The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Isthmus Vocal Ensemble performs two concerts this weekend that honor choral conductor Robert Fountain. Then founder and director Scott MacPherson steps down

August 1, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Even 21 years after his death at 79 in 1996, the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s legendary choral conductor Robert Fountain (below) is spoken of with reverence and awe.

And with good reason, according to many singers and musicians.

The story goes that Fountain was offered a professional performing career, much like his friend Dale Warland enjoyed, but he chose instead to go into academia and teaching.

Fountain’s legacy will be celebrated this weekend with two performances by the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below).

IVE is a summer-only group that has performed for the past 16 years under its founder and artistic director Scott MacPherson (below), who worked at the UW-Madison with Fountain and now directs choral activities at Kent State University.

Performances are this Friday, Aug. 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the High Point Church on the far west side, 7702 Old Sauk Road, and on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 6 at 3 p.m. at Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $10 for students. (Cash or check only will be accepted at Mills Hall.)

Here are some comments that The Ear received from MacPherson:

“These are my final concerts as artistic director with IVE. I am stepping down after 16 years. The IVE Board is in the process of finding a new artistic director and should be able to announce the new person in the coming week or so.

“It is the centennial of my mentor and former UW colleague Robert Fountain’s birth, so I have chosen to honor him with a tribute for my final concerts with IVE.

“Robert Fountain: A Choral Legacy” is a concert programmed as he would have programmed with his UW Concert Choir.

“Music from the Renaissance to living composers and everything in between will be featured. Many of my singers sang under his direction at one time or another. Some are even travelling from out of state to participate.”

“The composers represented include Johann Sebastian Bach, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Randall Thompson, Pavel Chesnokov, Gyorgy Ligeti, Andrew Rindfleisch and a spiritual arranged by Fountain.”

(IVE will perform Chesnokov’s “Salvation Is Created,” which you can hear sung by the Dale Warland Singers in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For the complete program, plus links to ticket information and purchases, go to:

https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/upcoming-performances

For more information about the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble and about Scott MacPherson, go to:

https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org


Classical music: UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor says Bach wouldn’t mind being played on the piano and the public should get to know the less virtuosic side of Liszt. He plays concertos by both composers this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

April 6, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s guest Q&A is the acclaimed UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below), who won a bronze medal in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and who has been praised by critics around the world.

Christopher Taylor new profile

Taylor will play a big role this weekend in what, for The Ear, is the most interesting program of the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below).

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

The program, to be performed under the baton of longtime MSO music director John DeMain, includes the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Johann Sebastian Bach and the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Franz Liszt. The soloist for both is the dynamic and versatile Taylor (below), the resident virtuoso at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Christopher Taylor playing USE

The second half of the program is the Symphony No. 7 by the Late Romantic Austrian composer Anton Bruckner – the first time the MSO has tackled one of Bruckner’s mammoth symphonies.

Anton Bruckner 2

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

Tickets are $12-$84.

For details, go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org or call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

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

ChristopherTaylorNoCredit

What do you say to early music and period instrument advocates about performing Bach on a modern keyboard versus a harpsichord? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

In matters musical I hope to foster a generally tolerant attitude. I think our art form is a broad and diverse enough domain to allow for the peaceful coexistence of interpretations that pursue varied goals.

Some may seek to recreate, in as precise a way as possible, the experiences of listeners living back in Bach’s day, a perspective that can undoubtedly prove illuminating and satisfying for contemporary audiences.

Others may pursue interpretations that employ more recent, or even completely novel, musical resources, with results that Bach himself might well find startling were he suddenly to return.

Still, given Bach’s documented flexibility regarding instrumentation — the Keyboard Concerto No. 4 was probably originally composed for oboe — I like to think he would be open-minded both towards the piano’s sonority and the interpretive possibilities it suggests.

The piano’s rich and varied sound undoubtedly fits naturally into the modern concert hall setting, and for me personally its character is what I understand and appreciate best.  But again, I am always eager to learn about alternative approaches, and hope that others will listen to me with a similar mindset. (Below, Taylor is seen with the unusual two-keyboard Steinway piano he uses to play Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations.)

Christopher Taylor with double keyboard Steinway

How would you compare the Keyboard Concerto No. 4 to Bach’s other ones?

Like all the Bach concertos this work possesses irresistible energy and momentum, paired with lyricism and ingenious construction.  It strikes me as a particularly cheerful specimen — not so imposing or stern as the D minor or F minor concertos, for instance, but more modest in scale and upbeat in mood.

Right from the opening the first movement features an interesting back-and-forth relationship between the soloist and orchestra, with the keyboard seeming suitably soloistic on some occasions, more accompanimental at other moments, and completely united with the strings yet elsewhere.

The slow middle movement has particularly long phrases and sinuous lines, while the finale displays remarkable rhythmic variety, with relatively staid eighth notes taking turns with bustling sixteenth-notes and downright scrambling thirty-second-notes. (You can hear the Bach concerto for yourself in the YouTube video below that features the British pianist Nick Van Bloss who, curiously, suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome except when he is playing.)

A lot of listeners know you especially for your interpretations of modern and contemporary composers such as William Bolcom, Gyorgy Ligeti, Derek Bermel and especially Olivier Messiaen. But you are also known for your performances of the “Goldberg” Variations. What are the attractions of Bach’s music for you?

I find in Bach (below) the supreme balance of heart and brain. It is music whose intricacy provides endless material for intellectual stimulation and study, but which nonetheless, in its restrained and elegant way, evokes every imaginable shade of human feeling.

It is hardly surprising that composers as diverse as Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin and Arnold Schoenberg found inspiration in his immortal creations.

Playing his music is a foundational skill for me, providing essential training and background when I approach, for instance, the more recent composers whose challenging works you mention.

Bach1

Liszt is known as probably the greatest piano virtuoso in history who reinvented keyboard technique. How do you see the first concerto in terms of both deeper musicality and sheer spectacle and technical virtuosity?

While Bach may sometimes be stereotyped as hyper-academic and dry, the stereotype associated with Liszt is quite the opposite:  flashy and intellectually shallow.

Neither caricature captures the reality, and I hope that this week’s pair of concertos helps to illustrate the unexpected facets and depths of both composers.

While I have been familiar with the Liszt from a very early age, I only performed it for the first time fairly recently. While learning it I found myself continually surprised by its formal sophistication and intriguing quirkiness.

Certainly it has its moments of raw virtuoso display, but these only constitute one ingredient in a varied dramatic structure. Just as important are the lyrical characters (sometimes cut off short), the playful elements, the eccentric, the grand, the angelic. I have thus come to appreciate how experimental, individualistic, and sophisticated this work really is.

andsnes

How do you view Liszt as a composer compared to his reputation as a performer and teacher? What should the public pay attention to in the Liszt Concerto and is there anything special or usual you try to do with the score?

As I suggested above, I think there’s often a tendency to underestimate Liszt’s compositional import — although admittedly he did produce certain works that feed into the stereotypes distressingly well.

Liszt photo by Pierre Petit

I will hope to bring out this concerto’s interplay of characters and its individualism as vividly as possible. The virtuoso elements will play their part, but I do not wish for them to be the sole focus. (You can hear the concerto played by Martha Argerich in the YouTube video that is below.)

 


Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players of Madison explain and explore the demanding and original horn trios by Johannes Brahms and Gyorgy Ligeti. Now if the musicians can only get the word out and reach the audience they deserve. Plus, on Thursday morning, WORT-FM will preview the FREE world premiere concert on Saturday night at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by the Pro Arte Quartet.

February 25, 2014
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ALERT: Our blog friend and radio host Rich Samuels at WORT-FM 89.9 writes: “On this Thursday, Feb. 27, I’ll be playing the following items which should help publicize the FREE concert this coming Saturday night by the Pro Arte Quartet . It takes place at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall and features an early quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn and a viola quintet by Anton Bruckner — with guest violist Samuel Rhodes of the Juilliard School and the Juilliard String Quartet — as well as the WORLD PREMIERE of Belgian composer Benoit Mernier’s String Quartet No. 3. The program should also help publicize the FREE open rehearsal wight he composer that same Thursday morning in Mills Hall from 9 a.m. to noon.

Here is the schedule of my 5-8 a.m. show “Anything Goes”: at 7:10 a.m. — the original Pro Arte Quartet’s December, 1933 recording of the final movement of the quartet by Maurice Ravel; at 7:18 a.m. — the present-day Pro Arte Quartet (below) and its recording (with UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor) of the final movement of William Bolcom‘s Piano Quintet No. 2, which was commissioned by the Pro Arte, performed and recorded for its centennial celebration two seasons ago; and at 7:25 a.m. — Invention No. 1 from Benoit Mernier’s “Five Inventions for Organ” (with the composer performing). I had to choose short selections because we’re in a pledge drive on Feb. 27, which mandates a certain amount of on-air fundraising.”

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker, who also took the performance photos. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Mosaic Chamber Players is a group of instrumentalists in the area who enjoy performing chamber works for a public that still needs to grow and appreciate the players and programs.

On Saturday night, three members of the group presented two examples of the rare idiom of trio for piano, violin and horn — the one by Johannes Brahms (1865), which was the trail-blazer in the idiom, and the one by the modern Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti (below, 1923-2006), composed in 1982 as a tribute to the older composer.

gyorgy ligeti

The Ligeti work was given first, and a very sensible touch was to have a little background presentation on it by Sarah Schaffer, who is also a cellist with the Mosaic group.

Having the players contribute actual examples of passages in the Ligeti score, Schaffer (below) did a fine job of sketching the background of the composer and work, and demonstrating the thematic and motivic ideas out of which Ligeti crafted his work with such considerable skill.

It is, to be sure, a thorny work, tremendously demanding on the players, and posing obstacles of an arcane style on the listeners. But Schaffer’s lecture was most helpful. In this trio Ligeti was, after all, playing the avant-gardist taking on classical forms.

Sarah Schaffer on Mosaic Ligeti

The work is in essentially the same four-movement format as the Brahms, echoing the latter, but in Ligeti’s own terms. Listeners can gradually get their bearings. I, for one, came to appreciate the Lamento finale as packed with very moving beauty. (You can hear that finale in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The style of Brahms (below) 117 years earlier is, of course, much more congenial to our ears, even if this trio is not that often performed. It also contrasts directly with Ligeti’s counterpart work in its rationale.

Whereas Ligeti pits the three players against each other, as veritable opponents, Brahms treats them as collaborators and partners.  He retains their individuality: the muscularity of the piano, the sweetness of the violin, and the horn’s rugged suggestion of the forests and the hunt.  And yet, the power of the horn is tamed, and made to consort comfortably with the violin, under the piano’s firm supervision.

brahms3

The performers (below) were members of the group founded by pianist Jess Salek, who was joined in these two trios by violinist Laura Burns and hornist Brad Sinner. They had invested a good three months in working on the Ligeti, I was told, and their mastery of this very tricky score showed how deeply they had come to understand and appreciate it.  (Its difficulties were highlighted by the use of not one but two page-turners for the players.)

The spirit with which they tackled it was appropriately transferred to the Brahms, in a rousing performance.

Mosaic Chamber Players horn trios

Barely over 30 people attended the concert, held in the historic old Landmark auditorium in the Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison. The Mosaic Players will return there on Sunday evening, June 8, for a concert of Cesar Franck and Franz Schubert.  I certainly will be there.  Why not you, too? 

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Classical music: Pianist Jeremy Denk is named a MacArthur “genius.” Here is a sampler of his immense talent as displayed in concerts at the Wisconsin Union Theater, at NPR, in his blog “Think Denk” and on his latest Nonesuch recordings of Bach, Beethoven and Ligeti.

September 28, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, classical pianist Jeremy Denk (below) received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” this week. The stipend is $625,000 to be paid over five years and to be used for whatever the recipient wants, no string attached.

Here is a link to the MacArthur Foundation announcement (curiously, yet another year has gone by without any recipients from the UW-Madison):

http://www.macfound.org

Jeremy Denk 1

Several observations and interpretations come to mind.

One is that Jeremy Denk, a trained chemist as well as pianist, has already performed in Madison – TWICE – at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Both programs were mammoth undertakings. I met and worked with Denk both times, especially the first, and he is a remarkably deserving artist who is honest, droll, articulate and original. I also very much like his philosophy that radical music should stay sounding radical, no matter how many years later.

The first recital featured J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations on the first half with Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 1 on the second half. Whew!

While here for that concert, Denk, a master blogger as you can find in “Think Denk,” he gave a public master class for young pianists (below), a fascinating talk on pedaling in Chopin at the UW School of Music, and a panel on blogging. As you can tell, Denk is a terrifically gifted musician with many different achievements to his credit.

Jeremy Denk teaching 1

Then last season, Denk appeared again in recital, in Mills Hall, to a regrettably small audience, and he played Franz  Liszt and Bela Bartok, followed by J.S. Bach and Beethoven. It was nothing short of phenomenal and utterly convincing.

Both concerts were outstanding events.

And both events point to the wisdom of the Wisconsin Union Theater in finding and booking up-and-coming talent.

Not that Jeremy Denk is young.

At 43, Denk is a seasoned concert veteran and he has taken the time to make the music he plays his own. He is not fresh out of some competition win at 23 or 24, and still stretching to find his maturity and a personal point of view. He is writing a book for Alfred A. Knopf based, to be published this year, based on some articles (on making his first recording and on being a piano student under various teachers) that he wrote for The New Yorker magazine and on his blog “Think Denk.”

Denk is also a devout Francophile who loves Proust and Balzac as well as great food and drink. The Ear thinks that helps to explain the sheer beauty and sensuality as well as logic of his playing.

Jeremy Denk street 1 

If you have any qualms about the Wisconsin Union Theater concert series this year –which features violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below top) with the UW Symphony Orchestra under UW alumnus conductor Kenneth Woods on Saturday, Nov. 2, the Miro String Quartet (below middle, in a photo by Jim Leisy) on Friday, Feb. 21; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal tuba player Gene Pokorny with the UW Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, March 8; and pianist Inon Barnatan (below bottom) on Friday, April 18. The MacArthur’s high-profile recognition of Jeremy Denk is a good reminder to trust the WUD series, however unexpected its choices may seem.

Here is a link to the Wisconsin Union Theater series:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/season2013-14.html

Rachel Barton Pine

Miro Quartet Jim Leisy

Inon Barnatan

Here is a link to Jeremy Denk’s blog:

http://jeremydenk.net/blog/

And here are links to NPR, where Denk was an artist-in-residence  for a week and where you can hear both interviews and excerpts from his first Nonesuch recording of etudes by Gyorgy Ligeti and Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111; and excerpts from his CD and DVD of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations (the famous opening Aria is at the bottom in a YouTube video) that will be released this coming week. (He also recorded a fabulous album of Turn-of-the-20th-Century French violin sonatas with Joshua Bell for Sony Classical.)

http://www.npr.org/event/music/155236091/in-practice-jeremy-denk

jeremy denk ligeti-beethoven CD

http://www.npr.org/2013/09/21/224429650/first-listen-jeremy-denk-j-s-bach-goldberg-variations

jeremy denk bach golbergs cd

Personally, The Ear hopes Jeremy Denk records a lot more repertoire, and soon, especially now that he is a house artist of the prestigious Nonesuch Records label, which gives the notoriously difficult-to-record piano  outstanding sonic engineering. Several requests come to mind: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15, for which he is well-known; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, which he is touring with right now; the six Piano Pieces, Op. 118, by Johannes Brahms; some shorter J.S. Bach preludes and fugues as well as various suites; some sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti; and some works by Frederic Chopin, preferably the thorny and often underplayed mazurkas and the ballades that are so rich for fresh interpretation.

Did you hear Jeremy Denk perform in Madison?

Have you listened to his recordings?

What do you think of Denk’s playing and writings?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Jeremy Denk’s piano recital this Thursday night is a MUST-HEAR event from one of the most promising and most original young musicians on the scene. Plus, acclaimed violist Nobuko Imai gives a FREE master class tonight at the UW.

April 8, 2013
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REMINDER: The FREE master class by violist Nobuko Imai (below) — who performs a FREE concert Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall with the UW Pro Arte String Quartet — will be held TONIGHT, Monday, April 8, at 7 p.m. in Morphy Hall.

Imai Nobuko 018.jpg

By Jacob Stockinger

Last time pianist Jeremy Denk passed through Madison, he had time for a Q&A for this blog; a public panel on blogging held at the Wisconsin Union Theater (WUT); a master class for young local pianists (below)at the WUT; a fascinating talk about pedaling in Chopin at the UW School of Music; and a fabulous, memorable and mammoth recital of Charles Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 1 and J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations.

Jeremy Denk teaching 1

Since then much has happened in the career of the 42-year-old pianist (below). He has been signed to a major label (Nonesuch) and released his acclaimed first CD for his new label. He has been in residence at NPR where he explored Bach’s Goldberg” Variations. He continues to write his acclaimed blog Think Denk at www.thinkdenk.net. He has been written up in Vanity Fair and he has published his own illuminating essay on piano lessons throughout his career in the April 8 edition of The New Yorker.

All this, then, plus the many concerts – solo recitals, chamber music concerts and concerto appearances – surely keep this pianist-writer and thinker extremely busy.

So it is little wonder that time apparently did not allow Denk all the background and extras that his last visit did.

Jeremy Denk playing 2

But Madison has too few piano recitals – certainly far fewer than it used to in the heyday of the Wisconsin Union Theater and the UW School of Music’s piano department. Yes, as Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro John DeMain suggested last year, we could use more chamber music groups – but we already have a lot of them. What we rarely hear are solo piano recitals, not a good thing for all music lovers and especially for piano students.

Farley’s House of Pianos leads the way with the WUT and the UW following close behind. But given the Hamburg Steinway in Overture Hall, why doesn’t the MSO or the Overture Center start a piano recital series there? We could bring up the same great top-tier pianists who perform recitals in Chicago at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s great piano series on Sunday afternoons.

Anyway, we are fortunate that the Wisconsin Union Theater is again bringing Jeremy Denk to town. This time Denk will perform this Thursday night, April 11, at 8 p.m. — NOT 7:30 p.m. — in Mills Hill, where the Wisconsin Union Theater is holding concerts while the actual theater is undergoing renovation and restoration.

Jeremy Denk playing swoon

Denk’s program is exactly what The Ear likes to see: an unusual and unpredictable mix of composers and works designed to provide contexts for and dialogues with each other — making J.S. Bach talk with Liszt and Beethoven, for example, or Bartok talk with Liszt. It is the same program that Denk played to great acclaim at Carnegie Hall (below, in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Tines) two weeks ago.

Jeremy Denk in Carnegie Hall

The recital program is big – as befits Denk who is clearly a musical marathoner rather than a sprinter.

It starts with Bartok’s rarely heard Piano Sonata, and moves on to several Liszt works, including the “Dante” Sonata,  the Petrarch Sonata No. 123, the prelude of J.S. Bach’s chorale “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” and the arrangement of the Liebestod (Love Death) from Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde.” Then after intermission comes the gorgeous Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from J.S. Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Book 1 and Beethoven’s iconic last Piano Sonata, No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, which appeared last year with several Gyorgi Ligeti etudes on Denk’s debut album for Nonesuch.

If we are lucky and enthusiastic as an audience, it sounds like some Brahms and Bach are on the encore play list.

Tickets are $25 for general admission with discounts for groups and families; and $10 for UW-Madison students. Here is a link to the WUT site with information about tickets and much more about Denk:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season12-13/jeremy-denk.html

Since I didn’t hear directly from Denk, but still don’t want reader to underestimate the potential pleasure and illumination of this recital, I have included several other firms of background material in the form of links and a wonderful YouTube video at the bottom that gives you a good taste of Denk’s personality and piano playing.

Here is a link to the Vanity Fair piece on Jeremy Denk:

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2013/04/jeremy-denk-pianist-carnegie-hal

And here is link to his eassy about piano lessons (“Every Good Boy Does Fine”) in the new issue of The New Yorker (April 8 issue).

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/04/08/130408fa_fact_denk

Here is the rave review in The New York Times of Jeremy Denk’s Carnegie Hall recital with the same program that he will perform in Madison:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/26/arts/music/jeremy-denk-pianist-at-carnegie-hall.html?_r=0

Judge for yourself, but I am sure you will arrive at the same conclusion as The Ear: This is a piano recital not to be missed.


Classical music: What recordings would you add to NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog list of its “Top Classical Recordings of 2012 So Far”?

July 26, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Many classical music writers — in newspapers, magazine and blogs — wait until the end-of-the-year gift-giving season to list their top picks of new recordings. And generally that works fine – which is why I also do that.

But it can be hard to keep track of a full year’s worth of new recordings.

Plus, that means a lot of catching up to do, a lot of listening in a short time if you want to hear them and judge them for yourself.

So I really like that NPR (to me, it was and remains National Public Radio) and its outstanding “Delayed Cadence” blog lists the best picks for the first half of the year. It’s kind of like celebrating your half-birthday.

They did it last year and they have done it again this year.

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/06/13/154911734/npr-classicals-favorite-albums-of-2012-so-far

You’ll notice that it is an eclectic list compiled by the ever-sharp Tom Huizenga (below), with a lot of different kinds of instruments, music and performers.

I am very pleased that it includes pianist Jeremy Denk’s debut solo album (below) for Nonesuch, which includes excerpts from Ligeti’s two books of etudes and Beethoven’s iconic last piano sonata Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor.

You may remember that the talented Denk – whose blog “Think Denk” is a favorite of mine and of acclaimed critic Alex Ross of The New Yorker. So it is small wonder that he writes his ow insightful liner notes for the CD. You may also remember that Denk spent a week in residence at NPR playing J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, which he performed here in Madison two seasons ago and also in Carnegie Hall to great acclaim. NPR also has included Denk (below) is its series of musicians that allowed NPR to peek in on their practicing.

Finally you might recall that Denk is booked on the upcoming season of the Wisconsin Union Theater to perform next spring, and in an interview with The Ear said he might perform Brahms (“Paganini” Variations) and Liszt.

Here is a link to the Q&A Denk did with The Ear, who got to sit on a blogging panel with Denk two years ago:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/classical-music-news-pianist-jeremy-denk-de-normalizes-classical-music-with-his-new-cd-of-beethoven-and-ligeti-and-points-the-way-to-the-future-of-recordings-with-one-that-deserves/

Anyway, I like the NPR list. But to mind, it is hardly exhaustive. I would also add the Pacifica Quartet’s second volume of “Music of the Soviet Union” (for the Chicago-based label Cedille), which couples a Shostakovich cycle with other Soviet-era composers such a Miaskovsky and Prokofiev.

Readers know s me a piano fan So I think I might also add new piano albums by Benjamin Grosvenor, the British pianist who is the youngest pianist ever signed by the major label Decca and who performs Chopin Liszt and Ravel for his debut; and by Inon Barnatan, the acclaimed young Israeli pianist whose playing shines rhythmically and propulsively in his debut album for Avie called  “Darkness Visible,” with music by Debussy, Ravel, Ades and Britten.

What new recordings would you add to the “Best Recordings of 2012 So Far” list?

Leave your nomination in the COMMENT section. I will thank you and so will other readers.


Classical music news: Pianist Jeremy Denk “de-normalizes” classical music with his new CD of Beethoven and Ligeti, and points the way to the industry’s future with a recording that deserves a Grammy.

May 21, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Pianist Jeremy Denk (below) – who says he is “obsessed with de-normalizing classical music” – is of one of the most promising and original musical talents not only in the US but also on the world scene.

And he is no stranger to Madison.

He first played here several years ago as the accompanist to star violinist Joshua Bell, with whom he recently toured Europe and recorded an outstanding album of French sonatas for Sony Classical.

Two seasons ago, Denk appeared at the Wisconsin Union Theater and performed a mammoth program of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and Charles Ives’ neglected Piano Sonata No. 1. He also held a master class for young piano students; participated in a blogging workshop; and gave a fascinating lecture on pedaling in Chopin at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

A year from now, Denk will again perform on the Wisconsin Union Theater concert series, over in Mills Hall since the Memorial Union will be closed for two seasons while it undergoes major renovation.

A graduate of Oberlin College (where he major in chemistry) and the Juilliard School, Denk has many honors to his credit. He taught at Indiana University 1996-2002 and currently teaches at Bard College. For a week this winter, he was an artist–in-residence at NPR and you can go to http://www.npr.org to listen to him. His blog “Think Denk” (http://jeremydenk.net/blog/) is extremely well written with thought-provoking perspectives on music and is extremely popular. Acclaimed critic Alex Ross, of The New Yorker Magazine singles it out as among the very best.

Last week, Nonesuch released Denk’s debut CD for the label: It features Beethoven’s visionary last piano sonata, No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111, sandwiched in between selections of Gyorgy Ligeti’s fiendishly difficult two books of 20th and 21st century etudes.

It is a revelatory recording that The Ear expects to be nominated for and win a Grammy as well as several other international recording awards. Yes, it is that good. It is that landmark a recording with eye-catching black-and-white photography by Michael Wilson and with liner note by Denk himself.

I also think it is also an indicator of how the recording industry might once again find its commercial feet and reclaim its artistic soul by emphasizing connection among music works – by combing new music with old, or mixing works by very contrasting composers — and by offering listeners musicianship of an original sort rather than the same old celebrity and virtuosity of competition winners.

We need more dialogue between the past and the present – and that is exactly what the thoughtful and virtuosic Denk makes music do.

Denk recently e-mailed The Ear with comments about his new recording and his upcoming appearance in Madison:

What does the new recording for Nonesuch mean to you and to your career?

Who knows the answer to that question? You’d have to predict the future, probably. Obviously it’s a Good Thing. At the very least it means I am a very happy camper, and I went out for some excellent celebration drinks with my friends.

I guess the best part is that on some level it associates me with a group of musicians that I deeply admire and respect—among many others Richard Goode, Brad Mehldau—and even with the idea of Nonesuch, which often seems to be about music that doesn’t care to fit “normally” in the genre cubbyholes that tradition and habit have built.

I am sort of obsessed with de-normalizing classical music (for instance, in this case, making Beethoven sound even weirder by surrounding him with Ligeti). I guess it also can mean trying to play Mozart (or Brahms or whatever) in a way that makes it feel less familiar; so that the surprises in the music — the radical inventive qualities — re-emerge.   These radical qualities are certainly there, but the whole tradition and trapping of the classical concert (and even our education as musicians) can sometimes conspire to hide them!

I blame the metronome, among other things.  But Ligeti does amazing things with the metronome; he understands its “soul” (so to speak).

What plans for future releases and repertoire (Bach Toccatas, Beethoven Concerto No. 1, Chopin ballades and mazurkas you lectured about here) do you have with Nonesuch?

There are no completely definite repertoire plans, but the “Goldbergs” seem to be the favored option for the next project. This would make sense, since I’ve been playing them off and on the last several years.

Why did you pair Ligeti etudes and the Beethoven’s final Sonata, Op. 111? Do the both share some quality? How does pairing them change or enhance the listener’s perception and appreciation of each composer or piece?

I had the hardest time cutting my liner notes down to size, partly because I had so many different justifications for this pairing.  To sum up, the super-duper Reader’s Digest Version: 1) They’re both “new music,” the Beethoven perpetually unsettling, a work which will never feel traditional; the Ligeti, a radicalization of tradition; 2) Op. 111 is an amazing portrait of infinity, a carefully constructed journey to eternity, and the Ligeti Etudes are an amazing collection of snapshots of the infinite; they’re both “friendly with ∞;” 3) Both the Ligeti and Beethoven are about complex dualisms of time, visions of time that are drifting apart.

One very important thing about the Beethoven that got cut from my notes:  The first movement seems very much in a hurry, kind of driven — this is the movement where Beethoven drags in the past very overtly (Bach, French Overture, fugue); whereas the second is very patient, very leisurely. In other words, it offers a beautiful paradox:  the movement that is consumed with the past is in a desperate hurry, and the movement that foresees the future is infinitely patient.

You will return next spring to Madison. Do you have a program in mind?

I am guessing good old-fashioned Brahms (below) and Liszt — the demonic side of Brahms, and all sorts of facets of Liszt from the sacred to the profane.  I recent re-fell in love with the “Paganini Variations,” one of the most inspired sets of variations in history.  I love Brahms when he doesn’t have to develop or do too much complicated thinking; when he must simply rely on inspiration, moment to moment. He really rises to these occasions.

I think you will be doing some kind of alternative time (lunch) -alternative venue (small concert space) while you are in Madison. Any comment?

I don’t know what it is, but I’m looking forward to it.

Is there anything you want to say about the recording, you, your career, the Madison date or the music scene in general, including your recent gigs on NPR?

I think my problem is certainly not saying too little.  A lot of my thoughts are on my blog, so many.  I’ve left quite a trail.  I hope my career is developing in a way that makes sense to someone!

As for the recording, it represents an enormous swath of my life, love and attention; I find Op. 111 to be one of the most affecting works of art, ever — period, end of story; I am always choked up and overwhelmed when Beethoven “re-finds” the theme in the second movement; it is something completely harrowing, completely redeeming.  It’s more like an experience than a piece of music.  It’s what music is for, if music is for anything.  And I think the Ligeti Etudes are equally astounding in a different way.

In short, there is no way I can make any reasonable, objective assessment of the record; it’s a bit like a limb that’s been cut away from me, and now, like it or not, it’s out in the world, doing its thing.


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