker and less massive sound. If I had to pick one performance, this would be it. The most shocking fact about Rubinstein for me is that he was already 70 years old in 1957, so whenever you hear a stereo recording of Rubinstein he was around 70 years old or older. When you listen to this you are hearing a man of probably at least 70 years of age.
  3. Finally, Vladimir Horowitz from, I think, 1971, a studio recording, when he was around 68 years old. This is very different from Rubinstein, so which you prefer will depend on you personality.

Simonas Miknius, age 14…

Rubinstein, around age 70 or later…

Horowitz, around age 68…

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