The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Bummer!!! The recent recital by YouTube sensation Valentina Lisitsa proved tedious and showed that great pianists aren’t always great musicians.

November 24, 2014
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Valentina Lisitsa (below), the Ukraine-born pianist who has become a YouTube sensation, played a recital here last Thursday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. It featured music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Valentina Lisitsa

All four men were accomplished pianists as well as composers.

So you would have thought that nothing could go wrong.

But it did.

Big time.

From the time she took the stage, Valentina Lisitsa seemed ill-at-ease and unsure of what to do musically. What resulted was a very long concert with too much boredom and tedium.

Her default position seemed to be to play a lot, and then play some more. It turned out to be more like a marathon or a 19th-century “monster concert” than a typical piano recital. I don’t know what the intent of her program was except perhaps to show off her undeniable stamina.

Valentina LIsitsa playing

True, the “new media” phenom, who has a clear gift for self-promotion and who attracts avid groupie-like fans to her many YouTube videos and concerts, played for the better part of three hours and never seemed to break a sweat, even in the most difficult pieces.

But I have to concur with The Wise Piano Teacher who said: “It was the worst piano recital I’ve heard in my life, and I’ve heard a lot of them. I came home angry.”

The teacher wasn’t alone.

Except for a few of the miniature intermezzi by Brahms and a few of the ingenious etudes by Schumann, the piano playing seemed disjointed and the music too often lacked musicality.

Now, my instinct is to be generous and to make allowances. Maybe it was just an “off” night. Or maybe she felt ill or sick. Or maybe she has been overbooked or underrehearsed in recent weeks.

I do know that I have heard Lisitsa play much better, though she seemed at her best when she accompanied the gifted American violinist Hilary Hahn (below), who perhaps gave her some interpretive direction.

hilary_hahn

The Ear kept thinking of the response by Vladimir Horowitz (below) when somebody asked him why he didn’t take the second repeats in sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti or why he didn’t play late sonatas by Beethoven. “I don’t want to bore the audience,” he said.

Vladimir Horowitz

Lisitsa showed no such concern for the audience. In fact her program, her stage manner and her playing all seemed listener-unfriendly. At times, her recital even seemed condescending and disdainful of the ordinary listener.

Valentina Lisitsa at keyboard 2

As a critic, I have to call it as I hear it. But I take no joy in writing this. There are few enough solo piano recitals in Madison these days, and I had really looked forward to this one. Rarely do I want to walk out of a concert of any sort, especially a piano concert. But this time I did want to walk out -– and I did leave early, during a Franz Liszt encore that was his arrangement of Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” I also saw some other serious music fans walk out even earlier.

As for the all-Romantic program itself, here are some snapshots or mini-critiques:

The “Tempest” Sonata by Beethoven (below): This great sonata was frequently reduced from a tempest to directionless wind by dropped or missed notes and choppy interpretation as well as by inattention to dynamics. It just didn’t make sense intellectually or emotionally -– and it is a great masterpiece of emotional depth. And certainly her playing of the same work in a live concert in Paris in a YouTube video at the bottom is better than what I heard live here. 

Beethoven big

The “Symphonic Etudes” by Robert Schumann (below top): Decca has just released an 85-minute recording (below bottom) of Lisitsa playing these pieces plus the complete Chopin etudes. She seems drawn to etudes, perhaps because they often favor fingers over music. And this woman has fingers and technique to spare, even if she lacks musical ideas. imagination and something to say.

Schumann photo1850

Valentina Lisitsa Chopin Schumann etudes CD cover

Selected Intermezzi by Johannes Brahms (below): She didn’t stick to the program, and didn’t announce the changes to the audience. She played 14, but after a while they all ran together and it seemed more like 114. Better she should have played a set of just three or four intermezzi as a quiet interlude –- which was their original intended purpose. But instead she too often rushed through them. We missed the poignant melodies and harmonies, the autumnal soulfulness of late Brahms, to say nothing of the careful construction and counterpoint he used.

brahms3

Sonata No. 1 in D Minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below): The Ear thinks Lisitsa knew she has confused and lost her small audience when she went from the long Brahms set directly into the Rachmaninoff sonata. I heard some audience members wonder about what they were hearing – where Brahms had stopped and Rachmaninoff had begun. This sonata is a hard piece to hold together, and it didn’t help that she favored big noise over music, big chords over subtle voices.

rachmaninoffyoung

All in all, and despite a standing ovation — for her strength and brilliance, one suspects — The Ear found it a night to forget. I have heard Valentina Lisitsa (below) in better form and I wish I knew what happened here.

“Was she annoyed that the house wasn’t full?” someone asked. Maybe, although such an attitude would be highly unprofessional and too peevish or diva-like.

But I do know that when she next appears in a solo recital, I will think twice -– more than twice -– about attending.

That is too bad for me and too bad for her, too bad for the audience and too bad for the presenter.

Lisitsa_Valentina_2

But everyone’s a critic.

What did others of you who attended Valentina Lisitsa’s recital think?

Did you judge it a success or a failure?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Are super-high concert fees morally right or wrong? Do they contribute to the wealth gap and lack of young audiences? What can music consumers do?

October 24, 2014
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Are artist concert fees — like those charged by tenor Placido Domingo (below top), soprano Renee Fleming (below middle) and violinist Itzhak Perlman (below bottom) —  too high these days and too unaffordable for most American concert-goers?

FRENI

reneefleming

Itzhak Perlman close

What would Janet say?

Maybe that refrain could become the economic equivalent of What Would Jesus Say?

I am speaking of Janet Yellen (below), the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve who last week made headlines when she spoke out publicly against the widening wealth gap as being contrary to America’s historic democratic ideals.

Key Speakers At Seminars At The IMF & World Bank Annual Meetings

But let’s localize the issue.

By all accounts superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, along with pianist Kathryn Stott, turned in a terrific performance — his seventh — at the Wisconsin Union Theater last Saturday night.

The Ear didn’t go, but here is a rave review from the student newspaper The Badger Herald, which agrees with the word-of-mouth reviews I have heard:

http://badgerherald.com/artsetc/2014/10/20/yo-yo-ma-and-kathryn-scott-transcend-classical-music-norms-at-shannon-hall/#.VEfBQYeENUQ

yo-yo ma and kathryn stott

And for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t buy tickets, the Wisconsin Union Theater even webcast the concert live and for free.

Still, with seats that sold for well over $100, The Ear got to wondering: Are really high artist fees morally right or wrong?

We all hear about the widening wealth gap, and especially about the astronomical pay given to CEOs versus their workers as compared to the same ratio several decades ago.

Well, what about well-known and in-demand concert artists?

If The Ear heard correctly, Yo-Yo Ma’s fee for that one-night performance was either $90,000 or $95,000 -– or about $42,500 or $45,000 an hour.

Can Yo-Yo Ma demand and get that extravagant fee in the so-called “free market” society with its corporate welfare and tax loopholes for the wealthy? Of course, he can — and he does. That is why he sold out the Wisconsin Union Theater.

But should he?

It makes one wonder.

Is Yo-Yo Ma really that much better as a cellist and musician -– and not just as a celebrity — than many other cellists, including MacArthur “genius grant” winner Alisa Weilerstein, Alban Gerhardt, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Steven Isserlis, Carter Brey, Joshua Roman and others? (You can hear Yo-Yo Ma’s interpretation of a movement from a solo cello suite by Johann Sebastian Bach in a  YouTube video — with over 11 million hits — at the bottom and decide if it is that much better than other cellists play it.)

Now I don’t mean to pick just on Yo-Yo Ma. I have gone to a half-dozen of his other performances here and I have met him and talked with him. He is without doubt a great musician, a fine human being and an exemplary humanitarian.

The problem that I am talking about transcends any single performer and applies to the whole profession.

Maybe at least part of the problem of attracting young audiences to classical music concerts can be placed right in the laps of the performing artists themselves.

When The Ear was young, he got to hear all sorts of great musical artists—including Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Rubinstein (below), Vladimir Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Itzhak Perlman, Rudolf Serkin, Isaac Stern, Emanuel Ax and others for quite affordable prices. Not that those artists didn’t live well -– but I doubt that they were paid the equivalent of $45,000 an hour.

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

Maybe it is time for economic populism in the performing arts.

Fees like that exclude a lot of families from participating. Some fans might find it better and cheaper to hear a CD or download than go to a live concert.

Too many performing artists – opera stars come immediately to mind as a class — seem to have taken the same path toward justifying greed as movie stars, sports figures, rock stars and CEO’s who make out like bandits.

In short, can it be that classical musicians are helping to kill off classical music?

Smaller theaters like the Wisconsin Union Theater and even the Overture Center simply cannot book such well-known artists without charging a ridiculous amount of money for a seat – and at a time when many people of all ages just can’t afford it. It just adds to the Wealth Gap and the One Percent problem.

SO THE EAR WOULD LIKE TO ASK CONCERT ARTISTS: PLEASE ADJUST YOUR CONCERT FEES TO HELP SUSTAIN THE FUTURE OF YOUR ART.

Well, these are just some brain droppings.

The Ear wonders what you think of stratospheric artist fees?

Do they contribute to the wealth gap?

Do they hurt the popularity of the art form, especially younger generations?

Are they contributing to the decline of cultural literacy?

In short, are such high artist fees morally right or wrong?

And if wrong, what can we arts consumers do about it? Boycott certain artists until they become more reasonable in their fees?

Ask artist and management agencies to adjust the fees to make them more affordable?

Go to alternative concerts that are perfectly acceptable without star power and cost less or, like those at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, free?

Tell us what you think in a COMMENT.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Listen to wrong notes played by great pianists.

October 12, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday, The Ear offered a blog post about stage fright and performance anxiety.

stage fright

It was written by someone who knows: Concert pianist and polymath Renaissance Man Stephen Hough (below), who is also a writer, painter, composer, photographer, culture critic and more.

Hough_Stephen_color16

But even the greatest musicians can -– and do — mess up.

So today is a follow-up.

Here is a link to a YouTube video with some pretty messed up notes and whole passages by some of history’s greatest pianists, virtuosos and technical wizards.

They include Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Horowitz (below) and Artur Schnabel – along with the actual scores to show you what is being muffed.

Vladimir Horowitz

There was no recording technology back then, but it makes one wonder what Frederic Chopin or Franz Liszt might have sounded like off the page when they played. Or even such famed keyboard virtuosos as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.

After all, in the same video the great Arthur Rubinstein (below) even explains how he faked an entire difficult Chopin etude and dumped a whole batch of deliberately played wrong notes into it during a public concert — and still won rave reviews from the critics!

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

It also puts a frame around the picture, and suggests that maybe we should simply worry more about the music and less about the notes. Performers just have to learn to accept failure! Perfection is beyond any of us.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.

If you know of other examples, or have personal experiences to share, let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Scarlatti sonatas are hot again -– and not just at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, which has its closing concert this afternoon.

August 31, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Trends come and trends go.

Who knows why?

A few years ago, it seemed as if I hadn’t heard the famous and overplayed “Appassionata” Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven in decades. Everyone focused on the last three piano sonatas. And then suddenly there were four or five live performances of the “Appassionata” within a year or two. Can the “Waldstein” Sonata be far behind?

This past couple of years, it also seems almost impossible to escape “La Valse” by Maurice Ravel -– in its two-piano version or its original solo version, or in modified solo version, or in its orchestral arrangements. Maybe the popularity of the work says something about the decadence of our times and our society. Or maybe it has to do with the centennial this year of World War I, which destroyed and demolished the old monarchical “waltz” societies, much as Ravel does in his postmodern deconstruction of the waltz.

In any case, you might recall that only last Wednesday night, the 25th annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival featured Smith College pianist Judith Gordon (below) in four Scarlatti sonatas along with 12 preludes by Frederic Chopin. (The festival closes with a SOLD-OUT performance of music by Franz Schubert, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy this afternoon at 4 p.m.)

Here is a link to the festival’s website with information about the artists, the program and tickets:

http://tokencreekfestival.org

Judith Gordon plays 2014

The Ear loved that program about the originality of short forms and keyboard music for both its insight and its beauty. Here is a link to my review:

http://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/classical-music-token-creek-festivals-exploration-of-chopin-and-scarlatti-proves-beautifully-compelling-and-teases-ones-desire-to-attend-one-of-the-two-remaining-concerts-on-saturda/

I hadn’t heard live Scarlatti performances in a while.

But that will change soon, I expect.

Because voila!

It turns out that another trend is in the making. Scarlatti is hot again. There are several new recordings of sonatas by Scarlatti (below) that just came out. And they are featured on the exceptional Deceptive Cadence blog done by NPR, or National Public Radio.

The blog posting – “A Surge of Scarlatti Sonatas” – was written by blog chief Tom Huizenga and even features some sound samples from the various records.

Domenico Scarlatti

I’ll be anxious to see how they measure up to The Ear’s favorite recordings, which include, in approximate order, recordings by: Vladimir Horowitz; Alexandre Tharaud; Andras Schiff; and Mikhail Pletnev.

Here is a link to the NPR story and review. I hope you enjoy it.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/08/28/343705852/a-surge-of-scarlatti-sonatas

And let us know which one of the 555 sonatas by Scarlatti is your favorite. Slow or fast? Major or minor? Extroverted and dance-like or introspective and meditative?

At the bottom is a popular YouTube video of one of my all-time favorite Scarlatti sonatas, in B minor — Longo 33 or Kirkpatrick 87 — and performed to perfection by Vladimir Horowitz, who brings both clarity and soul to its almost prayer-like intensity.

I would also like to dedicate the performance and the sonata to the late University of Wisconsin-Madison pianist Howard Karp, for whom a free and public memorial celebration will be held today at 3 p.m. in Mills Hall.

Include a link to a YouTube recording, if you can.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival’s exploration of keyboard miniatures by Chopin and Scarlatti proves beautifully compelling and teases one’s desire to attend one of the two remaining concerts on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Plus, read two reviews of the festival’s opening concert.

August 29, 2014
3 Comments

ALERTS: The Ear wasn’t able to attend the opening concert last weekend of the 25th annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival in the refurbished barn (below). But here are reviews by two local critics who did.

Here is a review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/daily/article.php?article=43447&sid=9664bddf418a3137f76a449de690c285

Here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger for the Classically Speaking blog of Madison Magazine:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/August-2014/The-25th-Token-Creek-Chamber-Music-Festival-Happy-Anniversary-From-Start-To-Finish/

TokenCreekbarn interior

By Jacob Stockinger

As usually happens at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, the concert of the second program on Wednesday night was a collaborative effort in exploration.

In this case, three key players participated: returning guest pianist Judith Gordon, who is now a professor at Smith College; Pulitzer Prize-winner and MacArthur Foundation “genius” award-winning composer, MIT teacher and co-artistic director John Harbison, who never fails to illuminate the music with his insightful brief commentaries; and co-artistic director and violinist Rose Mary Harbison, who programmed part of the concert as well as performed.

Rose Mary Harbison (below) also played the famous “Spring” Sonata for violin and piano, which John Harbison said pointed to how Ludwig van Beethoven — who aimed for the epic rather than the miniature — checked out the achievements of contemporaries and then figured out his own way to enter the mainstream.

Rose Mary Harbison also partnered with Gordon in a theme-and-variations piece by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a piece The Ear found a little bit charming and a lot underwhelming.

Rose Mary Harbison plays Spring 2014

Then, on both halves of the program, came music by Frederic Chopin and Domenico Scarlatti.

In the very capable hands of Judith Gordon (below), those two composers proved to be the axis of the program and a fascinating coupling.

Judith Gordon plays 2014

The two composers, one Baroque and the other Romantic, were chosen because they both focused on smaller-scale works. Exiled from his native Italy and isolated in courts in Portugal and Spain, Scarlatti (below) wrote 550 keyboard sonatas of astonishing variety, color and virtuosity.

Domenico Scarlatti muted

Chopin (below), on the other hand, turned inward in the bustling artistic scene and intellectual ferment of Paris, and focused on smaller forms -– none smaller than the Preludes played at Token Creek. They seem a kind of Rosetta Stone for deconstructing and understanding the structure of the rest of Chopin’s output; or perhaps they are like a Table of Contents, abbreviated guides to, or outlines or preparatory sketches of, so many other works.

Chopinphoto

But in both cases, as John Harbison explained clearly, the two composers narrowed down their ambitions to achieve the kind of unique and idiosyncratic achievements or originality that many other composers can only dream of achieving. They were like poets who find freedom in the formal confines of the sonnet form.

John Harbison picked two pairs of Scarlatti sonatas for Gordon to perform: one early pair in E major (one is the famous calling card of Vladimir Horowitz in a YouTube video at the bottom) to show Scarlatti at his compositional planning phase with pretty regular development; and two late ones in F-Sharp minor to show how later in life Scarlatti increasingly sounded as if he made things up as he went along.

For her part, Rose Mary Harbison selected two sets of six preludes each by Chopin -– he wrote 24 as a set, then added a posthumously published one –- to demonstrate much the same effect: the contrary moods and Chopin’s extraordinary gift for compression and brevity, for his ability to make a 30-second piece sound complete or whole, as if it has a beginning, middle and end. (At the bottom is a YouTube performance of one of the loveliest preludes on the program, the mini-Nocturne in F-Sharp Major, in a live performance by Maurizio Pollini.)

The compare-and-contrast strategy worked very well, as was demonstrated not only in performance but also in a Q&A-type interview (below) that Judith Gordon did with John Harbison.

Judith Gordon and John Harbison 2014

The Ear will long remember the unusual coupling, which is often the way Token Creek goes about programming unexpected matches, for the insight they shed on both composers, whose works, as it happens, I myself like to play on the piano.

It also tells us what to look for and to value at Token Creek: Unusual and unexpected approaches that yield unforgettable results.

Two more performances remain in this summer’s season, on Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., and they will feature the pianist husband-and-wife team of Harvard Professor Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang performing music by Franz Schubert, C.P.E. Bach and Maurice Ravel as well as Rose Mary Harbison in the knockout Violin Sonata by Claude Debussy, his last work and one of his best.

Here is a link for more information and tickets:

http://tokencreekfestival.org

This year the festival is celebrating both its own 25th anniversary and the 300th anniversary of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (below).

carl philipp emanuel bach

To history, the C.P.E. Bach anniversary no doubt matters more.

To my ears, however, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival anniversary matters more.

And despite C.P.E. Bach, whose music will by and large remain on my record shelf and not in my CD player, the night belonged to Domenico Scarlatti and Frederic Chopin.

It is not easy to shed new light on old masterpieces, but that is exactly what the Harbisons and Judith Gordon managed to do.

What can one say but: Thank You!

 


Classical music: How much is an autograph by pianist Vladimir Horowitz worth?

August 27, 2014
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

I was going through some old papers and found something I thought that I had somehow lost or that had been stolen: An autographed card from Ukrainian-born superstar pianist Vladimir Horowitz from a concert he gave in Washington, D.C., in 1973.

Here it is:

Horowitz autograph copy

But I have no idea of the price it would bring on today’s market. Maybe a look on  Ebay could tell me.

Not that I want to sell it. Its sentimental value is priceless. A family member gave it to me. He collected it especially for me, and then sent it out of affection for me and for my love of playing the piano.

Still, I wonder: How much is it worth? True, it is not signed on a program or recording. But it does have a date and is an official autograph card with a printed version of his name on it. (Below is Vladimir Horowitz bowing to a packed house in Carnegie Hall.)

Vladimir Horowitz in Caregie Hall Don Hunstein,jpg

I have had it framed. and will keep it in a secure place, and I hope it will inspire me to play better.

I am also sorry I never collected an autograph from Artur Rubinstein (below) during the several times I heard him perform.

Arthur Rubinstein

In the meantime, I would welcome any educated guess or documented estimate of the value of this Horowitz autograph.

Finding it again, 41 years after it was signed and almost 25 years after the death of Horowitz (below, in his later years and towards the end of his career), is pretty lucky for me, don’t you think?

Vladimir Horowitz

And here is a popular YouTube video, with more than 4.4 million views, of one of my favorite Horowitz performances: Chopin‘s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23, during a live TV performance.

Do you have a favorite?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Conductor Claudio Abbado and pianist Martha Argerich team up for unforgettable, compelling performances of two late Mozart concertos in a new Deutsche Grammophon release.

March 7, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear is pretty sure that Deutsche Grammophon has some more recordings “in the can,” as they say, by the late and universally acclaimed Italian conductor Claudio Abbado (below, leading the Orchestra Mozart), who died last month at 80.

Claudio Abbado and Orchestra Mozart

And the same make hold true for the legendary Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich -– often dubbed the female Vladimir Horowitz for her blazing technique, involving and individualistic interpretations and unpredictability -– who has been seriously ill and may be approaching the end of her career.

martha argerich hands in air

But it is curious, and reassuring, to see how so many aging musicians turn late in life to the music of Mozart. It happened with pianists Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, both of whom generally focused on the Romantic repertoire. And I am sure there are many, many more examples.

But you would be hard put to find more convincing examples than the two Mozart piano concertos with Abbado and Argerich, plus the Orchestra Mozart, that was released this week by Deutsche Grammophon. You can hear some compelling samples in a YouTube video at the bottom.

Claudio Abbado and Martha Argerich Mozart CD cover

That these two musicians were compatible we know from their long partnership — they are seen below together in the 1960s — and their early and frequent collaborations on Beethoven, Chopin Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Rachmaninoff.

Claudio Abbado and Martha Argerich in 1960s

Martha Argerich and Claudio Abbado young BW

But who was waiting for Mozart to be next? Not The Ear.

But it works. Oh boy, does it work.

Argerich, who is known for impetuousness, here seems the model of restraint without being timid. She plays strongly and with assurance, but with the complete transparency and clarity that great Mozart playing demands. Mozart’s music offers no room to hide, but then Argerich doesn’t need any.

Martha Argerich, Piano

The same holds for Claudio Abbado, who was at home in grand opera and big symphonic scores by Mahler as well as Beethoven, Schubert and so many others. But his Mozart here is also a model of clarity, with the various orchestral parts emerging clearly to hold dialogues with the many piano parts that Argerich brings out.

Claudio Abbado

It is an interesting match of repertoire.

The Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, is Mozart’s biggest symphonic effort in the genre of piano concertos – he composed 27 piano concertos — and it is perfectly suited to Argerich’s bigger-than-life playing.

But how she brings out Mozart’s lovely aria-like voices, melodies and harmonies. Her playing is all about poetic and natural sounding deconstruction through inflection and articulation, her accents paralleling and underscoring passages in the orchestra. Such heartbreaking simplicity combined with such effortless complexity -– that is the fusion Mozart we hear here.

Mozart old 1782

Similarly, in the darker and more well-known Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, Argerich is all color and drama as well as clarity. Interestingly, she uses different and atypical cadenzas -– two by Ludwig van Beethoven and one by Argerich’s teacher Friedrich Gulda.

Now there are a lot of wonderful Mozart piano concertos out there in Recording World, including those by Murray Perahia and Alfred Brendel. So there is no point arguing whether these readings are definitive.

Increasingly, in fact, the Ear thinks the whole idea of definitive performances is not only illusory, but also antithetical and even counterproductive to the whole point of the performing arts.

But I can say this: Judging by the pleasure that the readings continue to give me, these two recording are riveting and MUST-HEAR recordings for serious Mozart fans, for serious piano fans and for serious fans of Claudio Abbado and Martha Argerich — two of the 20th century’s titanic talents in classical music.

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Classical music Q&A: Pianist Yefim Bronfman, who mixes power and poetry, talks about his stamina and the two piano concertos he will perform during this weekend’s all-Beethoven concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

March 4, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

He may not yet be a household name like Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz or Van Cliburn, but pianist Yefim Bronfman (below) — a prolific recitalist, concerto soloist and chamber music partner — commands great respect from critics and his fellow musicians.

Yefim Bronfman portrait

And with good reason.

“Fima,” as he known to friends and even his loyal followers, possesses a technique that other pianists envy plus a total commands of style, ranging from early period works through Romanticism and Modernism to new music.

He also is renowned for his stamina and power, but, at the same time, for subtle playing without banging. Combining power and poetry seems to be his signature.

Yefim Bronfman hansd in air

Here is a link to his website with his full biography — he emigrated to Israel from his native Tashkent — and critical reviews plus a discography, sound samples and other information:

http://www.yefimbronfman.com

People in the Madison area can hear Yefim Bronfman’s talents for themselves this weekend. That is when he joins the Madison Symphony Orchestra under its longtime music director and conductor John DeMain in a MUST-HEAR all-Beethoven program.

Bronfman will play the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major, Op. 19, AND the famous Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, also known as  “The Emperor.” Also on the program are the Symphony No. 1 in C Major, and “The Creatures of Prometheus” Overture that Beethoven incorporated into his epic Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.”

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $16.50-$82.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, including audio samples of the various pieces and of playing by Bronfman, visit:

http://madisonsymphony.org/bronfman

For program notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allman, visit:

http://facstaff.uww.edu/allsenj/MSO/NOTES/1314/6.Mar14.html

Yefim Bronfman recently agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear:

Yefim Bronfman playing a concerto

You are known for your stamina and power, as your cycle of the complete sonatas and concertos by Sergei Prokofiev and this Madison Symphony Orchestra concert with two Beethoven concertos prove. Are there special tricks or secrets you have to cultivate that kind of “marathon” playing and also avoid injury? Or is it just a natural gift?

It certainly helps to be in good physical shape, but recitals require the same kind of stamina and no one really questions that. Playing two concertos is actually less effort than playing a full solo recital.

Yefim Bronfman emotional

What are your current plans and future projects, both for live concerts and recordings, especially of works by living composers?

I just played a lot of new music in a chamber program with members of the New York Philharmonic, including the world premiere of a solo piano piece written for me by Marc Neikrug and a trio commissioned by Carnegie Hall several years ago by Marc-Andre Dalbavie. In Asia, on tour with the New York Philharmonic, we performed the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Magnus Lindberg (below, in a  photo by Saara Vuorkjoki), which is a co-commission with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and Gothenburg Symphony of Sweden. (Editor’s note: Bronfman’s recording of it was nominated for a Grammy Award.)

I’m always on the lookout for talented composers. My natural curiosity makes me wonder about the language of composers of today who often give me ideas that contribute to playing the music of composers who are no longer alive.

Magnus Lindberg Saara Vuorjoki

You frequently perform Beethoven concertos and have made outstanding recordings of them with David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra on the Arte Nova budget label. What would you like to say to the general public about Beethoven (below), about his Piano Concertos No. 2 and No. 5, the “Emperor”?

These two pieces belong to very different worlds. The first one belongs to the Mozartean period of Beethoven, very classical in structure and texture. But a lot happened between concertos No. 2 and No. 5.

They come from a composer with a great deal of desire to experiment, so those two concertos are like works of two different composers. Yet we never stop to wonder at the genius of someone able to do that. (At bottom is a YouTube video in which Yefim Bronfman, as Artist-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic, and conductor Alan Gilbert discuss the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos they performed together.)

Beethoven big

I first heard you here years ago at the Wisconsin Union Theater in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1.  Do you have any special memories of or thoughts about Madison?

Madison and this particular theater have some wonderful memories from my youth because I played here some of the earliest concerts of my career. Playing Beethoven 1 with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Madison could have been one of the first Beethoven 1’s I ever performed.

What advice would you give today to young pianists and young musicians in general about pursuing a career in music? And how can classical music reach more young people and new audiences?

Arts and culture in general enrich our lives, and we have to give that understanding to the young generation. Without it our lives diminish greatly, and we have to learn to cherish what past artists have left to us.

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Classical music: How should you listen? Try these four ways to get the most out of classical music. Then tell us your own.

February 8, 2014
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

What is the best way to listen to classical music?

How can you get the most out of what you are listening to?

listening to music

One way is not to use the music as wallpaper – as background music to brunch or some other social event or personal task.

It is also probably not a good idea to multi-task, to listen while watching TV or a DVD, or reading a book.

But even if you give the music your full attention, what is the best way to get the most of out of your listening?

The Ear suspects that a lot of people — especially performing musicians and composers — have a lot of different answers.

But one of the best is the short essay by Anastasia Tsioulcas (below), who writes for the exceptional classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” that is featured regularly on NPR.

anastasia tsioulcas

Tsioulcas lists and elaborates on four ways to turn your listening experience into a richer and more informative as well as enjoyable experience.

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/01/28/267777013/4-ways-to-hear-more-in-music

Of course many of us have learned other lessons in listening over the years.

The Ear, for example, would suggest not always comparing the performance you are listening now to the first or favorite performance of the same work that you heard live or recorded long ago and grew to love. Otherwise you are more likely to overlook whatever originality the new performer you are listening to brings to the score.

For example, comparing all Chopin performances today to those by Arthur Rubinstein (below top) or Vladimir Horowitz (below second) might cause you to overlook what some of the new young Chopinists like Daniil Trifonov (below third) and Jan Lisiecki (below bottom, in a photo by Mathias Bothor for Deutsche Grammophon) bring with them, as I will explain further in another posting.

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

Vladimir Horowitz

danill trifonov 1

Jan Lisiecki CR Mathias Bothor for Deutsche Grammophon

The same goes for orchestral, chamber music, vocal music and opera performances: Try to remain open to newness and difference.

But different kinds of music an instruments might even demand different approaches to listening, as the deaf but acclaimed and popular percussionist Evelyn Glennie explains in a widely circulated YouTube video about whole body listening at the bottom.

Do you have suggestions or tips about listening to classical music that might help others? Share them in the COMMENTS section.

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Classical music: Happy New Year! Viennese waltzes for orchestra by the Strauss Family aren’t the only ones suitable for seeing out the old year and ringing in the new. Here are waltzes by Chopin and Schubert played by Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Stephen Hough. What waltzes are your favorites?

January 1, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is January 1, 2014.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Here is a reminder that “New Year’s Day From Vienna,” with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (below) performing waltzes, polkas and marches of the Strauss Family under the baton of Daniel Barenboim, will be broadcast live this morning at 10 a.m. CST on Wisconsin Public Radio, and then air at 1:30-3 p.m. and again at 7-8:30 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television.

As always the Strauss Family will be the featured stars. But while they made the waltz a livelihood and trademark, there are other outstanding waltz composers.

Two of my favorite waltz composers are Frederic Chopin and Franz Schubert, both of whom found the magic family to combine good cheer and glamor as well as bittersweet poignancy.

So here are two of my favorite sad waltzes both by Chopin. First, there is the so-called “Farewell” Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 69, supposedly written in the memory of a fellow student who was killed in the Polish rebellion by Russian troops. Here it is played in a beautifully restrained manner by British pianist Stephen Hough:

And then here is the Op. 34, No 2 in A minor, played by Arthur Rubinstein:

As for ringing in the New Year, here is one of the “Brilliant Waltzes” by Chopin often used by Arthur Rubinstein to start or end a recital:

More heartbreaking waltzes come from Franz Schubert in his “Noble and Sentimental” Waltzes, a title later borrowed ironically by Maurice Ravel. Here are some of those Schubert waltzes – both cheerful and dark — in one of those wonderful scissors-and-paste jobs, a free-wheeling transcription, by Franz Liszt in the “Soiree de Vienne No. 6” and played incomparably by Vladimir Horowitz.

Hope you enjoy them

Farewell to 2013.

Cheers to 2014.

What are your favorite sad and happy waltzes?

The Ear wants to hear.


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