The Well-Tempered Ear

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
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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!

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

August 12, 2017
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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: Got questions? Got answers? Try using Quora – especially if you are a piano fan

August 17, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

A close friend recently recommended a chatroom called Quora, which has a regular website and also a mobile app, which The Ear downloaded from iTunes and uses every day.

Quora logo

You have to sign up for it, but membership is free. And I don’t recall seeing any ads.

Once you belong to Quora, you can check what topics interest you and then you get constant updates and entries. And you can choose from a lot of topics in all kinds of fields and disciplines from art and music to politics, economics and international relations.

One possible choice is, simply, Classical Music, and it is a good choice.

But The Ear has found the site a particularly good and helpful resource for questions about the piano.

piano keys

Here are some of the topics that have been featured recently:

Why do mathematicians appreciate Bach more than Beethoven?

What should I do if I need to perform with a bad quality piano? (Answered by some who LOVES bad pianos)

I am 14 years old. Can I start playing the piano or is it too late?

Can you provide any recommendations of electronic pianos?

yamaha digital piano

How does the new Kawai grand piano GL series compare to other inexpensive baby grands like Yahama G series or the Baldwin BP series?

What should I keep in mind while learning the piano?

What are the features of good piano texture?

Who are some good contemporary classical piano composers?

What are the pros and cons of an electric piano to a classical piano? (None other than the legendary virtuoso Martha Argerich practices on a digital piano.)

What are some study strategies to memorize big piano pieces?

What qualities make for good Chopin play?

What would be a good piano practice routine?

quora Q&A

Well, you get the idea.

The questions run the gamut as do the answers.

But The Ear has learned that just because a question sounds obvious and simple, even amateurish, doesn’t mean that the answers aren’t valuable and informative.

As an avid amateur pianist, The Ear has learned many things.

And he may soon even start answering some of the questions.

Here is a link:

https://www.quora.com

Try it and let The Ear know what you think.
Good reading!

Good writing!

Good playing the piano!

 


Classical music: Edgewood College features a musical collaboration by faculty members to mark Valentine’s Day this Sunday afternoon. Plus a FREE guitar recital of Bach, Scarlatti and Villa-Lobos is at noon on Friday.

February 11, 2016
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, to take place from 12:15 to 1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, features classical guitarist Naeim Rahmani (below) who will perform music by Domenico Scarlatti, Johann Sebastian Bach, Heitor Villa-Lobos and more.

Naeim Rahmani

By Jacob Stockinger

You can celebrate Valentine’s Day this coming Sunday afternoon with “five musical conversations,” a collaborative faculty recital presented by six faculty members from the Music Department at Edgewood College.

The concert is at 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive.

Performers include mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson, guitarist Nathan Wysock, violinist Laura Burns, percussionist Todd Hammes, and pianists Susan Gaeddert and Jennifer Hedstrom.

Below in the Edgewood College photo are (from left): music department faculty and staff Jennifer Hedstrom (piano), Todd Hammes (percussion), Laura Burns (violin), Nathan Wysock (guitar), Susan Gaeddert, (piano) and Kathleen Otterson (mezzo-soprano).

Edgewood College Five Musical Conversations - media

The six performers will present five musical sets featuring a variety of styles and chamber combinations.

Included on the program are a set of lute songs by John Dowland, performed by Otterson and Wysock; three works by Santiago de Murcia, performed by Wysock and Hammes, a set of modern works by Chick Corea and Todd Hammes, performed by Hammes on vibraphone with Jennifer Hedstrom on piano; Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite (heard at the bottom in a popular YouTube video that features Argentinean Martha Argerich and Chinese Lang Lang in a subtle and colorful performance) for piano, four hands, performed by Hedstrom and Susan Gaeddert; a set of Lieder or art songs by Louis Spohr, sung by Kathleen Otterson with Susan Gaeddert on piano and Laura Burns on violin.

Tickets are available at the door.

Admission is $7, or free with Edgewood College ID.


Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players will perform playful works by Elisenda Fabregas, Malcolm Arnold and Robert Schumann this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

January 12, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue the concert season theme of “Play” with playful whimsy in a concert entitled Fairy Tales and Other Stories, on this Saturday, Jan. 16, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 17, at 1:30 p.m.

Oakwood Chamber Players 2015-16

The concerts will both be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison‘s far west side.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door. They are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors and $5 for students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

This concert features the chamber ensemble’s talented pianist Vincent Fuh (below top) who will perform solo selections from “Scenes from Childhood” By Robert Schumann (below bottom, in 1850). This piece captures a wide range of expressivity and shifts in energy illuminated by the composer‘s musical imagination. (You can hear “Scenes From Childhood” performed by Martha Argerich in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Vincent Fuh big

Schumann photo1850

The program will also include “Voces di mi Terra” (Voices of My Land) by the compelling Catalan/American composer Elisenda Fabregas (below), written for flute, cello and piano.

elisenda fabregas

The Quintet for violin, viola, flute, horn and bassoon by British composer Malcolm Arnold is a clever and varied composition that shows an upbeat and playful approach to a non-traditional combination of instruments.

malcolm arnold

Robert Schumann’s Fairy Tales, Op. 132, for clarinet, viola and piano will give the audience a glimpse into a dream world of music that is sometimes uplifting and sometimes mysterious.

This is the third of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players 2015-2016 season series titled “Play.” Remaining concerts include Children’s Games on March 5 and 6; and Summer Splash on May 14 and 15.

The Oakwood Chamber Players is a group of Madison-area professional musicians who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.

 


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
4 Comments

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: Starting off the New Year, can you identify the opening of certain works of music? Here is an NPR puzzler to open 2015.

January 10, 2015
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

What is a good way to start off the New Year musically?

There are always the New Year’s Day celebrations from Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic. They get broadcast on PBS and also National Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Radio.

Here is a link to a preview of this year’s celebrations:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/classical-music-dance-into-2015-this-morning-and-tonight-with-waltzes-and-more-from-vienna-on-public-radio-and-tv/

Golden Hall in Vienna

But this year sees another way, an intriguing and original way, to mark the new year: A quiz about how great works of classical music begin and whether you can recognize them right away.

Female Orchestra Conductor With Baton

So here is The New Year Puzzler from the Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR.

Go ahead.

Take it and see how well you do.

The Ear wants to hear.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/01/06/375127303/getting-off-to-a-good-start-a-new-years-puzzler

And below is a popular YouTube video, with 2.5 million hits, of one of my favorite and most inspired and dramatic openings that should be immediately recognizable:

 

 


Classical music: Farley’s Salon Piano Series starts a new season this coming Sunday afternoon with the prize-winning Varshavski-Shapiro piano duo. Plus, tonight is your last chance to hear and see the University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring.”

October 28, 2014
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ALERT: Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall on Bascom Hill, is your last chance to hear the University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s comic chamber opera “Albert Herring,” which is based on a short story by the 19th-century French writer Guy de Maupassant. (Below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson, is a crucial scene.)

Tickets are available at the door. They are $22 for the public, $18 for seniors and $10 for students.

Here is a link with more information:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/brittens-albert-herring-3/

And here is a link to a review by John W. Barker of Isthmus. The Ear, who saw the Sunday afternoon performance instead of the opening on Friday night, agrees with Barker on the major points:

http://www.isthmus.com/daily/article.php?article=43859&sid=bd26396e522b7c37c6f143f5598af822

University Opera Albert Herring Michael R. Anderson

By Jacob Stockinger

Farley’s House of Pianos will host five concerts in the Salon Piano Series’ 2014-15 season, which starts this coming Sunday:

The Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo (below), this Sunday, November 2, at 4 p.m., in music by Schubert, Ravel, Milhaud, Saint-Saens and Poulenc.

varshavski shapiro duet

Pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), Sunday, January 25, 2015, at 4 p.m. in music by Beethoven, Prokofiev and Schumann.

ilya yakushev 3

Pianist Marco Grieco (below), Friday, March 13, 2015 at 7:30 p.m. in music by Johann Sebatsian Bach-Feruccio Busoni, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt.

marco grieco

Pianist Martin Kasík (below), Saturday, April 18, 2015, at 7:30 p.m. in music by Beethoven, Ravel and Prokofiev.

martin kasik

A spring jazz concert, still to be announced

These concerts constitute the second season of the Salon Piano Series, a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded by Tim and Renée Farley to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos.

The setting replicates that experienced by audiences throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and enhances collaboration between performer and audience.

The Series offers audiences the chance to hear upcoming and well-known artists whose inspiring performances are enhanced by the setting and the fine pianos. Some performances are preceded by free lectures. An artists’ reception with light food and beverages follows each concert and is included in the ticket price.

VARSHAVSKI AND SHAPIRO

Here is more about the opening concert:

The program features: “Variations on a French Song”, D. 624, one piano-four hands, by Franz Schubert; “La Valse” for one piano-four hands by Maurice Ravel; the exciting and lyrical Brazil-inspired “Scaramouche” suite by Darius Milhaud (heard at the bottom played by piano superstars Martha Argerich and Evgeny Kissin in a YouTube video); “Variation on a Theme by Beethoven” for two pianos by Camille Saint-Saens; and the Sonata for Two Pianos by Francis Poulenc.

Ukrainian Stanislava Varshavski and Russian Diana Shapiro’s partnership began in 1998, while the two were students at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy in Israel. One year later, they won first prize at the International Piano Duo Competition in Bialystok, Poland.

Stanislava Varshavski-Diana Shapiro

Since then, the ensemble has participated in international festivals and performed solo recitals in at least eight different countries, and has appeared with a number of well-known orchestras, such as the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, and the New World Symphony Orchestra of Miami.

In 2005, they placed first in the prestigious Murray Dranoff International Two Piano Competition. Varshavski and Shapiro both hold doctorates in Musical Arts from University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where they studied under Martha Fischer. The duo appeared together at Farley’s in 2012 when they premiered the Villa Louis Steinway Centennial grand (below) that was rebuilt in the Farley workshop. Learn more about the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo at www.piano-4-hands.com.

Farley 1877 piano

SALON PIANO SERIES

Visit http://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html for complete concert programs, and artist information. Tickets are $35 for each concert and can be purchased online at www.brownpapertickets.com

Tickets are also available at Farley’s House of Pianos and Orange Tree Imports.

Farley’s House of Pianos is located at 6522 Seybold Road on Madison’s far west side near the Beltline and West Towne. Plenty of free parking is available at Farley’s House of Pianos, and it is easy to reach by bicycle or Madison Metro.

 

 


Classical music: Bach and the H-Bomb. The Ear celebrates five years of writing his blog by offering a poem about thermonuclear weapons, Edward Teller and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

August 22, 2014
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday, Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, marked the fifth anniversary of The Well-Tempered Ear blog, which this past June surpassed one million hits and now has over 1,800 daily posts and 6,200 comments. Thank you, all, for your loyalty and your participation. The results have exceeded my wildest expectations or hopes.

To mark the occasion, I thought I would do something different, something I have not done before: Offer a poem of my own from a personal project: A collection of poems I often write about the piano pieces that I am myself playing or listening to. Maybe a reader out there who likes the poem will know, or even be, a literary agent or a publisher of some kind who would be interested in seeing the poem, and others like it, reach a larger audience. The YouTube link at the bottom to the music in question adds a certain unusual attraction.

This particular poem is based on historical fact, but I have of course taken some liberties. It is like historical fiction, only in the form of poetry.

The poem concerns Johann Sebastian Bach (below top) and the late Hungarian-born and controversial theoretical physicist Dr. Edward Teller (1908-2003, below bottom), who was the model for Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s famous 1964 satirical movie of the same name. Teller developed the Atomic Bomb, created the Hydrogen Bomb and proposed Star Wars.

Bach1

Edward Teller

Here is a photo of the young Dr. Edward Teller, whose mother was an accomplished concert pianist, playing the Steinway piano that he bought at a hotel auction in Chicago, while his wife Mici looks on:

Edward Teller plays piano with wife MIci CR Jon BrenneisIf you wish to check out more biographical information, including his being named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1960, here are some links:

http://www.webofstories.com/play/edward.teller/7;jsessionid=2C9ABDC3269E3F2ABC31706C137871EA

Here is a biography with a video clip at the bottom of the web page of Edward Teller playing the first movement, in an overheated manner, of the “Moonlight” Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven at his home at Stanford University, California, in 1990, when he was 90 years old. He died there of a stroke at 95, two months after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush.

http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/tel0bio-1

At bottom is a link to a YouTube performance by Friedrich Gulda –- a famous jazz musician but also an important teacher of classical piano titan Martha Argerich — of the Bach prelude and fugue in question.

I hope you like the poem and find it rewarding. If you do, let me know, and perhaps I will post some more in the future.

Hydrogen Bomb

DR. EDWARD TELLER PLAYS BACH

By Jacob Stockinger

Late at night, when he is not in his lab
Building the world’s first atomic bomb,
Dr. Edward Teller is back in his barracks.
He thinks through his fingers
As he pedals with his fake right foot,
Practicing and playing on the century-old Steinway
He had shipped to the high New Mexico desert.

The physicist’s taste runs to Mozart and Beethoven.
But tonight he is working on Prelude and Fugue No. 8
In E-flat Minor and D-sharp Minor,
from Book I of Johann Sebastian Bach’s
The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

Since childhood, his mind has been held captive
By only two things: the music of mathematics
And the mathematics of music.

This slow, melodious and mournful
Music, he finds, is solidly, stolidly built.
The paired-up pieces match,
Mirror-like in their linkage
Like fission and fusion,
Like Bombs A and H.

Bach and bombs seem compatibly ingenious,
Old equations for a new beauty.
He likes how the main melody at the core
Radiates and grows, outward and inward,
Down and up, across treble and bass.
The multiple voices echo in a chain reaction of sound,
Like the counterpoint of nuclei and electrons,
And the dialogue of chalkboard equations.

The transparent thickness of Baroque beauty
Suits his scientific bent and emotional need,
His taste for a stately and elegant destruction
In which he can lose himself and others.

He knows that the two pieces remain something of a mystery,
The only ones Bach wrote in those keys,
Obscure keys that no one used back then.
But rarity equals a kind of originality
and that attracts Teller, who is still thinking up
“The Super,” his own word for an even
more powerful thermonuclear device.

That is what he now calls apocalyptic energy,
When he is not playing Bach.

And especially when he is.

© Jacob Stockinger

 


Classical music: Conductor Claudio Abbado and pianist Martha Argerich team up for unforgettable, compelling performances of two late Mozart concertos in a new Deutsche Grammophon release.

March 7, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear is pretty sure that Deutsche Grammophon has some more recordings “in the can,” as they say, by the late and universally acclaimed Italian conductor Claudio Abbado (below, leading the Orchestra Mozart), who died last month at 80.

Claudio Abbado and Orchestra Mozart

And the same make hold true for the legendary Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich -– often dubbed the female Vladimir Horowitz for her blazing technique, involving and individualistic interpretations and unpredictability -– who has been seriously ill and may be approaching the end of her career.

martha argerich hands in air

But it is curious, and reassuring, to see how so many aging musicians turn late in life to the music of Mozart. It happened with pianists Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, both of whom generally focused on the Romantic repertoire. And I am sure there are many, many more examples.

But you would be hard put to find more convincing examples than the two Mozart piano concertos with Abbado and Argerich, plus the Orchestra Mozart, that was released this week by Deutsche Grammophon. You can hear some compelling samples in a YouTube video at the bottom.

Claudio Abbado and Martha Argerich Mozart CD cover

That these two musicians were compatible we know from their long partnership — they are seen below together in the 1960s — and their early and frequent collaborations on Beethoven, Chopin Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Rachmaninoff.

Claudio Abbado and Martha Argerich in 1960s

Martha Argerich and Claudio Abbado young BW

But who was waiting for Mozart to be next? Not The Ear.

But it works. Oh boy, does it work.

Argerich, who is known for impetuousness, here seems the model of restraint without being timid. She plays strongly and with assurance, but with the complete transparency and clarity that great Mozart playing demands. Mozart’s music offers no room to hide, but then Argerich doesn’t need any.

Martha Argerich, Piano

The same holds for Claudio Abbado, who was at home in grand opera and big symphonic scores by Mahler as well as Beethoven, Schubert and so many others. But his Mozart here is also a model of clarity, with the various orchestral parts emerging clearly to hold dialogues with the many piano parts that Argerich brings out.

Claudio Abbado

It is an interesting match of repertoire.

The Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, is Mozart’s biggest symphonic effort in the genre of piano concertos – he composed 27 piano concertos — and it is perfectly suited to Argerich’s bigger-than-life playing.

But how she brings out Mozart’s lovely aria-like voices, melodies and harmonies. Her playing is all about poetic and natural sounding deconstruction through inflection and articulation, her accents paralleling and underscoring passages in the orchestra. Such heartbreaking simplicity combined with such effortless complexity -– that is the fusion Mozart we hear here.

Mozart old 1782

Similarly, in the darker and more well-known Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, Argerich is all color and drama as well as clarity. Interestingly, she uses different and atypical cadenzas -– two by Ludwig van Beethoven and one by Argerich’s teacher Friedrich Gulda.

Now there are a lot of wonderful Mozart piano concertos out there in Recording World, including those by Murray Perahia and Alfred Brendel. So there is no point arguing whether these readings are definitive.

Increasingly, in fact, the Ear thinks the whole idea of definitive performances is not only illusory, but also antithetical and even counterproductive to the whole point of the performing arts.

But I can say this: Judging by the pleasure that the readings continue to give me, these two recording are riveting and MUST-HEAR recordings for serious Mozart fans, for serious piano fans and for serious fans of Claudio Abbado and Martha Argerich — two of the 20th century’s titanic talents in classical music.

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