La Scena Musicale

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rach 3 Rocks with Nissman and the Austin Symphony!

Last week, at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony presented an all-Russian program: Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, followed by the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3, and closing with the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5, the Russian composer’s most popular symphony.

As always, Maestro Bay had prepared well and interpreted the music with assurance and without exaggeration of any kind.

In the opening piece, Vocalise, Bay went for a nuanced, understated beauty that suited this slight work very well. Personally, I would like to hear more expansive phrasing in some sections, but then I may be biased by my own current research on that most rhapsodic of conductors, Leopold

Standing Ovation for Nissman’s Illuminating Rachmaninov!'

The Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto (Rach 3), performed on this occasion by soloist Barbara Nissman (photo: right), has become a calling card for piano virtuosi or would-be virtuosi from the days of one of the greatest, Vladimir Horowitz. It is a concerto guaranteed to bring down the house with its generous number of good tunes, its fearsome technical demands and its big finish.

But over the years we have learned that, while crucial, impeccable technique is not nearly sufficient for success with this piece. Finally, with Nissman, we got a performance that went deeper and illuminated more of the composer’s vision than any I have heard in a long time.

In Rach 3, many soloists settle for merely playing the notes accurately, in itself a formidable challenge. The great ones go further, as did Nissman, to make the music fresh and original, leaving listeners with a sense of having heard it for the first time.

In Nissman’s performance, this was especially true of the playful sections. Yes, the famously “sourpuss” Sergei Rachmaninov did indeed have a playful side. True, he wrote dark pieces such as The Isle of the Dead, but he wasn’t always morbidly depressed.

The third movement of Rach 3 has a
scherzando section; it is here that we discern whether pianists are interpretive artists or merely technicians. Nissman played this section as it was surely meant to be played, in an improvisatory fashion, capturing all the sparkle and fun. It is not ‘Marx Brothers funny’ but it is witty and light-hearted. To capture the true spirit of this section is to add another dimension altogether to this great work, and Nissman did just that.

In the big peroration at the end of the concerto – clearly modeled after the ending of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 – Nissman played with both power and exuberance. There is a lot going on here with tempi and dynamics changing in almost every bar. Conductor and soloist had not quite managed to reach complete consensus; nonetheless, this was joyous music-making.

Ginastera-Nissman Collaboration Has Deep Roots

The Austin audience, clearly moved by Nissman’s performance, demanded an encore. She obliged us with music by a composer with whom she is closely identified.

Nissman first met Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera (photo: right) when she was a student at the University of Michigan. She went on to become one of his foremost interpreters and his Piano Sonata No. 3 Op. 55 is dedicated to her.

On this occasion Nissman played two of Ginastera’s Danzas Argentinas Op. 2. The first of these is a lovely song with simulated guitar accompaniment and the second, a celebration of the Argentinian gaucho or cowboy in a virtuoso piece bursting with Latin dance rhythms - both great encore pieces - which Nissman played with the utmost panache and authority.

Shostakovich Fifth Symphony Music or Politics?

Scholars still argue over the meaning of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony - the last work on the program - particularly the final section with its triumphant, major key fanfares. Many, at the time of its writing (1937), took this music at face value, concluding that
Shostakovich was forced to compose this kind of ‘programmed propaganda” music under threat from the Soviet authorities.

Shostakovich, since the premiere of his opera
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1934, had been branded as a composer with ‘formalist’ tendencies, meaning that instead of writing music to celebrate the worker’s revolution, he was composing difficult and depressing music.

Before the premiere of the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich himself had suppressed his Fourth Symphony, one of his most forward-looking and uncompromising works, realizing that if it saw the light of day, he would probably be signing his own death warrant.

Taking into consideration the history of the Fourth Symphony, and the political climate in Stalin’s Soviet Union at the time, the Fifth Symphony is thought to have been an attempt by Shostakovich to win favor by writing music which could be more easily understood by the masses and which left its listeners with a positive message. But there is more to it than that.

This assessment was expounded in Testimony: the Memoirs of Shostakovich (1979), a manuscript compiled by
Solomon Volkov, and smuggled out of the Soviet Union. In Volkov’s words:
“I think that it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under a threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘ your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing, and you rise, shakily and go marching off muttering ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’ ”

The veracity of Volkov’s argument is still in dispute in some quarters, but there can be no doubt that in spite of its largely accessible style, the Fifth Symphony is a piece that contains many pages of struggle and despair. The question remains whether all this angst is alleviated in the end in accordance with socialist principles, or something else.

Timeless Power & Beauty: Bay and ASO Get it Right!

Shostakovich composed the Fifth Symphony well over 60 years ago; Stalin is long dead; and since 1989, the Soviet Union has collapsed and been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Most of us today enjoy Shostakovich’s ’s Fifth Symphony purely as music, and are unconcerned about its meaning. One may argue that it is music composed in a context, to be sure, but it endures because of its beauty, its range of feeling and its power to excite us.

My sense was that Peter Bay approached the music in this spirit; that is, pay attention to getting the notes right and the ‘music’ will emerge as the composer intended.

The Austin Symphony performed very well indeed. From the opening bars, the string phrases were precise and played without exaggeration. The dynamic marking here is only forte, after all, and the effect has a distinctly baroque character. The real drama in the piece is yet to come.

Bay followed the composer’s tempo instructions at the beginning of the last movement admirably. Shostakovich was very precise about wanting the movement to start rather slowly, then gradually accelerate over nearly thirty pages of score. It is very difficult for a conductor to make these tempo increases seamless, and the ideal result can only be achieved through sufficient rehearsal and performance.

Bay got it right. Compare, for example, Leonard Bernstein, a famous interpreter of the Shostakovich Fifth, who, in his classic first recording with the New York Philharmonic, starts with a very fast tempo and then has nowhere to go, having completely ignored the composer’s explicit intentions at the beginning of the movement.

Whether Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony played the final bars of the symphony as heroic or tragic is for the listener to judge, but there is no doubt that they played them loud. The Dell Hall in the Long Center has admirable clarity, but the players have to dig a little deeper to get enough sound out in the big climaxes. For once, timpanist Tony Edwards got the big sound I have been hoping to hear in this hall.

For Those Wanting More…

Barbara Nissman has recorded all of Ginastera’s piano music (Pierian 0005/6 2CD set) including the encores she played in Austin. She is working on a book about Prokofiev’s piano music and has recorded all nine Prokofiev sonatas (Newport Classic NCD60092/3/4 reissued by Pierian as PIR0007/8/9 3CD set). Bartok enthusiasts might want to check out Nissman’s Bartók and the Piano: a Performer’s View (Scarecrow Press).

While in Austin Nissman gave a Master Class at UT and a recital of works by Bach, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Ginastera, in a private home. The highlight of the recital for me was Nissman’s superb rendition of Prokofiev’s rarely-played Piano Sonata No. 6.

For a complete Nissman discography visit her

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Austin Symphony and Salerno-Sonnenberg Celebrate Barber Centenary

A centenary celebration is in order for one of the greatest of American composers, Samuel Barber (b. March 9, 1910), and yet the scheduled tributes in the country of his birth are few and far between: the Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, which premiered many of Barber’s compositions, has programmed just a handful of works, scattered over the course of their 2009-2010 season.

The Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO), notably an exception, last week presented an all-Barber program under its imaginative music director, Peter Bay. As Maestro Bay correctly stated in his opening remarks, the ASO is very likely the only professional orchestra in the entire United States offering such a concert this season. What’s more, tickets sold very briskly for the two concerts and the audience seemed to enjoy what they heard. It probably didn’t hurt that the dynamic and flamboyant Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg was the featured soloist.

Barber Out of Sync with Contemporaries

Barber is by no means a ‘difficult’ composer and never was. In fact, he was often accused of being old-fashioned and too conservative to be taken seriously as a composer of contemporary music. While much of his music does indeed have recognizable melody, it is often complex in its musical argument, and there is frequently a deep sadness in his music that can be unsettling.

The Adagio for Strings, by far Barber’s best-known composition, has become one of the staples of string orchestra repertoire and is often performed at funerals and occasions of public lament. It is a richly beautiful piece, shot through with anguish, expressing at its climax, a kind of primordial scream. Peter Bay and the ASO played the work with the utmost sensitivity and gave full value to the eloquent rests which are so integral to the work.

The concert opened with Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance Op. 23a, taken from a ballet score written for Martha Graham in 1946. I must confess that I have never really warmed to this piece – it always sounds to me like a second-rate version of the "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Richard Strauss’ opera Salome – but Bay and the ASO played it very well indeed.

Flashy Organ Concerto Suits Occasion

The Toccata Festiva Op. 36 closed the first half of the concert. Barber composed this piece in 1960 to inaugurate the new organ installed at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, which, at the time, was the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Toccata remains a largely ceremonial piece to be trotted out on special occasions, such as this. Christoph Eschenbach (with organist Olivier Latry) performed and recorded (Ondine ODE 1094-5) the work at the inauguration of the new organ in Verizon Hall in Philadelphia in 2006.

The audience at the Long Center was utterly fascinated watching the stagehands bring on the portable organ console piece by piece and then assemble it onstage. One of the highlights of the Toccata Festiva – apart from the setting up of the organ – is undoubtedly the remarkable cadenza which is almost entirely played on the pedals. This is exciting to watch, especially if the keyboards and pedals are facing the audience, as they were in Austin. The organ soloist was Stephen Hamilton, Minister of Music at the Church of the Holy Trinity in New York City.

Nadja-Salerno Sonnenberg “owns” this Concerto!

After intermission came the two works which stand for me as among Barber’s greatest achievements: the Violin Concerto (1936) and the Symphony No. 1 (1939).

The soloist in the Violin Concerto was Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who has been playing this piece with love and virtuosity for decades. She doesn’t just play this piece; she enters into the soul of it. From the almost inaudible opening bars she seems to be improvising, slowly bringing the music to life before weaving an engrossing tale of beauty and emotion.

The first melody at the opening of the concerto is exquisite. The tune first played by the oboist (Ian Davidson) at the beginning of the second movement is even more beguiling.

For all its beauty, the last movement of this concerto is problematic for some listeners – especially critics – in that it seems too short and too different from what has come before. But in Salerno-Sonnenberg’s hands it is, as Duke Ellington liked to say, simply “beyond category.” This is a perpetual motion movement in which the soloist’s fingers and bow are a blur from beginning to end. Unique to Salerno-Sonnenberg’s performance is the way in which she so perfectly catches the infectious ‘swing’ of the music. Bay and the ASO were right there for her in all the passionate moments and in the lightning fast and metrically complex finale.

And After Intermission…a Performance Worth the Wait!

I expected that there would be a rush for the exits after the concerto. In cities famous and not so famous all over the world, listeners tend to head for home after the celebrity guest artist has done his or her thing. As far as I could tell, not a single person left the hall on this occasion. There are some serious music-lovers in Austin and they are not all on Sixth Street!

In fact, fleeing patrons would have missed a fine musical experience; the performance of Barber’s Symphony No. 1 nearly topped what had preceded it. The Austin Symphony played superbly and Peter Bay conducted with total mastery of this complex score. There is an achingly beautiful oboe solo in this work too and once again Ian Davidson rose to the occasion.

Samuel Barber Then and Now

All the music on this concert except for the Toccata Festiva dates from 1936-46. Looking back, this was Barber’s golden period and a gradual decline in productivity and quality set in after that. Depression, alcoholism and a break with his life-long partner Gian Carlo Menotti all contributed to an apparent loss of confidence and energy.

Many people admire Barber’s opera Vanessa (1958); I am not one of them. It has always seemed to me somewhat ‘precious’ and lacking in drama. In 1966, Barber wrote another opera, Antony and Cleopatra, on a commission from the Metropolitan Opera. At the time, the consensus was that this was a fiasco and Barber was deeply hurt by the experience. Many of his admirers blamed the excessively grand staging by Zeffirelli for the opera’s failure and it has since been produced elsewhere with some success. This coming March Curtis Opera Theatre will mount a new production at the Kimmel Centre in Philadelphia as part of its year-long celebration of the Barber Centenary. Barber studied at Curtis as a young man and later returned to teach there.

For all his ups and downs, Barber created a substantial body of work. Along with Ives, Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein, he has earned the right to be considered one of the major American composers of the Twentieth Century. As we begin to make our way through the second decade of a new century, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony reminded us of Barber’s stature in a very positive way.

And For Those Who Want More…

Some years ago Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg made a recording of the Barber Violin Concerto (EMI 54313). She currently leads her own orchestra, the New Century Chamber Orchestra in the Bay Area and with this ensemble she has released an album called Together. For more on NSS visit her website.

For more on Samuel Barber, the biography by Barbara Heyman is essential reading: Samuel Barber: the Composer and his Music (Oxford University Press). I recommend also the fine appreciation of Barber in a long essay by Paul Wittke.

Barber’s songs are at the heart of his compositional output and it will be a long time before his music finds a better interpreter than Thomas Hampson. The distinguished American baritone has recorded all of Barber’s songs (DG 435 8672) along with soprano Cheryl Studer, pianist John Browning and the Emerson Quartet in a 2-CD set.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Flawless Touch & Temperament: Ohlsson Triumphs in Dvorak Rarity!

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson


There is nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a great piano virtuoso in action with a big orchestra. Hands a blur at the keyboard, showers of notes played at blinding speed, the Steinway grand all but demolished under the onslaught while the conductor whips the orchestra into a frenzy. Wonderful!

Most of the great virtuoso vehicles – by Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov - were composed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and have been exciting audiences ever since. There are, however, other piano concertos from this period that are less flashy, but well worth a hearing. Dvořák’s piano concerto of 1876 is just such a piece. I have had a special affection for this fine work for many years and I was delighted that pianist Garrick Ohlsson and conductor Peter Bay decided to present it this season with the Austin Symphony at the Long Center.

Ohlsson Brings Flawless Touch & Temperament to Rare Masterpiece

As a young man, Ohlsson won the prestigious Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1970. He went on to establish himself as one of the foremost Chopin players of his generation. With this kind of musical pedigree, he was just the man to do justice to Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33.

Op. 33 is a piece for consummate musicians. It calls for beauty of sound and the most natural sense of rubato. In other words, it is Chopinesque in its piano writing. Any pianist who approaches it with hammer and tongs will make a hash of it, and might better leave it alone. There is drama in the score, and deep romantic temperament; but again, its special beauty is apt to be destroyed if the passion is overdone.

One of the great moments for me is the opening of the slow movement – a solo horn with soft string accompaniment, playing a haunting melody then picked up by the piano. Nothing much to it, except the totally unexpected B major chord that intrudes in the key of D major. It reminds me also of the inspired harmonic chemistry to be found in the great soprano aria “O silver moon” from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka. The piano concerto has several moments of this quality, and if you like Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, you’ll find more of the same here, especially in the last movement.

Ohlsson gave one of the finest performances I ever expect to hear of this lovely work and Peter Bay and the ASO provided stellar accompaniment. At the height of the applause came a special treat – as an encore - Chopin’s familiar Grand Valse Brillante, played by Ohlsson with such effortless mastery that one hoped it would never end.

Dell Hall Sound Fails Conductor & Orchestra in Epic Rachmaninov!

The major orchestral offering of the evening, Rachmaninov’s epic Symphony No. 2, (1907), came after intermission. Interestingly, Dvořák and Rachmaninov were close to the same age – Dvořák was 36 and Rachmaninov 34 – when they wrote these two pieces; in short, they were both young men but well-established as important composers.

In the case of Rachmaninov, his first symphony was received so badly that it practically ended his career. The Second Symphony, however, was another matter. It is full of soaring melody, and structurally it hangs together far better than the First Symphony. It is, nonetheless, a massive, sprawling score and much of the music is dark and melancholy. Unlike the Dvořák Piano Concerto, it calls for a large orchestra and the biggest possible sound.

Unfortunately, while Peter Bay had added a few extra double basses and had the full complement of brass and percussion that the score requires, the Michael and Susan Dell Hall at the Long Center simply refused to cooperate.

Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 requires a depth of sound that sets the floor shaking and gives you the feeling of being punched in the gut. Nothing like that sound reached me in my seat about two-thirds of the way back on the ground floor. I don’t doubt for a moment that the ASO is capable of producing a full rich sound, but I am concerned that we may never hear it in this hall.

It so happens that the very next night I was sitting in a similar location in the Myerson Symphony Center in Dallas. The orchestral sound I heard there was exactly what was missing in Austin. It wasn’t the fault of the conductor or the orchestra in Austin; it was the hall. The Myerson happens to be one of the world’s great concert halls and what a difference it makes to the sound of an orchestra and to the sound of the music.

Let me emphasize that Peter Bay and the ASO musicians had obviously worked hard to get this difficult music under control and the hard work paid off. This was an extremely well-organized and well-executed performance. There was fine playing from principal clarinet and horn, and the trumpets threw off their brilliant flourishes in the last movement with great panache. Even the best performance, however, suffers when given on a poor instrument, and the Dell Hall may just be such an instrument. Let us hope not.

Finding the Right Mix No Easy Matter

It might be worthwhile for Bay and the ASO – if they have not already done so - to experiment with different orchestral seating arrangements, various types of risers and baffles, or moving at least some of the musicians out in front of the proscenium to see if any of these changes improve the sound.

There is another way of looking at the problem. The ASO might think about what repertoire avoids the hall’s deficiencies, and instead plays to its strengths. In my experience, the hall does not deal well with big, romantic repertoire. There is not enough resonance and not enough of the sound projects into the hall. On the other hand, the hall is generally flattering to soft music and to music with a lighter texture. Mozart symphonies and concertos, for example, might work very well.

Unfortunately, the heart of the repertoire and the music that appeals to a wider audience is – you guessed it – the big, romantic stuff.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar; Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, and Stokowski (Spring 2009), all available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Austin Explores "Hungarian Connection"

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson

It was a clever idea for Austin Symphony music director Peter Bay to preface a rare performance of Miklós Rózsa’s Violin Concerto with some of Brahms Hungarian Dances. Rózsa was born in Budapest and makes use of Hungarian folk music in his concerto. The major work on the program was Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, a work that has no apparent Hungarian connection. But who can be sure? Besides twenty-one Hungarian Dances and eleven Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs), not to mention the "Rondo alla Zingarese" from his G minor Quartet, Brahms had Hungarian music in his blood.

How Hungarian are Brahms’ “Hungarian” Dances?
Peter Bay chose to program just three of the Hungarian Dances and only the ones that Brahms orchestrated himself from pieces originally composed for piano duet. To my mind these pieces best reveal their charm when they are played by two people – preferably very good friends – seated at one keyboard. But it is understandable that Brahms wanted to capitalize on the popularity of these pieces by making them available for performance by symphony orchestras. Incidentally, the discussion still rages as to whether the music Brahms used as the basis for his dances were really gypsy rather than Hungarian. The consensus is that the music Bartók and Kodály later uncovered in their travels through rural Hungary was both much more authentic and more complex.

Hungarian-Born Miklós Rózsa Prolific Composer of Movie Music
Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995) may have been born in Hungary but he lived most of his life in Los Angeles writing music for the movies. He was very good at it too and his skills contributed greatly to the success of films such as Ben Hur, Spellbound, Double Indemnity, Quo Vadis, and even the Steve Martin comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. But Rózsa wrote important concert music too. When Leonard Bernstein made his legendary debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943 there was a Rózsa work on the program: Theme,Variations and Finale Op. 13. And it was Jascha Heifetz who encouraged Rózsa to write his Violin Concerto and gave the first performance in 1956 with the Dallas Symphony.

At the time Rózsa was at the height of his career as a film composer. Not surprisingly, the Violin Concerto does sound a lot like film music of the period. It has soaring romantic melodies and lush orchestration. What’s more, Rózsa borrowed chunks from the Violin Concerto for the film score he composed in 1970 for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Not that there is anything wrong with that. The Violin Concerto is a well-made and very attractive piece that deserves a place in the repertoire. And Robert McDuffie is just the man to play it. He recorded it in 1999 for Telarc and lately he has been playing it all over the world, including on a tour with the Jerusalem Symphony.

McDuffie Dazzles with Tone & Technique in Rózsa’s Violin Concerto
There are certainly Hungarian elements in the Violin Concerto but they are not the gypsy elements popularized by Brahms. Rózsa makes use of the pentatonic scale and some rhythmic devices characteristic of some Hungarian folk music. But it would be misleading to say that the concerto is “based” on Hungarian folk music. It has a character all its own. When the music is not lyrical it is often virtuosic in the extreme, especially in the thrilling codas closing the first and third movements. I had never heard McDuffie live before and I was immensely impressed by his superlative playing and commanding presence. I was also amazed by the volume of sound he produced. After just a few concerts in the still-new Long Center it is impossible to say what the hall is contributing to the music. But it seems that the hall is very flattering to the sound of a solo violin. In any case, let’s hope that McDuffie returns soon. He is a wonderful artist. And let’s not forget conductor Peter Bay’s contribution to the success of this performance. He and the ASO were with McDuffie every step of the way.

A Scholarly Reading of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4
The concert concluded with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in a performance that sounded well-prepared and very satisfying on its own terms. Peter Bay gave us a scholarly view of the score, paying careful attention to balances – the low-lying flute solo in the fourth movement came through beautifully - and maintaining forward motion. Over the years orchestras have grown larger and conductors have tended to make Brahms symphonies richer and more powerful than they were in the composer’s lifetime. We know that at the first performances a much smaller string section was used. On the other hand, orchestras play in larger halls today and perhaps they need to produce a bigger sound for the music to make the same effect.

Orchestral Seating Plans & the Search for an Ideal Sound

Bearing all of these issues in mind I personally would still like to hear a more robust sound in the Brahms symphonies. Perhaps the acoustics of the hall were not entirely sympathetic to the conductor’s approach. Peter Bay and the ASO might want to experiment with different seatings. For this concert the double basses were lined up on the extreme right of the stage and from where I sat they hardly projected at all. Perhaps they could be moved to the left side facing out for better effect. The timpani was placed at the right rear of the orchestra and the sound was distant and muffled. Similarly, the trumpets seemed to disappear in the climaxes. In such matters Leopold Stokowski provides a useful role model. He never stopped searching for better seating plans for his orchestras. He realized that every hall is different, and that there is nothing scientific about the traditional orchestral seating. The point is to try to find the ideal sound for every piece in every place. We can’t do much to physically change concert halls after they have been built but we can certainly try to make them sound better. And Stokowski was legendary for making orchestras sound wonderful.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website.

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