The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear praises British pianist Imogen Cooper and suggests you get to know her playing and recordings, including a debut on Chandos Records with music by Brahms and Schumann. Plus, check in on Day 9 of WYSO’s tour to Argentina.

August 1, 2014
6 Comments

ALERT: The Youth Orchestra, under the baton of University of Wisconsin-Madison conductor James Smith (below) and belonging to the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), is into Day 9 of its 10-day tour to Argentina. Here is a link to the live real-time blog about the tour:

wysotour2014.blogspot.com

WYSO Youth  Orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

There are a lot of talented women pianists playing out there right now.

Names that get mentioned frequently are usually the younger ones, the sexier and more glamorous and, therefore, more salable ones.

The glamorous, gifted and Grammy-nominated Yuja Wang –- she of the micro-skirts and stiletto heels and fabulously fast fingers — is right at the top of the heap.

yuja wang dress times 3

But then there is Van Cliburn Competition laureate Joyce Yang (below), Khatia Buniatishvili and Lola Astanova, all of whom draw headlines and turn in memorable performances. And there are many others I am sure I am leaving out.

Joyce Yang

But today The Ear wants to sing the praises of a mature woman and a seasoned musician who deserves far more public attention than she gets.

Why? Because she is simply one of the best pianists around.

I am talking about the Englishwoman Imogen Cooper (below).

Imogen Cooper

Cooper, who turns 65 on August 28, has been on the concert scene a long time. I first got to know her through her superb 3-volume set of late Schubert (sonatas and impromptus) on the Avie label. I have also heard a live recital of Ludwig Van Beethoven (Sonata Op. 101),  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Sonata in A Minor) and Maurice Ravel (“Miroirs” or Mirrors) and she did on the Wigmore Hall Live series, and it is nothing short of miraculous.

I have not heard her critically acclaimed art song or lieder recitals with Wolfgang Holzmair or her recordings of Mozart piano concertos. But I hope to do so soon. And I would like to hear her in music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Franz Joseph Haydn and Frederic Chopin.

But recently she also made her debut on Chandos records with a solo recital I have listened to over and over again, always with great pleasure and, since I am an avid amateur pianist, great envy. The Ear would sure like to hear her perform live in Madison.

I would say that The New York Times critic senior Anthony Tommasini got right to the heart of Cooper’s magisterial playing when, in his review of a live performance, he emphasized “virtuosity without dazzle” and talked about how her sensitive performances of Franz Joseph Haydn, Robert SchumannFranz Schubert and Thomas Ades were more thoughtfully impressive than performances of more overtly flashy and superficially difficult works by, say, Franz Liszt.

Here is a link to Tommasini’s review:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/11/arts/music/11coop.html?_r=0

The new CD, which has terrific sonic engineering, includes the seven “Fantasy Pieces” and the “Kreisleriana” of Robert Schumann as well as the too rarely heard piano version of the Theme and Variations from the String Sextet No. 1 by Johannes Brahms. (You can hear a mesmerizing live performance of the Brahms work at Hamline University in Minneapolis in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Imogen Cooper Chandos CD1 cover

Cooper studied at the Paris Conservatory and then with Alfred Brendel, with whom she partnered on a recording of Mozart dual concertos, and the depth of her preparation shows.

Cooper possesses beautiful tone, brilliant technique and a keen musical mind that creates beautifully songful phrases and, at the same time, makes penetrating sense of the music.

I have tried to find out what her next release will be –- and when it will appear –- but to no avail. (Below, in a photo by Jennifer Taylor of The New York Times, Cooper is seen playing her recital at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall in New York City.)

imogen cooper at the piano zankel

Here is a link to her website:

http://www.imogen-cooper.com

It is a great website to visit.

It has a lot of video and audio samples of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Janacek and Chopin. It has a lot of photos, although curiously none at the piano. It has lots of interviews and reviews. It includes her favorite historic recordings by other pianists and musicians. It has a biography and a list of appearances.

Read it and you will be impressed.

How does a talent like Cooper’s fly under the radar and remain relatively unknown? That is one of the mysteries of marketing. But clearly youth sells in Youth Culture.

That said, you should listen to this debut album and follow her career.

Are there any other Imogen Cooper fans out there?

What recordings of hers do you prefer?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: During “Schumann Week” at NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog, American pianist Jonathan Biss excelled in exploring and explaining the music and life of the prototypical Romantic composer.

October 21, 2012
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s not as if the music of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) hasn’t found a secure place in the repertoire. His piano music, chamber music, songs and orchestral music are all pretty standard fare and are performed and heard often.

And yet Robert Schumann (below, in a photo from 1850), who started out as a music critic and would-be concert pianist before turning to composing, still remains an enigmatic figure whose personal life and musical compositions offer many mysteries to explore. This is especially true of the role of his mental illness and the quality of his late-life compositions.

Two weeks ago, NPR and its terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence” offered a mini-seminar on Schumann. It used many audio samples, including playing and insightful commentary by the contributor Jonathan Biss (below, in a photo by Jillian Edelstein) and others, including Maurizio Pollini, Sviatoslav Richter, Andras Schiff and Radu Lupu.

The young American pianist has recorded several outstanding CDs for EMI of major solo piano works of Schumann. His latest release is a terrific new recording of Schumann’s upbeat and extroverted Piano Quintet, coupled with Dvorak’s Piano Quintet, with the Elias String Quartet for the Onyx label).

Biss has also just published an outstandingly informative and personally revealing e-book on Schumann called “A Pianist Under the Influence” (below, $1.99 at amazon.com). Biss has also launched a season-long major project and international 30-concert tour — called “Schumann: Under the Influence” — of performing Schumann’s works with other instrumentalists and singers.

Biss also played the piano for NPR, which offers samples on its website.

HERE ARE THE SELECTIONS OR TOPICS OF THE WEEK-LONG EXPLORATION, IN ORDER FROM TOP TO BOTTOM EQUALING FIRST TO LAST. THE EAR LEARNED A LOT ABOUT SCHUMANN AND HOPES YOU DO TOO.

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Schumann, with some audio samples to highlight the discussion:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/20/161482421/5-things-you-never-knew-about-schumann

Pianist and Schumann enthusiast Jonathan Biss Shoots Down Schumann Detractors:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/26/161810687/jonathan-biss-shooting-down-the-schumann-detractors

How the Schumann’s  (below) – Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck — used an unusual joint written Journal more than conversation to communicate:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/26/161842022/jonathan-biss-meet-the-schumanns-and-their-cryptic-communications

How Schumann created and furthered a Culture of Musical Nostalgia:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/26/161847811/jonathan-biss-schumanns-culture-of-musical-nostalgia

I love Schumann’s sense of bittersweet melody and harmony, his sense of longing and search for belonging, and have many favorite pieces.

But perhaps my most favorite work is the second section of “Kreisleriana,” which is about his longing for Clara before they were married and which was dedicated to Chopin. (Chopin dedicated his Ballade No. 2 to Schumann, and Chopin’s career was launched early by published praise from Schumann, who was writing as a critic.)

Perhaps because I heard it early on, I find the performance by Martha Argerich particularly moving. Here is that movement performed by Argerich. (Biss’ outstanding and beautiful recording of the complete “Kreisleriana,” which runs to more than 33 minutes, is also available on YouTube.):


Classical music: When I looked at German flowers, I heard the piano music of Robert Schumann.

August 31, 2012
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday I explained that I had not replied to so many kind and generous reader comments because I was recently out of the country on vacation for a two-week visit to family. But I did not say where.

Specifically, there I was in Germany, mostly in the area of Stuttgart, Pforzheim and Heidelberg.

And I kept hearing the opening melody of a relatively rarely heard piano piece by Robert Schumann: his “Blumenstuck’ or Flower Piece.

That’s no surprise, I suppose, in hindsight. There were beautiful, well-cared-for  flowers everywhere, bright colored and beautiful flowers in window boxes (below), in house gardens, in public parks, even in traffic roundabouts. I have seen similar sights in France and even in the city of Marquette, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But nothing compared with Germany. The world could use more flowers.

Of course, there is a lot of classical music that evokes flowers, especially songs.

But I first heard the lovely and melodic Schumann piece during a performance by Vladimir Horowitz, who programmed it often. It reminds of the same composer’s charming “Arabesque,” Novelettes” and “Night Pieces” as well as some sections of his suites made up of the suite “Scenes of Childhood,” “Kreisleriana,” “Fantasy Pieces” and “Carnaval.”

Schumann (below, in a photo from 1850) was one of the composers with the greatest gift for evoking nature – the French composer Debussy also excelled – and when you see the flowers of his native land, you understand their influence on him. (You can also find other readings, including one by the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, on YouTube.)

So, here is the great Vladimir Horowitz playing Schumann’s “Blumenstuck” in New Haven in the 1960s, in an interpretation that was a bit more lively and engaging, to my taste, than a later one in the mid-1970s.

I hope you enjoy it with the same pleasure that both the music and its original inspiration gave me:


Classical music: Robert Schumann is the best composer to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Can you name another?

February 14, 2012
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Valentine’s Day, when we celebrate romantic love. Maybe you can even send this special posting as an email to your Valentine.

In any case, if you are looking for pieces of classical music to play or listen to that are appropriate to celebrate Valentine’s Day, you have a lot of choices.

The Ear can think of specific pieces by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Dvorak, Faure and Poulenc, to name just a few of my favorites.

Many of them composed “romances” or pieces that could easily pass as a romance, some embodying requited love and some embodying unrequited love.

But I still think that the one composer who should be most identified with Valentine’s Day is Robert Schumann (1810-1856 and below in a photo from around 1850).

His deep and endless longing for Clara Wieck (with him, below), the young concert pianist who eventually became his wife — and after his death his champion — against the vociferous objections of her father, is palpable so much of his music in just about every form or genre including solo piano music, songs, chamber music and symphonic works.

In fact, I think one can argue that Schumann’s uncanny ability to capture love and passion in memorable and great sound makes him THE central Romantic composer of them all. Love and longing infuse his works.

I offer the following favorite Schumann moments as evidence, examples or case studies:

First, the slow movement from Schumann’s Piano Quartet:

Now, the second movement from his piano suite “Kreisleriana”:

Then there is the second of his Three Romances, the one in F-sharp major, for solo piano:

And from the song cycle “A Woman’s Life and Loves,” “Du, Ring an Meinem Finger” (You, Ring on My Finger):

And from the song cycle “Dichterliebe” (A Poet’s Loves), “Ich grolle nicht” (I won’t complain):

And then there is the magnificently poetic Piano Concerto, which is filled throughout its three movements with great moments of longing.

Here is a short but touching and memorable story about the role that the Schumann Piano Concerto played in two college students’ romance, courtship and love life:

http://www.npr.org/2012/01/31/146151332/winter-songs-young-love-in-ithaca-with-schumanns-help

And here is the opening of the first movement of that same Piano Concerto, dedicated to my own Valentine: I love you. Always have and always will.


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