The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Weekends are a good time to explore music and listen to it. So today The Ear starts a “2020” series for the new year. | January 4, 2020

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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s a new year and the first weekend of the new year. And The Ear wanted to find some kind of organizing principle to explore recorded music in the coming weeks and months.

Turns out the year 2020 – with its symmetry of numerals and suggestions of excellent vision — held a certain appeal.

So he checked out musical works that were either Op. 20 or No. 20. They could even occur together, like, say, a Prelude that is Op. 20, No. 20.

What he found was more than he expected: Dozens of composers and works that qualify as interesting and of suitable quality.

Some are well known, but many are rarely performed live or are neglected in recordings.

They come from all periods and styles, from early music to contemporary music.

And they come in all kinds of genres from vocal and choral music to chamber music, solo instrumental music and symphonic music.

Some works are short, some are medium and some are long.

For the longer ones, which are often divided up into smaller movements or other sections, it seems better to post the whole piece and let the reader decide how long they want to listen at a time rather than to post one part at a time and limit or force the reader.

Anyway, here is the first installment.

It is a wonderful solo piano piece that is too often overlooked, even though it is by a great composer who wrote it in his prime when he was writing many of his other more popular piano works.

It is the Humoresque, Op. 20, by the German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (below). It lasts about 29 minutes but is divided into other sections.

And the performance, often praised as outstanding or even definitive, is by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu (below, young and old, the latter by Roberto Serra), the 1966 first prize-winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition who recently retired because of ill health.

Here is a link to a detailed biography of the distinguished and somewhat reclusive and enigmatic 74-year-old pianist:

Here is YouTube video of Radu Lupu playing the Schumann Humoresque in a live recording from 1983:

Let The Ear know what you think of this piece and this idea for a 2020 series.

A long playlist for future 2020 postings – including works by Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and others — has already been compiled.

But if you have a favorite or suggested “2020” piece, leave word in the comment section.

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  1. Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, consists of 8 pieces. 12 plus 8 equals 20 so this does fit into your theme (with a bit of arithemetic manipulation).

    Comment by fflambeau — January 4, 2020 @ 10:39 pm

  2. Your column yesterday got me to thinking about Robert Schumann and my favorite piano piece by him, “Des Abends” (Evenings) the first part of his Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. Almost every famous pianist has recorded it (it is broken down into 8 pieces but the first one is probably the best known). So I went to YouTube and listened to multiple renditions of it.

    The three that stood out to me were by:

    Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963) (Russian); Alfred Cortot (1877 –1962) (French/Swiss); and Wilhelm Backhaus (1884 – 1969) (German). His name is sometimes spelled Bachaus. All three (who oddly enough, were all contemporaries) are considered among the greatest pianists of the last century.

    Moiseiwitsch, who ended up living in London, was one of Rachmaninoff’s favorite pianists (that’s quite a recommendation); Cortot is still famous; Cortot formed a trio with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals. Backhaus, perhaps lesser known today, was a God in his day and was the preeminent German pianist of his time (and unfortunately, probably a fervent Nazi supporter). One poster at YouTube had even attended as a ten-year-old girl his last concert. The next day in Vienna, she related, her landlady spread the news, “Der Bachaus is todt!” (Bachaus is dead). These people were the rock stars of their day and everyone knew them (times HAVE changed).

    There’s also a difference between the older pianists and the younger ones with the latter having less of an individual sound (perhaps because of modern recordings? Schooling? The internationalization of music?). But the three versions I admired most, all seemed to have a light, even ethereal touch (fitting for music that represents dusk as seen by the composer). To me, and admittedly this is personal, the older pianists blew away the younger ones (even people like Emanuel Ax and Martha Argerich and one of my all-time favorites, Alfred Brendel, who is old now).

    Has there been a decline in piano performance or is it down to one’s ear? I don’t know. But it was (seemingly) noticeable by comparing various versions.I’d be interested in other opinions. Sorry this does not relate to your 2020 theme other than it happened in 2020.

    Comment by fflambeau — January 4, 2020 @ 10:35 pm

  3. Knew Lupu only as a name but will definitely seek out recordings after hearing this absolutely lovely interpretation. Sorry for his ill health.
    Love the idea for the year!

    Comment by Mary Gordon — January 4, 2020 @ 1:18 pm

    • Dear Mary
      Thank you for your kind words about the 2020 idea! I am pleased you are pleased.
      Radu Lupu studied with the teacher of famed pianist Dinu Lipatti and as a young player won several major international competitions besides the Cliburn.
      He has not recorded a lot in his long career. But everything he records earns high praise.
      He is best known for his performances of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms (especially his recording of the late works)..
      Decca has a budget box of 10 CDs with his recordings. I have it and can tell you it is well worth the price.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 4, 2020 @ 1:46 pm

  4. Radu Lupu is amazingly gifted.

    For 20/20 how about Symphony #20 by Alan Hovhaness? It is subtitled “Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain” and there is a good recording of it by Keith Brion and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music Orchestra.

    The Hovhaness Opus #20 is also lovely, a harp nocturne (recorded by many):

    Comment by fflambeau — January 4, 2020 @ 1:13 am

    • Thank you for the suggestions.
      They have been added to the playlist for future posting.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 4, 2020 @ 1:40 pm

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