By Jacob Stockinger
Last Friday marked the 100th birthday of famed conductor Sir Georg Solti. Decca will be issuing nine special multi-CD releases (including a deluxe edition of Wagner’s “Ring”) plus a special 2- CD set with previously unreleased recordings to celebrate the centennial event. And justly so. Solti (below, with a Grammy) won 32 Grammy awards – more than any other musician who was classical, pop, folk, rock, jazz, blues, whatever.
An import from Europe, where he was a refugee from Hitler and spent World War II exiled and jobless in Switzerland, the Hungarian-born Solti, who studied with Bartok, restored the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to world-class preeminence during his 22 years leading the ensemble.
And Solti’s career, which spanned more than 60 years, was aptly described and analyzed in a terrific story last Friday morning on NPR’s “Morning Edition” by musician and music critic Miles Hoffman. His main thesis was that Solti was as his height just as the recording industry was also at its height. The needed each other and complemented each other.
That made Solti’s complete recording of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle — which took several years and was the first in history — as well as of the complete symphonies and concertos by Beethoven (below), Brahms and Mahler something special, not just another addition or alternative. The same goes for his many opera recordings. He was the complete musician.
I would add only one more observation: The secret to Solti’s artistic and commercial success was that he allowed us as listeners to hear the music rather than himself.
That was why he could succeed in almost any period or composer or work, from the Baroque era through the Classical and Romantic periods and then into the 20th century, and why soloists of so many different temperaments and styles liked to work with him. Solti was not a specialist, but a musical chameleon in the best sense.
An affable and dashing, cosmopolitan and compassionate figure who liked to socialize and who played tennis until well into his 80s, Solti seemed the epitome of the healthy musician. His style was marked by a certain naturalness and muscularity, though not by unbalanced brute force. His tempi never seemed exaggerated in either the fast or slow direction, and his use of flexible rubato always seemed judicious and never self-indulgent.
Moreover, he always made music exude both sense and beauty, qualities too rarely exhibited in some contemporary music and performances. As a result, he was not an unmistakable interpreter or egotistical stylist like, say, Vladimir Horowitz or Wilhelm Furtwangler. His performances never seemed fussy, precious or pretentious. Instead they just seemed, well … normal, the way that the music must have been meant to sound. In short, he was always both reliable and, with rare exception, exciting. I would put him in the company of someone like Bernard Haitink.
Let me put it this way: George Solti conducted the orchestra the way Arthur Rubinstein played the piano. You always felt secure and refreshed in the presence of the music’s greatness, not the player’s personality. The beauty he made just seemed so normal and such an integral part of life that it became part of the so-called “natural world.” And that is the way great art should be: inevitable and a force of nature.
Maybe you will agree with me, and maybe not. But in any case, you should read the story.
Here is a link to that NPR story about Georg Solti:
Did you ever hear Solti live? What did you like or dislike?
What is your favorite recording with Solti conducting (he also played the piano)?
What do you think made Georg Solti a great conductor?
Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section.
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Yesterday I explained that I had not replied to so many kind and generous reader comments because I was recently out of the country on vacation for a two-week visit to family. But I did not say where.
That’s no surprise, I suppose, in hindsight. There were beautiful, well-cared-for flowers everywhere, bright colored and beautiful flowers in window boxes (below), in house gardens, in public parks, even in traffic roundabouts. I have seen similar sights in France and even in the city of Marquette, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But nothing compared with Germany. The world could use more flowers.
Of course, there is a lot of classical music that evokes flowers, especially songs.
But I first heard the lovely and melodic Schumann piece during a performance by Vladimir Horowitz, who programmed it often. It reminds of the same composer’s charming “Arabesque,” Novelettes” and “Night Pieces” as well as some sections of his suites made up of the suite “Scenes of Childhood,” “Kreisleriana,” “Fantasy Pieces” and “Carnaval.”
Schumann (below, in a photo from 1850) was one of the composers with the greatest gift for evoking nature – the French composer Debussy also excelled – and when you see the flowers of his native land, you understand their influence on him. (You can also find other readings, including one by the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, on YouTube.)
So, here is the great Vladimir Horowitz playing Schumann’s “Blumenstuck” in New Haven in the 1960s, in an interpretation that was a bit more lively and engaging, to my taste, than a later one in the mid-1970s.
I hope you enjoy it with the same pleasure that both the music and its original inspiration gave me:
By Jacob Stockinger
An interesting and accomplished monthly Australian magazine – Limelight Magazine (below) – is devoted to classical music and the fine arts in the Land Down Under. Limelight recently polled contemporary well-known concert pianists today and asked them to name the Top Ten Pianists of All-Time. But what I do find funny, and even questionable or suspect, is that they all equated the qualifier “Of All Time” with the 20th century. Partisans of Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Rudolf Serkin might also find some grounds for minor disagreement. And feminists will almost certainly object to the sexist list, which completely excludes women, including such talents Guiomar Novaes, Teresa Careno and Martha Argerich (below).
Granted, perhaps that is because we do not possess recordings of certain figures. But you might think that, even without recordings as documents, someone might name, say, Chopin (below top) and Liszt (below bottom) as among the most accomplished pianists of all time.
Take a look for yourself: http://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/Article/306444,the-10-greatest-pianists-of-all-time.aspx/0
Published since 2003, the Australian magazine itself — given the home country’s geographical location — understandably has a lot to say about the classical music scene in Asia and about less well-known names of performers and compositions. It is worth checking out. It seems to publish a lot of Top Ten lists and features rarely heard performers, groups and compositions.
Here is a link to its home website: www.limelightmagazine.com.au
And be sure to leave your own nominations for the Best Pianists of All Time in the COMMENT section.
By Jacob Stockinger
You may recall that a couple of week ago, I posted stories about the Carnegie Hall recital debut to benefit the American Cancer Society by 28-year-old Uzbekistan-born pianist Lola Astanova (below), who likes to perform in the latest fashions and who is not shy about promoting herself and her good looks to further her concert career. (That is why she also invites comparison to pianist Yuja Wang.)
Here is a link to that first post:
Then a week later, I posted a number of reviews of that recital. Most of the critics said it was so-so, though a couple were more enthusiastic. Here is a link to that second post:
But subsequently I heard two listeners who each attended the recital and were there on the spot.
Now, of course, we all know how unreliable eyewitnesses can be thanks to the many death-penalty reversals secured around the U.S. by The Innocence Project. Eyewitness testimony has long known to be notoriously unreliable.
Add in the subjectivity of the arts and of both the person making the art and the person consuming it, and the question of reliability is compounded many times.
In any case today and tomorrow I want to offer two sides, one pro and one con, from two people who both attended the recital.
You can make up your own mind which one is right, or if the truth lies somewhere in between.
Today I feature Alexander Grey who wrote at length and thoughtfully to the blog, in two installments. He offered the following impressions and evaluation of the recital by Astanova:
First of all, I always enjoy reading your blog because you always try to be fair (even if you have a strong opinion), and always leave the decision up to your readers. I respect that.
So I have to say something about this Astanova concert, and all the negative reviews that you mentioned. I attended the concert, and here is what bothers me about these reviews:
First of all, nobody mentioned that Astanova received a standing ovation from nearly 3,000 people in attendance and was called back on stage (below) three times. A relevant piece of information when measuring how successful a concert went, wouldn’t you say? Especially in New York, where people are experienced (and even spoiled) concert-goers.
Secondly, nobody mentioned that among other famous names the concert was attended by Byron Janis (below), who stayed until the very end (I was sitting two rows behind him) and who was applauding standing up when Astanova finished. I think it is fair to assume that Mr. Janis knows about the piano and understands this music no less than your average critic, wouldn’t you agree? Unless one is willing to dismiss Mr. Janis’ opinion as dilettante.
Thirdly, while Astanova does seem to put a lot of thought into her outfits (she changed her dress for the second part), she did not wear anything even REMOTELY as revealing at that orange Yuja Wang number (below). Astanova wore two long gowns that showed very little skin. With that said, I think you’d have to agree that she could wear a long overcoat with neck-high boots, and people would still say that she was “pushing sex.” Let’s be honest, if she looked like a boy and weighted 200 lbs. nobody would say a word about her outfits even if she’d play in lace lingerie.
Finally, I understand that no two people are alike and opinions differ. No argument there. But I was at Carnegie Hall that night, and Astanova’s performance was very solid, and to dismiss it as “mediocre” makes me question the professionalism and objectivity of the reviewers who make such claim particularly given their omission of the above mentioned information.
You know, promotion and marketing only go so far. Promotion can get people into a hall (maybe), but it can’t make them love a concert. And like it or not, but 3,000 people at Carnegie Hall loved her. And, frankly, the amount of heated discussions that Astanova generates only further confirms that she is anything, but mediocre.
I personally don’t like everything she does, but I think it’s great for classical music to finally produce a star that has mainstream appeal, and can get more people excited about classical repertoire. That is good for everyone.
Then came a follow-up when I asked Alexander about using his “Comment” as a post:
Thanks very much for your note. You are certainly welcome to use my comments, though given the number of people who attended and obviously enjoyed the concert, I would not call them the “minority report.”
I am, of course, aware that Byron Janis was only “official” student of Vladimir Horowitz (below), and I thought the fact that he came to this concert, stayed until the end (despite appearing quite frail) and applauded on his feet when Astanova was done spoke volumes about her ability. People like Mr. Janis almost never come out for anyone so I was plain amazed to see him and his reaction.
By the way, I’m pretty sure I also saw David Dubal (below, a professor of piano and performance at Juilliard and another authority on Horowitz) at the concert as well. I don’t know if he wrote anything about it, but I’m 99% sure he was there.
In my view all these details are valuable, and one of the reasons some of the “official” reviews bothered me so much is because they ignored all of them and ended up suspiciously lop-sided. Having several reporter friends who occasionally share “dishes from their professional kitchens” I was not very surprised: $850,000 in jewels is simply too easy a target for an up-and-coming critic to pass.
By the way, here I have to applaud you again for pointing out that Mr. Zachary Woolfe (below) is actually not a New York Times critic – an important detail that, probably, escaped most people.
But much like you, I noted it as I was disappointed that New York Times did not assign the likes of senior critic Anthony Tommasini (below) to review this concert. I wanted to read a seasoned and respected critic’s review, but we did not get it this time. Alas.
I think I said in my original comment that Ms. Astanova may not necessarily be “my cup of tea,” but fair is fair. She was poised, charismatic, gracious, and had a point of view. And I have to say I enjoyed it. Time will tell, of course, but I think she is here to stay, and I believe it would be good for classical music.
Also, Ms. Astanova raised a sum in the six-figures for cancer research that night. That’s very real money that goes to save lives. How many classical musicians (or critics for that matter) can say the same? Something to think about and acknowledge …
By Jacob Stockinger
You may recall that last weekend, I posted a preview and early review of the concert that the striking looking, 26-year-old, Uzbekistan-born pianist Lola Astanova (below) gave a week ago Thursday.
It was her Carnegie Hall debut, but took place within the unusual context of a gala fundraiser for the American Cancer Society that featured celebrities Donald Trump and Julie Andrews. (What do you think The Donald and The Julie said to The Lola?)
Well, you can look up some of Astanova’s recording on YouTUBE and decide about her playing for yourself.
But in the meantime, here is a sampling of various reviews of her concert that was reported on prominently because of her penchant for cutting-edge, skin-revealing, S&M-like fashion along with some $850,000 of jewelry by Tiffany. (Think she borrowed any of it from Callista Gingrich? Nah, it’s needed too much on the Florida campaign trail to attract the Republican base.)
An admirer of the great flamboyant virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz, for her “Tribute to Horowitz” Astanova also managed to perform her recital on Horowitz’ vintage and souped up Steinway concert grand that has toured the country several times for promotional purposes. (Many years ago, The Ear even got to play some Chopin, Scarlatti and Scriabin on it when it stopped in Madison.)
Her program was also classic Horowitz (below, in a portrait by Richard Avedon): One big work (Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 “Funeral March” – such an fitting choice for an uplifting cancer event, NOT); one medium piece; (Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor); and several smaller works, by Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin.
But the various reviewers seem to agree on this much: Lola Astanova is no Vladimir Horowitz, who also received his share of negative and disparaging reviews as well as raves. Still, bow ties do seem more tasteful, if less sensational, than leather or vinyl. And his paling was truly distinctive, and one of a kind.
Most of the major critics found her playing mediocre, or at least not especially outstanding – nothing faintly comparable to say the playing of that other fashion maven Yuja Wang or Valentina Lisitsa to Jonathan Biss or Jeremy Denk to pick four other very promising young piano talents.
True, some critics allowed more for the unusual nature and laudable goal of the event than others.
But nothing in any of the reviews sounds like a major label will soon sign Lola Astanova (below, after the recital). And I wouldn’t expect to see her soon of PBS’ “Great Performances” or “Live From Lincoln Center.”
But who can tell? The media can be funny about these things.
Anyway, you can read the reviews and decide for yourself.
Here is the review by freelancer Zachary Woolfe (below) for The New York Times:
Here is a more positive review:
Famed for his crankiness and chummyness with celebrities, Brit critic Norman Lebrecht (below) also weighed in. Be sure to read the comments from readers:
And here is a review that seems to focus on the whole happening as more of a charity event than a musical event:
So what is your verdict?
Do the reviews makes you sorry you weren’t in the audience to hear Lola Astanova?
Or just as happy that you missed it?
The Ear wants to hear.