The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Remembering Rudolf Serkin

January 18, 2018
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Among 20th-century pianists, Rudolf Serkin (below, in a photo by Yousuf Karsh) was a giant.

The Ear heard him live only twice.

Once was in New York City when Serkin played the “Emperor” Piano Concerto by Beethoven with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

The second time was years later in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater, when he played an all-Beethoven program of sonatas during the Beethoven bicentennial.

Then there were his many recordings, no less wondrous and captivating. They set standards hard to equal, let alone surpass.

The Ear especially loved his Beethoven concertos and sonatas, but also his Mozart and Schubert, his Schumann and Brahms. One of The Ear’s favorite recordings was Serkin playing both the Piano Concerto and the Piano Quintet by Robert Schumann. (You can hear the opening of the Piano Quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Serkin was a complete musician who excelled in solo music, chamber music and concertos.

Recently, The Ear saw the finest essay he has ever read about Serkin — who often seems overlooked or forgotten these days when the spotlight usually falls on his contemporaries Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz — in The New Yorker magazine.

Richard Brady, who usually writes about movies, captures the special magic that was Serkin’s.

In addition, the story offer 12 carefully chosen samples of Serkin’s playing, taken from solo recordings, concertos and chamber music, from older standard composers and classic works to more modern composers and works.

Here is a link:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/2017-in-review/my-favorite-classical-music-release-of-2017

Did you ever hear Rudolf Serkin live?

What did you think?

Do you have a favorite work, live or recorded, played by Rudolf Serkin?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Who are the best pianists of all time? And which ones do you think were left off the list by Classic FM?

September 16, 2017
11 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The British radio station and website Classic FM recently published its list of the 25 greatest pianists of all time.

Plus, the website also included samples of the playing where possible.

It is an impressive list, if pretty predictable — and heavily weighted towards modern or contemporary pianists. You might expect that a list of “all-time greats” would have more historical figures — and more women as well as more non-Western Europeans and non-Americans, especially Asians these days.

Here is a link:

http://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/instruments/piano/best-pianists-ever/

So The Ear started what turned out to be a long list of others who should at least be considered and maybe even included.

Here, then, is the question for this weekend: What do you think of the list? Which pianists do not belong on the list? And which are your favorite pianists who are not included in the compilation?

Leave your candidate or candidates in the COMMENT section with a link to a YouTube link of a favorite performance, wherever possible.

Happy listening!


Classical music: What is the one piece of music you could listen to over and over and over again without getting tired or bored?

September 2, 2017
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s Saturday —  time for another reader survey.

A few weeks ago, The Ear asked: Which composer or piece you really cannot stand or consider overrated, for whatever reason.

A lot of readers responded and their responses were very interesting, even unexpected. They included such composers as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Scriabin and Mahler.

It was a question of personal taste and of course was subjective – like music itself.

Here is a link to that blog post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/08/05/classical-music-which-well-known-composers-or-works-do-you-hate-and-consider-overrated/

Today, The Ear wants to know:

What piece could you listen to over and over and over again without getting tired or bored by it?

Of course, it may not have to do with the quality of the piece, but rather with how forcefully it speaks to you.

And the piece you name now may not be the one you would name next week or next month or next year.

Right now, for example, The Ear is on a kick with the Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52, by Chopin (below). He loves the work for its development and counterpoint as well as its titanic emotion, which is both Classically restrained and Romantically effusive. That’s why The Ear sees it as Chopin’s response to Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata.

The Ear has tried to play the Ballade and loves comparing different interpretations. (You can hear it played by Arthur Rubinstein in the YouTube video at the bottom. And there are a lot other versions on YouTube.)

As to your choice:

It could be larger work like a Beethoven symphony or a Rachmaninoff concerto or a Verdi opera. Or it could be smaller work, like a Schubert song or a Bach prelude or a Puccini aria.

Anyway, let us know what piece you are focused on right now. It might even serve as a recommendation to other readers.

And in the Comment section, tell us what you like about it and why, and include a YouTube link to a performance if you can.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Why do we love Chopin? Ask pianist Jeremy Denk

August 12, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like playing or hearing the music of Chopin (below).

Can you?

But just why the 19th-century Romantic composer has such universal appeal is hard to explain.

One of the best explanations The Ear has read came recently from pianist Jeremy Denk, whose essay on “Chopin as a cat” appeared in The New York Times.

Denk, who has performed two outstanding solo recitals in Madison, is clearly an important musical thinker as well as a great performer. You can also see that at once if you read his excellent blog “Think Denk.”

The Ear suspects the current essay grew out of some remarks that Denk gave during a lecture on Chopin’s pedaling at the UW-Madison, and will be incorporated into the book he is working on that includes his previous acclaimed essays in The New Yorker magazine.

Denk (below), who has lately been performing an intriguing survey concert that covers 600 years of music, thinks that Chopin’s uniqueness resides in how he consolidated and fused both conservative values and radical, even modern, innovations.

To the Ear, it is the best modern analysis of Chopin that he has read since the major treatment that the acclaimed pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen wrote about the Polish “poet of the piano” in his terrific book “The Romantic Generation.”

Moreover, the online web version of Denk’s essay is much more substantial and satisfying than the newspaper print edition. It has not only audio-visual performances of important Chopin works by major artists such as Arthur Rubinstein and  Krystian Zimerman, it also suggests, analyzes and praises some “old-fashioned” historical recordings of Chopin by Ignaz Friedman, Alfred Cortot and Josef Hoffmann.

Now if only Jeremy Denk would record an album of Chopin himself!

Here is a link to the Chopin essay:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/arts/music/jeremy-denk-chopin.html

Enjoy!

Please listen to the wonderful clips that Denk suggests.

Then tell us what pieces are your favorite Chopin works, big or small, and what performers are your favorite Chopin interpreters.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Which piece of music did you first connect with emotionally and how old were you?

February 11, 2017
14 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Another weekend, another reader survey.

For The Ear, music was and remains much more an emotional experience than an intellectual one.

So he was intrigued when he came across a survey question on the Internet earlier this week.

The question was simple: When did you first connect emotionally with a piece of classical music and how old were you? And what was the piece and composer of the piece that you first connected with emotionally?

It sounds so easy. But The Ear found himself going back through time and really straining to choose the right answer.

Early on, The Ear loved the sound and drama of Smetana’s tone poem “The Moldau.” And he loved some works by Johann Sebastian Bach that he heard in church. During piano lessons, there was some pieces by Chopin.

But then at about age 11, the Great Emotional Awakening to Music came in a way that reminded him of the famous madeleine memory episode in Marcel Proust’s novel “Remembrance of Things Past,” translated more accurately, if less poetically, these days as “In Search of Lost Time.”

Since he himself was a young and aspiring pianist, The Ear has realized, he no doubt first connected with the powerful recording by Arthur Rubinstein (below top) of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below bottom). That recording also featured Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and you can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Arthur Rubinstein

rachmaninoffyoung

The answer really isn’t a surprise — young people love the sweep of Romantic music. After all, on a lesser emotional level, Rachmaninoff had also moved The Ear with the famous Prelude in C-Sharp Minor — the “Bells of Moscow” — which spurred The Ear into starting piano lessons when he heard it played live and right in front of him by a babysitter.

How intently he listened to the concerto, with a friend in the basement of his friend’s house, over and over again. How it moved him and never failed to move him – and still moves him today.

And then, maybe at 12 or 13, he rushed out and bought the Schirmer score tot he concerto when he was old enough and skilled enough to try to play some of it – the famous opening chords and excerpts from the beautiful and lyrical slow second movement. That experience of playing even excerpts also proved very emotional.

Now, there is also a practical purpose to this question. The answer just might give adults an idea about how to attract young children and new audiences to classical music.

Anyway, that’s what The Ear wants to know this weekend:

How old were you when you first connected EMOTIONALLY to classical music?

And who was the composer, the piece and the performer that you connected with emotionally?

The Ear hopes you have just as much poignant fun recollecting the answer as he did.

Let us know the answer in the COMMENT section with a YouTube link if possible.

The Ear wants to ear.


Classical music: Performers should announce encores

March 25, 2016
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

All around The Ear, even very knowledgeable people were asking:

“What is that piece?”

“Who’s the composer?”

After a recent and superb performance of the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Ludwig van Beethoven with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under its longtime music director John DeMain, the renowned American pianist Emanuel Ax (below), who received a well-deserved standing ovation, played an encore.

And he played it beautifully.

Emanuel Ax portrait 2016

But he was negligent in one way.

He didn’t announce what the encore was.

So most of the audience was left wondering and guessing.

Now, The Ear knew the composer and piece because The Ear is an avid amateur pianist and knows the piano repertoire pretty well.

The encore in question was the Valse Oubliée No. 1 in F-sharp Major by Franz Liszt, which used to be more popular and more frequently heard than it is now. (You can hear it below played by Arthur Rubinstein in a YouTube video.)

On previous nights, Ax – who is a friendly, informed, articulate and talkative guy — also had apparently not announced the encores. But on Friday night it was the Waltz No. 2 in A minor by Frederic Chopin and on Saturday night is was the Nocturne in F-sharp major, Op. 15, No. 2, also by Chopin. Chopin is a composer who is a specialty of Ax, as you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom, which features his encore in an unusual setting pertaining to the Holocaust.

It’s a relatively small annoyance, but The Ear really thinks that performers ought to announce encores. Audiences have a right to know what they are about to hear or have just heard. It is just a matter of politeness and concert etiquette, of being audience-friendly.

Plus it is fun to hear the ordinary speaking voice of the artist, even if it is only just briefly to announce a piece of music, as you can hear below with Ax discussing the three concerts in Carnegie Hall that he did to celebrate the bicentennials of Chopin and Robert Schumann.

And it isn’t just a matter of big names or small names.

Emanuel Ax is hardly alone.

A partial list this season of performers who did NOT announce encores include violinist Benjamin Beilman, who played with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; violist Nobuko Imai, who performed with the Pro Arte Quartet; pianist Maurizio Pollini in a solo recital in Chicago; and a UW professor who played a work by Robert Schumann that even The Ear didn’t know.

Performing artists who DID announce encores — many of then by Johann Sebastian Bach — included pianist Joyce Yang at the Wisconsin Union Theater; violinist James Ehnes and cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio, both with the Madison Symphony Orchestra; UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor, who played sick but nonetheless announced and commented humorously on his encore by Scott Joplin, “The Wall Street Rag”; and violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, who played recently with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

So it seems like there is no consistent standard that concert artists learn or adopt about handling encores. The Ear’s best guess is that it is just a personal habit the performers get used to over time.

But the Ear sure wishes that all performing artists would announce encores, program changes or additions.

It just makes the concert experience more fun and informative as well as less frustrating.

Is The Ear alone?

Do you prefer that artists announce or not announce their encores?

Or doesn’t it matter to you?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: What is your favorite piece of music to greet Spring with? Plus, British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has died at 81

March 20, 2016
5 Comments

SURVEY: This is the first day of Spring. The vernal equinox  just arrived here in Madison, Wisconsin and the Midwest about a half-hour ago, on Saturday, March 19, at 11:30 p.m. CDT.

What is your favorite piece of music to greet the season with? Antonio Vivaldi‘s “Four Seasons”? Robert Schumann‘s Symphony No. 1 “Spring”? A miniature piano piece by Felix Mendelssohn or Edvard Grieg? A song by Franz Schubert? Leave word in the COMMENT section, with a link to a YouTube performance if that is possible.

Here is a link to a similar post from 2011:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/classical-music-which-piece-of-classical-music-best-expresses-the-coming-of-spring/

The Ear especially loves the “Spring” Sonata for Violin and Piano by Ludwig van Beethoven. Here is a link to a YouTube video with the first movement played by pianist Arthur Rubinstein and violinist Henryk Szeryng.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAcWGVC4Nqc

By Jacob Stockinger

He was a contrarian who was widely accepted and valued.

He was an iconoclast who achieved the height of respectability when Queen Elizabeth II of England named him to an honorary knighthood.

And he was an eclectic composer, whose style could be charmingly simple, melodic and tonal, or knottily atonal, difficult and complex.

The British composer and conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (pronounced Davis, below) died this past week at his island home off the coast of Scotland. He was 81 and had been ill with leukemia. (You can hear his “An Orkney Wedding With Sunrise” in a YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Peter Maxwell Davies full face

The year is early yet, but it has not been a kind one to classical music. We have already lost the avant-garde French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, the German-Austrian conductor and early music pioneer Nikolaus Harnoncourt and now Davies.

Here are obituaries about Sir Peter Maxwell Davies with video and audio clips:

From BBC:

http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-35802564

From the Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR (National Public Radio):

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/03/14/470408883/british-composer-peter-maxwell-davies-dies-at-81

Peter Maxwell Davies at rehearsal

From the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/arts/music/peter-maxwell-davies-contrarian-british-composer-dies-at-81.html?_r=0

Peter Maxwell Davies up close

From The Guardian:

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/mar/14/sir-peter-maxwell-davies-obituary

Peter Maxwell Davies mid-rage

And from Classical-music.com:

http://www.classical-music.com/news/sir-peter-maxwell-davies-dies-aged-81


Classical music: What piece first hooked you on classical music?

October 9, 2015
18 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

So there we were.

Riding in the car and listening to music.

“What piece do you remember first getting hooked on and loving?” The Ear asked The Friend.

Turned out it was Soviet composer Reinhold Gliere’s “The Red Poppy” Suite. (You can hear that work in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

That seemed a pretty sophisticated and rarefied work, compared to The Ear’s more predictable choices.

He recalls two first works, both of which he was exposed to through a budget set of vinyl LPs that his mom brought back each week from the A&P grocery store way back when.

One was the sweeping tone poem about the Bohemian river and landscape called “The Moldau” by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, which you can hear below  performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic in a YouTube video that has more than two million hits.

The other was the popular Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor Op. 18, by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff as performed by Artur Rubinstein (now generally spelled Arthur, as he wanted, although The Ear prefers the more exotic Artur) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under conductor Fritz Reiner. (I think copyright and licensing agreements were a lot less restrictive and less expensive back then, which may help explain the larger audience for classical music and classical recordings in those days.)

Here is that work and that historic performance in a YouTube video:

And The Ear still loves both works passionately. And all three works testify to the largely Romantic taste of young listeners.

Anyway, it was a fun recollection to have and got The Ear to thinking:

Maybe readers of this blog would be willing to share their first memory of the classical music that they loved first and got hooked on?

The Ear would love to hear from the general public but also from professional musicians. Especially professional musicians.

You can  leave the title, composer and performer in the COMMENTS section along with a link to a YouTube video if possible.


Classical music: It’s Mother’s Day. What music would you play for her? What music would she like to hear? Tell The Ear. Plus, this afternoon is your last chance to hear the final, critically acclaimed concert of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s season with Beethoven’s Ninth on the program. Read the reviews here.

May 10, 2015
Leave a Comment

ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the season finale by the Madison Symphony Orchestra: a program of  the “Serenade” after Plato’s “Symposium” by Leonard Bernstein, with concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) as soloist, and the famous Ninth Symphony — the “Ode to Joy” or “Choral” symphony — by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The reviews are unanimous in their enthusiastic praise.

Here is a link to the one that John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/arts/stage/mso-closing-with-a-bang/

And here is one written by Lindsay Christians for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/review-big-voices-and-beethoven-bring-mso-season-to-a/article_ea23e056-f5bb-11e4-8b8f-5780d0daa395.html

And here is a review written by Bill Wineke for WISC-TV‘s Channel 3000.com:

http://www.channel3000.com/news/opinion/Symphony-review-MSO-ends-season-on-exuberant-note/32912810

Naha Greenholtz 2014 CR  Chris Hynes

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Mother’s Day 2015.

Mothers Day clip art

And nothing says love like music.

So what music would you like to play for your mother?

And what music would she like to hear?

They aren’t necessarily the same.

So here are The Ear’s choices.

For the first I am torn between a work by Antonin Dvorak and one by Johannes Brahms.

The Dvorak work is “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” which you can hear below in a YouTube video by superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman playing a transcription from the original for voice.

The second is the movement of the “German” Requiem by Brahms in which he evokes his recently deceased mother. Here it is performed in a classic rendition by soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf with Otto Klemperer conducting:

And the piece my mother would love to hear? She loved it when I practiced the piano – and to think I wondered how anyone could enjoy listening to someone practicing? And she especially loved it when I practiced Chopin.

And her favorite piece by Chopin that I played was the bittersweet and elegant Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2, heard below in a YouTube video played by Arthur Rubinstein, whom she took me to hear when he played an all-Chopin concert in Carnegie Hall in 1961 – and we sat on stage.

What are your choices in each category?

Leave word plus, if possible, a YouTube link in the COMMENTS section.

The Ear wants to hear.

And wishes you a Happy Mother’s Day.


Classical music: BBC Music Magazine asks 10 concert pianists to name 10 unknown piano concertos that deserve more attention and performances.

February 22, 2015
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Maybe you were lucky enough to attend the gala showcase concert two weeks ago where winners (below) of the annual Concerto Competition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music performed. (They are below in a photo by Michael R. Anderson. From left they are: Keisuke Yamamoto, Ivana Urgcic, Jason Kutz and Anna Whiteway.)

2014 Concerto Winners

Here is a link to a preview post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/02/03/classical-music-four-uw-madison-concerto-competition-winners-and-a-student-composer-will-be-featured-in-a-special-concert-and-reception-this-coming-sunday-night-at-7/

If so you heard some relatively unknown works by Ernest Chausson (a Poem for Violin and Orchestra played by Yamamoto) and Francois Borne (a Fantasy on Themes from “Carmen” for flute and orchestra played by Urgcic) plus soprano Whiteway singing a famous aria from “Romeo and Juliet” by Charles Gounod.).

But the finale was Kutz (below) playing a somewhat truncated version – edited for time constraints of the competition — of the famous “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Jason Kutz playing Rachmaninoff Rhapsody 2015

Kurtz did a bang-up job of this great work, which for The Ear, may just be his best and most concise work for piano and orchestra.

You just can’t beat that work’s ultra-Romantic 18th Variation – at the bottom in a popular YouTube video with pianist Arthur Rubinstein and Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – that is, a friend remarked, much like the “Nimrod” Variation of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. It is irresistible and never fails.

But the concerto repertoire is such a rich one! There is something just so appealing about seeing the dramatic cooperation bertween the soloist and the orchestra.

So I was pleased to see that the BBC Music Magazine recently asked 10 concert pianists to name 10 concertos that they think are neglected and should be better known and performed more often.

The story included enlightening statements as well as audio-video clips of excerpts.

So in the spirit on the concerto winners, here is a link to the story:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/10-piano-concertos-you-may-not-know

Read and listen and see what you think.

The Ear knows a fair number of piano concertos, but a lot of these were new to him.

What do you think of the list?

And do you have any names of concertos and composers to add to the list?

The Ear wants to hear.


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