The Well-Tempered Ear

Did any composer ever capture the quiet, timeless and motionless cold of deep winter better than Debussy?

February 9, 2021

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By Jacob Stockinger

It was one of those deep subzero days of the polar vortex that we seem locked in now right now.

The Ear looked out a window.

It was a chilly scene of winter, as the American writer Ann Beattie once described it.

The Ear saw the snow piled up.

He listened to the windless quiet.

Time, like motion, seemed to stop– or at least slow down — in the severe cold.

He saw tracks in the snow.

He couldn’t say whether they came from a rabbit or a squirrel or some other critter.

But it brought to mind a piano prelude by Debussy (below) that contains a kind of frozen minimalism.

Life was once again imitating art, as Oscar Wilde once observed, remarking that “there was no fog in London until the Impressionists painted it.”

Has any piece ever captured the cold, the quiet, the feeling of time and motion slowing down or stopping as Debussy did in “Des pas dans la neige” (Tracks in the Snow)?

Especially as it was played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (below) who, like Sviatoslav Richter, wasn’t afraid to risk taking a slower-than-usual tempo if it right felt right and created the appropriate  atmosphere. (You can hear Michelangeli playing the Debussy prelude in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Do you agree about the Debussy piece?

About Michelangeli’s interpretation?

Do you know of another piece that captures the Arctic cold spell we are in?

Please leave a comment and a YouTube link, if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.

Stay safe and warm.


Classical music: More cold and snow are on the way today. Has any composer captured arctic austerity better than Debussy?

January 14, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

Looks like more severe cold is on the way later tonight and tomorrow, this time accompanied by one to three inches of snow.

The Ear is sure a lot of readers know of and can suggest music that expresses such a wintry mood.

So far, the best and most haunting interpretation he has heard is “Footprints in the Snow” (Des pas dans la neige) by the French musical Impressionist Claude Debussy (below). It is the sixth of 12 in Debussy’s Preludes, Book 1.

A lot of versions by very famous pianists exist and can be found on YouTube.

But the moodiest ones that really attract the Ear are the slowest ones that imitate the motionlessness of severe cold and the austerity of snow – amounting to a kind of stasis or suspended animation. It can almost seem like Minimalism ahead of its time.

The best reading is done by the great Italian master Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (below), who follows the composer’s tempo instructions of “slow and sad” very literally. It reminds him of the title of the first novel by the American writer Ann Beattie: “Chilly Scenes of Winter.” You can feel the sense of absence and frozen mystery.

Take a listen and tell us what you think or if you have other suggestions.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Renowned Czech “pianist’s pianist” Ivan Moravec is dead at 84.

July 29, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

The renowned Czech pianist Ivan Moravec (below) — known as “a pianist’s pianist” — died Monday at the age of 84. He died in Prague of complications from pneumonia.

ivan moravec playing

Moravec was known especially for his interpretations of Chopin, DebussyBrahms and especially Mozart – his playing of a Mozart piano concerto was heard on the soundtrack of the popular and Academy Award-winning film “Amadeus,” which you can hear in a YouTube video at the bottom. He also played composers from his native land including Antonin Dvorak, Bedrich Smetana and Leos Janacek.

Ivan Moravec vertical young

Here are some obituaries:

From Gramophone magazine:

From Classical Music magazine:

From Voy Forums with mentions of awards:

From critic Norman Lebrecht‘s blog Slipped Disc:

Classical music: During the Great Heat Wave of 2012, what is good music to cool you off? What music do you like to Beat the Heat?

July 7, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been quite the unbearable week in quite the unbearable and even deadly month.

The hot weather has been relentless, with some of the nation being decimated by wild fires and much of the nation suffering under a Great Heat Wave that has broken thousands of record highs and set new ones.

So, it there any music we can use to Beat the Heat?

Well, there are always the old standards: one famous one is Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” set of four string concertos with its “Autumn” and especially “Winter” movements. Handel‘s “Water Music” is another Baroque standard, and Telemann’s “Water Music” is also effective if less well known.

Then there is more grandiose music that announces its intention with its title. Richard Strauss wrote the “Alpine” Symphony while Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote the Symphony Antarctica.

Emotionally, one of the chilliest works ever composed is Schubert’s song cycle, “Winterreise” (Winter Journey). Chopin’s dramatic and blustery “Winter Winter” Etude, Op. 25, No. 11, is another such work. 

For The Ear, two of the most cooling works are piano pieces, perhaps because the percussive timbre or nature of the piano sound has a certain coolness to it.

One is by Maurice Ravel, his “Jeux d’eaux” (Fountains), which feels refreshing,  like a dip in a cool pool or a run under a sprinkler (as can Liszt’s similar work “Fountains at the Villa d’Este).

Take a listen at how those cascading notes, played by Martha Argerich, wash over you and cool you off:

But the chilliest scene of winter, as the American writer Ann Beattie might put it, comes from that revolutionary modernist Claude Debussy (below), the same cool and watery composer who also wrote “Snowflakes Are Dancing”; the oceanic “Sunken Cathedral”; and the bracing wavy symphonic tone poem “La Mer” (The Sea).

The coldest music Debussy wrote is “Tracks in the Snow” from his first book of Preludes. It in its minimalism, especially as played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, it portrays a certain kind of haunting and immobilizing austerity that seem downright frigid:

I’m sure there are many other works of classical music that serve the purpose of making listeners feel cool or even cold.

Let The Ear hear some of your favorites and your suggestions, with links to a YouTube video if possible.

Classical music: This past Thursday, January 5th, was a big day for modern piano giants and birthday boys Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Alfred Brendel and Maurizio Pollini. Have fun and hear them at their best.

January 7, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This past Thursday, January 5th, was a big day for classical pianists, with three of the most famous ones of the 20th and 21st centuries celebrating important birthdays.

Can you guess which three pianos virtuosos we are talking about?

They are: Maurizio Pollini, who turned 70 (below):

Alfred Brendel, who turned 81 (below):

And the late Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (below) who would have turned  92:

Here is a link to a site at NPR with the answers and three sample videos of the three keyboard titans playing.

And here is a link to something I really like — a story about and appreciation of Pollini that includes the special set of recordings that  Deutsche Grammophon has reissued to mark Pollini’s birthday:

And here is the DG press release about the boxed sets, which are go on sale Jan. 10:

2012 is a momentous year for famed Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini: not only will he celebrate his 70th birthday (January 5) but the year also marks the 60th anniversary of his first public performance. (Early in his career, Pollini also studied with Michelangeli.)

“His career has spanned two generations of pianists and audiences and he continues today performing throughout North America, Europe and Asia.  Deutsche Grammophon’s relationship with the pianist extends back to his Yellow Label debut in 1971 and continues today.

“To celebrate these milestones Deutsche Grammophon has prepared a number of retrospective releases and looks forward to new recordings.

“The Art of Maurizio Pollini” (below, available January 10) is a 3-CD, deluxe package set which chronicles the breadth of Pollini’s performance and recording career. The limited-edition hardcover set includes repertoire chosen personally by Pollini and consists of complete works (not extracts) ranging from Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” and Chopin’s Op. 25 Études to complete concertos by Beethoven and Mozart.  As an added bonus, DG has included the 1960 performance of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto from the International Chopin Competition – a performance that ensured Pollini’s victory at the young age of only 18.  Click here for the complete tracklisting.

Though Pollini has not wanted to be termed a “specialist” of any one type of music, he has remained fascinated over the past 50 years notably with the music of Chopin and works written in the 20th-century.  Although the two seem rather different they speak to Pollini’s curiosity and his artistically rich childhood.

“I grew up in a house with art and artists,” Pollini told The Guardian’s Nicholas Wroe. “Old works and modern works co-existed together as part of life. It went without saying.” Here is a link to the complete story by Nicholas Wroe:

To honor these passions Deutsche Grammophon has already released two box sets: Chopin and 20th Century.  The Chopin box (below, 9 CDs) includes complete recordings of Études, Préludes, Polonaises, Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3, Nocturnes and much more.  Click here for complete information on the Chopin box.

The 20th Century box (below, 6 CDs) includes Pollini’s debut for the Yellow Label and works from composers such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Webern, Boulez, Nono, Manzoni, Schoenberg, Bartók and Debussy.  Click here for complete information on the 20th Century box.

Late last year, Deutsche Grammophon released Pollini’s third recording of the Brahms Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, op. 15 (below).  For this live recording Pollini was joined, for the first time on DG, by Christian Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden.  This unique collaboration brought together two musical giants for one very special event.  This concerto is the same work that Pollini performed for his Staatskapelle debut in 1976 and 35 years later his interpretation has inevitably grown and changed.  Since that debut he has performed the work with a number of great maestros including Karl Böhm and Claudio Abbado, both of whom Pollini has previously recorded the work with on the Yellow Label.

Together Deutsche Grammophon and Pollini look forward to a new recording of works by Chopin for release later this year.  Chopin has always figured prominently in the pianist’s career and he constantly strives to find new and different meanings within the works.  At a recent recital The Guardian wrote: “… he still plays Chopin with the ease that floored even Rubinstein more than 50 years ago…”

Deutsche Grammophon is proud of its lengthy and continuing relationship with Maurizio Pollini and celebrates his tremendous artistry on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

Check out the link on both stories.


Which of the three pianists do you like the most?

Do you have favorite performances by each of them?

Let us know which pieces and which recordings?

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