La Scena Musicale

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Lortie not Himself in Chopin Recital

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

I was one of the few people who didn’t give Louis Lortie a standing ovation at Koerner Hall this afternoon.

I have a deep respect for Lortie, who has long been a favourite pianist of mine, and not because he's Canadian. I have attended many of his concerts and masterclasses and he has never let me down before. Just last March, when he played Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, I quietly shed a few tears during the moving adagio.

However, Lortie was a very different pianist in an all-Chopin recital today. He struggled with some of the most rudimentary things such as memory lapses, which, as human as he is, just should not happen at his virtuoso level.

The program, built around Chopin’s four ballades and key-matching nocturnes (except for the third ballade in A-flat major), flopped from the beginning with the pairing of the G minor Nocturne, Op. 15, No. 3 and the G minor Ballade. Playing them as one continuous piece, the ballade’s solemn and weepy opening introduction in octaves felt out of place after Lortie gave the mazurka-like nocturne a groovy, jazzy treatment. Maybe the gentle Op. 37, No. 1 Nocturne in the same key with its choral middle section would have worked better.

The coupling of the F major Nocturne, Op. 15, No. 1 with the F major Ballade was more successful in character, as was the case between the F minor Nocturne, Op. 55, No. 1 and the F minor Ballade. However, instead of the cheerful A-flat major Nocturne, Op. 32, No. 2, Lortie chose the E-flat major Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2 and the C minor Nocturne, Op. 48, No. 1 to precede the A-flat major Ballade.

The rest of the program was made up with the Berceuse in D-flat major, the F-sharp major Nocturne, Op. 15, No. 2 and the Barcarolle, also in F-sharp major.

Overall, there was some really nice, warm sound coming from the piano, even though the instrument’s higher register seemed often overpowered by its lower counterpart. However, Lortie’s playing came across choppy most of the time due to erratic use of rubato, his chords were not always dead-on, and his running passages, albeit technically brilliant, were sometimes sloppy in their manner of care. All of this is uncharacteristic of the kind of precision player Lortie is known for.

Playing all four Chopin ballades in one concert is a major undertaking for any pianist. Throw in some nocturnes and two of the most popular pieces by the composer and it’s a daunting recital in more ways than one. After an overwhelming standing ovation, and a few shouting bravos, Lortie ended the recital on a good note, playing theD-flat major Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2 to perfection. It was by far the best playing of the afternoon, but it was too little too late.

That being said, I still look forward to Lortie’s next recital when the pianist is likely to be more himself.

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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, November 15, 2009

Jon Kimura Parker Shines from Beethoven to Billy Joel

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Once in a while, a concert pianist comes across as both virtuoso and versatile. That was the case at Koerner Hall on Nov. 8. The pianist was Canada’s own Jon Kimura Parker, whose afternoon recital began with two well-known Beethoven sonatas.

The Pathétique (Op. 13) and Appassionata (Op. 57) are two of Beethoven’s most beloved piano sonatas. Parker played both pieces with conviction and a clear sense of structures that kept the big picture in focus.

With Beethoven, rests are just as important as notes, and while Parker’s rests seemed peculiarly long at times (for example, the Grave in Pathétique), they created extra tension and drama in the beautiful, intimate Koerner Hall. The sound he produced from the shiny black Steinway was warm and luminous, but the contrast in dynamics was overwhelmed at times, especially in loud crescendos. The slow movements were simple and lovely, his voicing and tonal imagination unmatched.

Parker displayed flawless techniques and overactive fingers in the fast movements. However, while his finale in the Appassionata was thrillingly bang-on, it makes one puzzle as to why the infamous hand-crossing passage in the first movement of the Pathétique was not, with the secondary theme in the bass coming in late each time. Overall, Parker’s Beethoven was slightly over-pedaled, but it worked well in the stormy Appassionata.

After intermission, Parker introduced the audience to an entirely different program, which he said he had chosen to reflect Koerner Hall’s inclusion of a wide variety of music.

He began the second half of the recital with three pieces composed by American jazz pianist Chick Corea: Night Streets, Where Have I Known You Before?, and Got a Match?. Parker said he wanted to try something different and, while he didn’t improvise, he showed off his groovy side with equal flair nevertheless.

Next, it was John Adams’ China Gates. Written in 1977 with young pianists in mind, “gates” is a borrowed term from electronics and reflects the moments when the two modes in alternates in China Gates. Here, Parker gave a sensitive reading of the score and produced a poetic undulating realm that was both rich and subtle in colour and texture.

The final piece of the program was Stravinsky’s Petrushka arranged by Parker, who “retranscribed it according to my own ears and technique, and with an effort to reproduce more of the orchestral colours.” As well, he’s added a few of the sections that Stravinsky left out when he condensed the ballet into the piano suite, such as the Bear Dance, his 10-year-old daughter’s favourite. Parker gave his Petrushka a folksy swing that was riveting from beginning to end.

The recital concluded with two encores: Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G major, a piece Parker said he first learned at the Royal Conservatory of Music when he was 15, and Billy Joel’s Scenes From An Italian Restaurant, his high school anthem. If anyone could pull off a piano recital from Beethoven to Billy Joel, rocking the house on his way out, Jackie Parker would be it.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Beethoven's Diabelli Variations Illuminated by Kovacevich

by Paul E. Robinson

American-born pianist Stephen Kovacevich has made his home for many years in England. He must like it there because he rarely visits North America these days. He made an exception with Nagano and the OSM last summer and last night again at Nagano’s invitation – and with Nagano and his family in the audience - he gave a recital at the Knowlton Festival in Québec. The performance confirmed Kovacevich’s reputation as the ‘thinking man’s pianist’.

For the first half of the concert, Kovacevich chose Bach’s Fourth Partita and Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood). In both pieces he appeared to be probing the music deeply, without necessarily inviting listeners to share his thoughts.

The dynamic range adopted in the Bach was extremely limited and in the Schumann, Kovacevich confined his playing to mutterings and murmurings. But there were compensations. I have rarely heard the two contrapuntal lines in the Allemande movement of the Bach played with such lyrical beauty in both parts. And in the Schumann one was reminded that these may be scenes from childhood but they are not intended for children. This is a man looking back on childhood with a great sadness; those dreams he had so long ago are gone now, crushed by the weight of the real world of adulthood. The piece is often played with a sense of nostalgia but rarely with the disheartening melancholy Kovacevich gave to it.

After intermission came the mighty Beethoven Diabelli Variations. Before playing this daunting piece, Kovacevich spoke briefly to the audience. He pointed to the work’s experimental quality, and suggested that this is a ‘mysterious’ composition in the sense that its meaning is not altogether clear. Does it end on a hopeful note or only an illusion of hopefulness?

Since this is a late work and as Kovacevich pointed out, Beethoven had lived a very unhappy life - especially with respect to the opposite sex - one might expect all the late quartets, piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations to be full of sorrow and despair. This is not the case at all. What all these works do share is the experimental quality - evidence of the composer at the height of his powers, creating new forms and using the piano and other instruments in a myriad of new ways. One could argue that the older Beethoven was preoccupied with creativity rather than despair.

The Diabelli Variations have been at the heart of Stephen Kovacevich’s repertoire for his entire career. He made his European debut with the piece in 1961. He recorded it for Philips a few years later and just last year – forty years later – he recorded it again for Onyx Classics.

Kovacevich’s Knowlton Festival performance of the Diabelli Variations was far more extroverted than his Bach and Schumann. He does not dazzle the listener with his technique; rather he concentrates on tone quality and what one might call the soul of the music. Other pianists can play faster and louder. What Kovacevich gives us instead is a look inside the music and inside the composer’s psyche.

Many composers were invited to write variations on Diabelli’s banal little tune. Beethoven knew as well as anyone that the tune was superficial, but then went on to demonstrate that every element of it could be used as the basis for development, that one thing could lead to another, and another. Ultimately, as Beethoven showed us, one could end up with something rather profound. Put it all together and you have a master class in compositional technique and a window into Beethoven’s soul.

Many of the variations in this work are abrasive and some are downright gloomy. Some quote Bach (Goldberg Variations) and Mozart (Don Giovanni). As Kovacevich pointed out in his remarks, after the monumental fugue, Beethoven ends up with music resembling late Mozart. Was this an ironic commentary on Diabelli’s tune? Is Beethoven suggesting what a great composer like Mozart could have done with Diabelli’s mundane material? Or was this Mozartean minuet tacked on to leave the listener with classical repose after the storm and stress of what has come before? The mystery persists.

This is why works such as the Diabelli Variations are infinitely engrossing. No single performance can ever reveal all its facets. Stephen Kovacevich has spent a lifetime exploring the piece and it was a privilege to hear his latest thoughts. He is one of the supreme interpreters of the piece.

At the age of 69, Kovacevich remains a unique and important artist. Given the infrequency of his North American appearances – watch for a recital in Chicago next season – his recordings are invaluable. Many of his older Philips recordings are still in the catalogue and his traversal of the complete Beethoven sonatas for EMI is readily available. There is also a recent EMI DVD containing live performances of the Sonatas Op. 110 and Op. 111.

Coming Next: Tonight (Thursday) soprano June Anderson gives a master class at 5 pm and at 8 pm Kent Nagano conducts the OSM in Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. On Friday, prizewinners from Placido Domingo’s Operalia are featured with the Festival Orchestra under Nagano in excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin.

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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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Debussy : Préludes pour piano, Livres 1 et 2

Ivan Ilić, piano
Paraty 108.105 (75 min 40 s)
*** $$$$

Le choix audacieux d’aligner les 24 Préludes de Debussy dans un ordre tout autre que celui dans lequel ils ont été publiés fait espérer l’avènement d'un artiste aux idées musicales originales. Ivan Ilić, jeune pianiste serbe installé à Paris, affiche une technique à peu près impeccable, suit scrupuleusement les indications métronomiques et exécute les rythmes, complexes, avec une souplesse louable, mais jamais on n’entend chez lui l’ombre d’un travail de sonorité; les forte sont claqués, même sous le sans dureté clairement indiqué par Debussy, et les piani sont inexistants ou détimbrés. On se demande comment un pianiste vraisemblablement aussi compétent qu’Ilić peut jouer avec une telle froideur et une telle inconscience de ce qui passe, ou plutôt ne passe pas les micros. On attend le chant, la résonance dans les géniales pages de Debussy, et on se surprend à entendre mourir des sons sans vie. Bruyères et Les danseuses de Delphes sont particulièrement pénibles, mais ce jeu impassible sied curieusement bien aux préludes plus humoristiques; Minstrels et General Lavine – eccentric sont même assez réussis. On attend en vain une vraie atmosphère, un contraste, une couleur, un élan. L’exécution parfaite et morne d’un bon élève, exempte de toute poésie.

- Camille Rondeau

Buy this CD at

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Today's Birthdays in Music: January 28 (Arthur Rubinstein, Tavener)

1887 - Arthur Rubinstein, Łódź, Poland; pianist

Arthur Rubinstein - The Artist

Arthur Rubinstein plays Chopin's Scherzo in B flat minor, Op. 31 (1973 recording)

1944 - John Tavener, Wembley, England; composer

John Tavener - Life

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge, sings "The Lamb" (1998)

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Today's Birthdays in Music: January 20 (Chausson, Loriod)

1855 - Ernest Chausson, Paris, France; composer


Elly Ameling sings Chausson's Le Colibri with Dalton Baldwin, piano (1980 recording)

1924 - Yvonne Loriod, Houilles, Seine-et-Oise, France; pianist


Yvonne Loriod plays "Le Moqueur Polyglotte" from Olivier Messiaen's Des Canyons aux étoiles

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Today’s Birthday in Music: January 15 (Frager)

1935 – Malcolm Frager, St. Louis, MO, U.S.A.; pianist


Malcolm Frager plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 5, K. 175, 3rd mvt. (Orchestra della Radio-televisione della Svizzera Italiana, Marc Andreae conducting; Mantua, 1989)

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Today's Birthdays in Music: January 8 (Feltsman, Tozzi)

1952 - Vladimir Feltsman, Moscow, Russia; pianist

Official website

Vladimir Feltsman demonstrates Chopin's Sonata #3 at SUNY New Paltz masterclass

1923 - Giorgio Tozzi, Chicago, IL, U.S.A.; opera bass


Giorgio Tozzi sings "Wahn !Wahn!" from Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1970 film)

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Today's Birthday in Music: January 5 (Brendel)

1931 - Alfred Brendel, Wiesenberg, Moravia (now Czech Republic); pianist

Alfred Brendel website

Alfred Brendel plays:

Schubert's Piano Sonata in B flat major, D. 960, 1st mvt. (1988)

Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, 3rd mvt. (Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado conducting)

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Today's Birthdays in Music: January 3 (Borge)

1909 - Victor Borge, Copenhagen, Denmark; pianist and humourist

Biography and analysis

"Hands Off" - Victor Borge with Marilyn Mulvey

Victor Borge conducts "The Dance of the Comedians" (from Smetana's The Bartered Bride)

Victor Borge plays Debussy's "Clair de Lune"

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Today's Birthdays in Music: January 2 (Pentland, Tippett)

1905 - Barbara Pentland, Winnipeg, Canada; composer, pianist

Biography (Encyclopedia of Music in Canada)

1905 - Michael Tippett, London, England; composer

Michael Tippett conducts the first public performance of The Shires Suite, part 2, "Cantata" (Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra and Schola Cantorum of Oxford. Cheltenham, England, 1970)

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Debussy/Poulenc : Sonate pour violoncelle et piano

Jean-Guihen Queyras, violoncelle ; Alexandre Tharaud, piano
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902012 (62 min 47 s)
***** $$$
Le tandem Queyras-Tharaud nous avait donné, il y a deux ans, une interprétation remarquable de la Sonate "Arpeggione" de Schubert. Il lui avait accolé des pièces de Webern et de Berg, comme pour marquer une filiation entre le premier et les seconds, tous trois nés à Vienne mais à un siècle d'écart. Dans ce nouvel enregistrement, les interprètes rapprochent deux compositeurs dont les univers ne se touchaient pas mais qui se réclamaient l'un et l'autre de la grande tradition française représentée par Couperin et Rameau, qu’ils estimaient menacée par l’influence germanique. L’un et l’autre ont écrit une sonate pour violoncelle et piano. Celle de Debussy est souvent jouée. Celle de Poulenc, en revanche, est sous-estimée. Elle présente pourtant des qualités et son deuxième mouvement, une Cavatine, est fort beau. Diverses pièces plus légères, dont des transcriptions, complètent le programme. L’interprétation, autant chez Queyras que chez Tharaud, est d’une finesse toute française. Les notes du livret, très intéressantes, sont signées Anne Roubet.

- Alexandre Lazaridès

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Brahms Piano Quartets

Xiayin Wang, piano; Amity Players
Marquis 774718-1377-2-2 (73 min 47 s)
*** $$$$
The young Amity Players collaborated with pianist Xiayin Wang on two of Brahms’ dramatic piano quartets, both conceived at times of personal tumult. He began the Piano Quartet in C Minor in the mid 1850s after his mentor, Robert Schumann, attempted suicide. His Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor was composed between 1857 and 1859, following Schumann’s death. Brahms had formed a close relationship with Schumann’s wife Clara that intensified after her husband’s death and was the subject of much speculation. Both quartets are informed by turbulent emotions, oscillating between anguished brooding and violent abandonment. In livelier movements, such as the G minor Rondo, the Player’s tempo and accent style detracts from the vigorous intensity that could electrify the composition. However, Wang sparkles with precision, solidifying and invigorating the quartet. Cellist Raphael Dubé plays expressively, with singing tone in the C minor Andante, and the group produces a thick, murky texture that beautifully darkens the G minor Andante con moto. Overall, the Amity Players and Xiayin Wang capture the dark and confused emotions that permeate the two compositions.

- Hannah Rahimi

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Today's Birthdays in Music: December 21 (Turp, Tilson Thomas)

1925 - André Turp, Montreal, Canada; opera tenor

Biography (Encyclopedia of Music in Canada)

1944 - Michael Tilson Thomas, Los Angeles, U.S.A.; conductor, pianist, composer

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, 1st mvt. (BBC Promenade Concert, London, 2007)

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Today's Birthday s in Music: December 20 (Uchida)

1948 - Mitsuko Uchida, Atami, Japan; pianist

Official website

Mitsuko Uchida plays:

Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9, "Jeunehomme", 1st mvt. (Mozarteum Orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey Tate, Salzburg, 1989)

Excerpt from Schoenberg's Piano Concerto Op.42 (Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest, conducted by Jeffrey Tate)

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Georges Delerue: Œuvres pour piano et instruments divers

Minna Re Shin, piano; Olivier Thouin, violin; Guillaume Saucier, cello; Fabrice Marandola, percussion
DCM Classique DCM-CL205 (54 min 50 s)
*** $$$
The French composer Delerue (1925-1992) is known for his success in film music. This disc serves as an introduction into his lesser known classical works, featuring violin, cello and percussion paired with piano. The short, beautiful Antienne 1 for violin and piano sets the tone for the whole disc. Thouin’s approach to this simple piece is clean and honest. Concerto de l’Adieu was originally for violin and orchestra but appears here with piano. Something is lacking, and the writing has a meandering tendency. Aria et Final for cello and piano feature some interplay that is both interesting and jarring. Cellist Guillaume Saucier plays stiffly and the ensemble offers little in the way of emotional connection. The Final is disappointing and lacks energy. Marandola steals the show with Mouvements pour instruments à percussion et piano. After more standard arrangements of strings and piano, the inclusion of percussion is quite refreshing. In addition, Marandola’s variety in colour and subtle dynamic shifts makes for an enthralling performance. The disc is capped off with Stances for cello and piano and Sonate pour violon et piano. For 20th century music Delerue’s writing is very accessible, but the longer works may leave you wishing there was video included.

- Micheal Spleit

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Martha Argerich: Evening Talks

Un film de Georges Gachot
Excerpts by Beethoven, Piazzola/Hubert, Liszt, Chopin, Ravel, Prokofiev, Bach, Schumann, Saint-Saëns, Dvořák, Lutoslawski
Medici arts 3073428 (101 min)
***** $$$$
Incandescente, imprévisible, insaisissable, Martha Argerich se révèle très rarement autrement que dans ses interprétations. Georges Gachot propose ici un rare portrait, où la pianiste argentine se confie avec une candeur saisissante. On voit sa main s’attarder sur sa chevelure mythique, son regard de braise brûler la pellicule pendant qu’elle évoque, en phrases elliptiques, son premier choc musical à six ans (le Quatrième Concerto de Beethoven par Arrau), ses mois d’apprentissage avec l’iconoclaste Friedrich Gulda, ses succès en concours, son premier refus de jouer en concert (à 17 ans !), sa volonté d’être continuellement surprise par la musique. Elle transmet son amour pour Ravel, Prokofiev, Schumann – « Je crois qu’il m’aime bien », avance-t-elle avec un sourire désarmant. Argerich dévoile aussi pendant quelques instants troublants sa vulnérabilité envers l’expérience de concert, l’intensité de sa panique, sa terreur des récitals en solo (d'où sa préférence pour les collaborations en tant que chambriste).
On reste fasciné par l'ampleur de ce qu’elle ose révéler dans le quasi-soliloque, capté en une seule soirée post-concert par Gachot en 2001, qui sert de fil conducteur au film. L’émotion du specateur est encore plus vive quand il la (re)découvre grâce à des documents d’archives, dans une Rhapsodie hongroise de Liszt interprétée adolescente, un sublime Concerto en mi mineur de Chopin à Paris en 1969, un électrisant Troisième de Prokofiev en 1977 ou même en répétition avec l’Orchestre de chambre de Wurtemberg dans un Concerto de Schumann tout en fluidité. Comme a dit d’elle Daniel Barenboïm : « Un très beau tableau, mais sans le cadre ».

- Lucie Renaud

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: December 17 (Beethoven)

1770 - Ludwig van Beethoven, Bonn, Germany; composer and pianist (baptized December 17; date of birth probably December 15 or 16)

The Magnificent Master

Claudio Abbado conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, 1st mvt. (Rome, 2001)

Glenn Gould plays Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, final mvt. (Toronto Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Karel Ančerl)

String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135, 3rd mvt. (Amadeus Quartet, 1973)

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: December 14 (Tureck, Thill)

1914 - Rosalyn Tureck, Chicago, IL, U.S.A.; pianist and harpsichordist

Tureck Bach Research Foundation webpage

Rosalyn Tureck plays Prelude and Fugue from J.S. Bach's Well Tempered Klavier Book II, No. 22, in B flat minor

1897 - Georges Thill, Paris, France; opera tenor

Life and career

Georges Thill sings:

 "J'aurais sur ma poitrine" from Massenet's Werther

Adolphe Adam's Cantique de Noël (1932 recording)

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: December 13 (Belmont, Lhévinne)

1879 - Eleanor Robson Belmont, Wigan, England; founder of Metropolitan Opera Guild 

Biography (Metropolitan Opera Guild)

1874 - Josef Lhévinne, Orel, Russia; pianist


Josef Lhevinne plays Chopin's Etude No. 12, Op. 25 (Welte piano roll)

Josef and Rosina Lhevinne play Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448, 3rd mvt. (1939 recording)

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Schnittke : Die Klavierkonzerte

Ewa Kupiec, Maria Lettberg, piano; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin / Frank Strobel
Phoenix Edition 103 (72 min 25 s)
***** $$$$
Serait-ce la première intégrale des concertos pour piano de Schnittke ? (Excluons la Music for piano and chamber orchestra de 1964, qui n'est pas à proprement parler un concerto.) Précisons d'emblée qu'un gouffre stylistique sépare l’œuvre de jeunesse des deux concertos suivants. Le « premier » (ils ne sont pas numérotés), en effet, ressemble davantage à Bartok qu’à Schnittke lui-même. Qu’à cela ne tienne, on tirera plaisir de l'excellente prise de son et de la fougueuse interprétation. Les jeunes interprètes ont le don d’illustrer tout le délire qui irrigue ces pages. Leur élan casse-cou provoque bien quelques erreurs de synchronisation rythmique, quelques trébuchements dans l'articulation, mais l’enthousiasme des musiciens s’avère contagieux et l’auditeur se fait indulgent. Il existe de meilleures versions du Concerto pour piano et cordes, mais pas dans un programme globalement mieux réussi. Gardez l’œil sur Kupiec, son jeu devrait s'affiner avec l'âge.

- René Bricault

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Today's Birthday in Music: December 12 (Tan)

1953 - Margaret Tan, Singapore; pianist

Some Notes on Margaret Leng Tan

Margaret Tan plays John Cage's "In the name of the Holocaust" on prepared piano

Margaret Tan performs Guy Klucevsek's "SweetChinoiserie" on toy piano and other instruments (Lincoln Center, N.Y., 2008)

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Schubert : Piano Sonata in A, D.959 / 6 Moments musicaux

Martin Helmchen, piano
Pentatone classics PTC 5186 329 (67 min 18 s)
**** $$$$
Lauréat du concours Clara Haskil en 2001, Martin Helmchen possède une technique à la fois impeccable et discrète, dont une certaine sécheresse semble être le revers. Son interprétation de la grande Sonate en la de Schubert en souffre. L’exécution obéit au métronome, sans cultiver les moments où la suspension du temps est l’enjeu de la pulsation rythmique. Le pianiste, même s'il le fait avec intelligence et goût, opte pour une interprétation objective – les notes d’abord - particulièrement dommageable dans le deuxième mouvement; le cataclysme central tient ici de la prouesse au lieu d’évoquer une plongée dans les abîmes. En revanche, les fausses miniatures que sont les Moments musicaux surprennent agréablement, à l’exception peut-être du dernier, trop évasif. Le pianiste respire ici plus largement et prend son temps; il aménage les épisodes centraux en rêverie qu’on souhaiterait sans fin, à l’image des « divines longueurs » toujours bien calculées de Schubert.

- Alexandre Lazaridès

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Le Piano: Les choix de Georges Nicholson

Horowitz; Gould; Arrau; Rubenstein; Haskil; Backhaus; Richter; Cortot
Disques Pelléas CD-0123 (6CD)
***** $$$$
This compilation is a fine introduction for any young pianist or new classical music lover. The collection consists of six discs (7.5 hours) of some of the most famous recordings mixed with older, less celebrated selections. Featuring performers like Cortot, Gould and Horowitz, the CDs are divided into categories: Chopin, Adagio – Rêverie, Les Femmes, Transcriptions, Glenn Gould, and Horowitz. At the moderate price of $26.99 (less than five dollars per disc) it is a great deal considering some epic recordings usually cost a premium when purchased individually. Vladimir Horowitz’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 and Glenn Gould’s recording of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major are two recordings no pianist’s collection should be without. Les Femmes is a particularly eclectic CD of female musicians, pairing Beethoven and Bach beside Chabrier and Granados and featuring Fauré’s oft forgotten Impromptu No. 2 in F minor recorded by the talented Marguerite Long. Unfortunately, the only modern composer is Frederico Mompou, so while the collection is ideal for a new initiate, the seasoned listener may find they already own the more popular recordings.

- Andrew Buziak

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tavener: Piano music

Ralph van Raat, piano
Naxos 8.570442 (61 min)
*** $
Les oeuvres pour piano de Tavener, malgré l'extrême diversité qu'elles présentent à l'égard de la durée, du style, de la forme, et même de la qualité, ont des traits typiquement surexploités à notre époque: absence de développement macrocosmique, pastiche, répétitions, références néo-tonales. Palin fait exception. De loin la plus intéressante pièce du recueil, et la plus ancienne, elle joue non seulement avec une forme palindromique (« en miroir », d’où le titre), mais aussi avec le contraste entre d’obsessifs unissons répétés et des nuages d’accords atonaux délicatement arpégés. Pour ceux qui apprécient l’approche pianistique du jeune van Raat, sachez qu’il se trouve au sommet de sa forme, et offre sans doute là sa meilleure prestation sur disque à ce jour.

- René Bricault

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Rachmaninov: 24 Préludes

Mathieu Gaudet, piano
XXI 1622 (CD1: 39 min 47 s; CD2: 41 min 1 s)
Rachnaninov’s Preludes spanned his career and are rarely performed complete. In this recording Matthieu Gaudet performs all 24, demonstrating the full range of the composer. Rachmaninov is often remembered for the complexity of his writing but the Preludes highlight his subtly. Gaudet explores this, most notably in the slower pieces. No.10 in G flat major calls for patience and a light touch; the action lies in the harmony, not the tempo or the volume.
The recording also highlights Gaudet’s control, particularly in the G minor prelude. It opens with a subtle jaunt and fades to a Chopin-esque fantasia in the middle. The ending is bold, in traditional Rachmaninov style. Gaudet does not hesitate to reach a full fortissimo in the final section. Overall, his performance on this album is wonderful and full of passion.

- Andrew Buziak

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: December 5 (Carreras, Zimerman)

1946 - José Carreras, Barcelona, Spain; opera and concert tenor

Official website

José Carreras sings Larà's "Granada" (Three Tenors concert, Rome, July 1990)

1956 - Krystian Zimerman, Zabrze, Poland; pianist


Krystian Zimerman plays "Valses nobles et sentimentales" Nos. 1-4 by Ravel

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: December 1 (Grøndahl, Buchbinder)

1847 - Agathe Grøndahl, Holmestrand, Norway; pianist and composer

1946 - Rudolf Buchbinder, Leitmeritz, Czechoslovakia; pianist

Official website
Biography and pictures

Rudolf Buchbinder at the 12th Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival (Warsaw, 2008)

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: November 30 (Lupu)

1945 - Radu Lupu, Galaţi, Romania; pianist


Radu Lupu plays Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 19, K. 459, 3rd mvt. (Deutsch Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, conducted by David Zinman)

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: November 28 (Anton Rubinstein, Lully)

1829 - Anton Rubinstein, Vykhvatinets, Ukraine; pianist, composer and conductor


String Quartet in F, op. 17, no. 3, 1st mvt. (Covington String Quartet, Washington, 2008)

1632 - Jean-Baptiste Lully, Florence, Italy; composer


Passacaille from Armide (danced by Philippa Waite)

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: November 26 (Istomin)

1925 - Eugene Istomin, New York, U.S.A.; pianist

The Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio play Schubert's Piano Trio Op. 100, D. 929, 2nd mvt.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: November 25 (V. Thomson, Kempff)

1896 - Virgil Thomson, Kansas City, Mo., U.S.A.; composer

Virgil Thomson Foundation website

Thomson's The River accompanies display of photos of the Pacific Northwest by Darius Kinsey

1895 - Wilhelm Kempff, Jüterbog, Germany; pianist and composer

Majestic Poet

Wilhelm Kempff plays Beethoven's Sonata No. 27, Op. 90, 1st mvt. (filmed in 1970)

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: November 22 (Britten, Nagano)

1913 - Benjamin Britten, Lowestoft, England; composer, conductor, violist, pianist

Biography and more

"To hell with all your mercy": finale of Peter Grimes (Peter Pears as Peter Grimes, Heather Harper as Ellen Orford, London Symphony Orchestra and Ambrosian Chorus, conducted by Benjamin Britten.  1969 TV production)

"Playful Pizzicato" from Simple Symphony (Ensemble Instrumental de Corse)

1951 - Kent Nagano, Berkeley, CA, U.S.A.; conductor

Biography (Orchestre symphonique de Montréal)
The Nagano Mystique (La Scena Musicale, January 2007)

Kent Nagano conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Mozart's Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter),1st mvt.

Kent Nagano, Robert Charlebois and l'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: November 19 (Baltsa, Anda)

1944 - Agnes Baltsa, Lefkas, Greece; opera mezzo-soprano

Biography and pictures

Agnes Baltsa sings "O don fatale" from Verdi's Don Carlo (Salzburg; Herbert von Karajan conducting)

1921 - Géza Anda, Budapest, Hungary; pianist

Biography and pictures

Géza Anda plays Brahms Paganini variations, Book II (1953 recording)

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: November 18 (Weber, Paderewski)

1786 - Carl Maria von Weber, Eutin, Germany; composer, conductor, pianist

Wikipedia (d.o.b. probably incorrect)
Biography (Grove Dictionary)

Overture to Abu Hassan (London Symphony Orchestra)

Clarinet Concerto No. 1, 3rd mvt. (Calogero Palermo, clarinet)

1860 - Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Kuryłówka, Ukraine; pianist, composer, statesman

Biography and pictures

Paderewski plays his Menuet in G (1937 recording)

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: November 15 (Barenboim)

1942 - Daniel Barenboim, Buenos Aires, Argentina; pianist, conductor

Official website

Daniel Barenboim plays the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, 3rd mvt. (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle; Athens, 2004)

Daniel Barenboim conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations (Carnegie Hall, 1997)

Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim play Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 3, 2nd mvt. (1960s)

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Todays's Birthdays in Music: November 14 (Copland, Mendelssohn-Hensel)

1900 - Aaron Copland, Brooklyn, N.Y., U.S.A.; composer, pianist


"Hoedown" from the ballet Rodeo, arranged for piano by Copland (James Tocco, piano)

Andante from Copland's Clarinet Concerto (Richard Stolzman, clarinet; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas)

1805 - Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Hamburg, Germany; composer, pianist

Life and Music

Klavierstücke for four hands (Duo Vela, Barcelona)

Diana Damrau sings Bergeslust

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: November 5 (Gieseking, Cziffra)

1895 - Walter Gieseking, Paris, France; pianist

Biography and picture

Walter Gieseking plays "Ondine" and "Le Gibet" from Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit (1937/8 recording)

1921 - György (Georges) Cziffra, Budapest, Hungary; pianist

Biography and picture

György Cziffra plays Liszt's Transcendental Etude in F minor No. 10

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: October 28 (Naida Cole)

1974 - Naida Cole, Toronto, Canada; pianist

Naida Cole website

Naida Cole plays Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (NHK Symphony Orchestra, conducted by George Judd, Tokyo, 2003)

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: October 25 (Bizet, J. Strauss II)

1838 - Georges Bizet, Paris, France; composer and pianist

Grove's Dictionary biography

Julia Migenes Johnson sings the Habanera from Carmen (1985 film)

Minuet from L'Arlésienne Suite No. 2 (Bulent Evcil, flute, with the Instanbul State Symphony Orchestra)

1825 - Johann Strauss II, Vienna, Austria; violinist, conductor, composer


Herbert von Karajan conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in "Unter Donner und Blitz" (New Year's Eve concert, Vienna 1987)

Kiri Te Kanawa sings "Klange der Heimat" (Czsárdás) from Die Fledermaus (Covent Garden 1984, Placido Domingo conducting)

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