Jeremy Denk – An Appreciation

October 22, 2013 at 2:41 PM | Posted in Music, Piano | Leave a comment
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518bDq5YVxL._AA160_Jeremy Denk, the pianist, is not short of kudos these days as he recently won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and then, too, there are those standing ovations. Still, with the retirement of Alfred Brendel, he is my favorite pianist, my favorite musician and I want to say why.

Denk gives you more than the notes. He has a blog, ThinkDenk. His liner notes are classic, both super-knowledgeable and witty. He recently did a series of pieces for NPR on the Goldberg Variations by Bach and his spoof, Why I hate the Goldberg Variations is a must. My wife and I recently saw (experienced!) Jeremy Denk play the Goldbergs in Chicago and the experience was so much greater than normal because of what I refer to as his denkishness.

He recently recorded the Goldberg Variations and instead of liner notes, the recording came with 9 video segments in which Jeremy talks about the music. Frankly, priceless as he dishes knowledge with wonder.

This is why Denk and why I appreciate him so: he gives you so much of himself and as he plays and writes and talks about the music, he becomes super-alive – and some of that rubs off on us. A genius, yes – but oh so beautifully human.

In a follow-up post I will write about those very famous and yet to most unknown, Goldberg Variations.

Schiff’s Very Well Tempered Clavier

April 13, 2013 at 10:16 AM | Posted in Music, Piano | Leave a comment
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photo copy 2Bach entered my life, appropriately in Germany in 1973. My wife Ingrid and I were just married and moved everything we had (3 suitcases, leaving only books and records home) to Germany so she could study in Tübingen. We had almost no money but I have always been able to buy music somehow and for only a few marks I found myself listening over and over to several Brandenburg Concertos by Bach on a small cassette player that my friend Pete Mularchuk gave me as a wedding gift to play Knick games on (part 2 of his famous gift.)

Bach hooked me and he has never let go. As Shakespeare wrote of Cleopatra, ‘Age cannot whither, nor custom stale his infinite variety.’

rendering by Jan Jedlicka

rendering by Jan Jedlička

The profound pianist András Schiff has created quite a stir this past year with his recitals and his new CD release of the Well Tempered Clavier. Foolishly I missed him but have done a happy contrition by listening, rapt, to one Prelude and one Fugue each morning. Schiff has given us a new way, a prism, in which to listen anew. The Well Tempered Clavier is made up of two “books” and each book is composed of a prelude and fugue in each major and minor key, of which there are 24. So, each book begins in C major and ends in b minor. In Schiff’s imagination, and now in ours, he sees each key, the sound of each key, in a different color. Here is what he writes in his notes:

Let’s imagine that in the beginning there was innocence and therefore C major (all white keys) is white as snow.The last piece of both books is in b minor which is the key to death… This has to be pitch black. Between these two poles we have all the other colors, first the yellows, oranges and ochre … all the shades of blue … the greens … pinks and reds … browns … grey and finally black.

Of course, this is a very personal interpretation and each of you may have a different opinion. Nevertheless if some of us happen to believe that music is more than just a series of notes and sounds, then a little bit of fantasy is welcome.

With Bach, when you end, you begin.

Angela Hewitt in Recital

February 15, 2013 at 7:30 AM | Posted in Music, Piano | Leave a comment
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Hewitt 1Enthusiasm!

I was so excited to finally see Angela Hewitt the great Canadian pianist this past Sunday in Chicago. I have, for years, been listening to her CDs and I have felt, from the first, that I know her better than other artists in my Pantheon. She plays beautifully but so do many pianists. She writes her own notes and not just sometimes. Her notes to each work are not dry but vibrate with excitement and emotion. This is priceless in a form that can seem out-dated.

My wife Ingrid characterized her playing well: the music flowed from her arms and this was true whether she was playing Father Bach, or the highlight of the concert for me, Debussy’s Pour le piano. She played a larger-than-normal Fazioli piano and was its empress, sitting tall in her pianistic saddle, greeting each composer on her own terms.

Her latest ...

Her latest …

If I were asked what my one memory of the concert was, I would say now what I thought then: she put over the music – indeed she did.

A Download to Watch Over Me

January 26, 2013 at 4:41 PM | Posted in Music, Piano | Leave a comment
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TureckLast weekend I was despondent as I pondered just finishing two weeks on the road with another four in front of me. Just riffing through the NPR Music site I found an interview with the pianist Andras Schiff. In it he discusses his great love of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier and his new recording, his second, of the two Books of the WTC, 48 Preludes and Fugues. I had read previously read that he hears this music in colors: the C Major is white, using only the white keys, for instance.

I was struck though when he said that he played from the WTC every morning for an hour. I have never forgotten that the great cellist Casals, even in very old age when his fingers were stiff from arthritis, would limp to the piano and play Bach as soon as he awoke in the morning. I had an idea.

Suppose on my endless stream of road “appearances” I listened to Bach’s WTC first thing! Yes, just one prelude and one fugue a day: first C Major and the next day C Minor. If I would just do this the travel would be somehow redeemed. In the same way that a mathematician finds a formula, after a struggle, right before his eyes, I saw my path clear. I would download a recording of the full WTC to my iPad. This was a valid reason to buy yet another recording of the great work!

I thought immediately of the doyenne of Bach, Rosalyn Tureck. I had not, as yet, climbed her Bachian  aural Himalayas and I imagined correctly that the download would be inexpensive. And so this past week, after getting my  triple and then, as the week wore on, my quad espresso, I sat up in bed with my iPad on my lap and listened to Bach, the majestic, the profound, the sometimes dancing Bach through the agency of Tureck. I have read that our brain adds musical content to even thin download style music allowing us to hear more than is there. I think that this is true. I heard a depth of humanity and I think now that I was hearing all the great pianists at once, Richter, Fisher, Horszowski, Hewitt, Schiff, Gould, play the Well Tempered Clavier, one key after the other, fugue following prelude.

As I listened the dismal marriott faded and the day ahead appeared out the window, at a distance and very small.

Gunnar Johansen, where to start?

June 19, 2012 at 4:18 PM | Posted in Music, Piano, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The pianist Gunnar Johansen was a completest’s completest. There are some pianists and Sviatoslav Richter, one of the greatest of all time, comes to mind who are famous for not completing cycles. In Richter’s case, he did not record all of Beethoven’s sonatas and only three of his concerto’s. Given a long career and companies waiting in line to record him, this speaks to his mindset and his temperament.

But Johansen recorded all of Bach (as did Gould, more or less) and 51 albums of Liszt (did Gould play any except the Beethoven Symphony transcriptions?), 7 LPs of Busoni and all of, the famous for being a great pianist, Ignaz Friedman.

A reader of my prior post introducing Johansen asked if I had a recommendation as to where to start with him. I am new to him and his recording and so I am not the one to ask – and yet I have an answer. Just recently the Johansen Trust has issued a CD with a wonderful representation of the great pianist’s works. Here you will find:

  • Johansen’s own transcription of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor
  • a 1928 recording (in very good sound) of CPE Bach’s Rondo in G Major
  • Liszt: After a Lecture of Dante (tremendous)
  • Busoni’s Variations on Chopin’s C Minor Prelude
  • Pearl Harbor Sonata by Johansen and completed the day before the bombing!
  • Friedman’s transcription of Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits
  • Chopin’s Black Key etude, again from the far-off year of 1928

Ah, now you must have it? Click here and you will find your way. Sometimes an Amazon click does not do a treasure justice.

Gunnar Johansen

June 16, 2012 at 7:52 PM | Posted in Connections, Music, Piano | 2 Comments
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Gunnar Johansen,  a Dane, a pianist who came to the United States in 1929 and died in 1991 at 85 in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, outside of Madison, where he was Artist in Residence for many years at the University there, made 150 recordings, including the complete keyboard works of Bach and 51 (!) Liszt recordings.

Johansen composed 750 works.

Prior to three weeks ago I had not heard of him. Here is the string of events: David Dubal played something by Johansen on his show, The Piano Matters. He mentioned that he had once met him and that he was a great gentleman. That struck me and I looked him up on Arkiv, the Amazon of classical music, and came up light. I googled and found that he had made an enormous number of recordings and they were available from The Artist Direct in Blue Mounds. I sent an email and for a few days, silence. Then James Colias contacted me. His is the trustee of the Gunnar and Lorraine Johansen Charity Trust and — I was in luck – he had just arrived in Blue Mounds and could help me.

He did. Mr. Colias is a former student and friend of Johansen and he was wonderful on the phone. I ordered (though that is too strong a word) a number of recordings, mainly LPs with one CD (and Mr. Colias gave me one as a gift), and they arrived just yesterday. I’ve listened to the first album of Liszt and I am enchanted.

These are my first steps on a new path of discovery and connection. Another world has opened its door to me.

Wrecking Ball by Springsteen

April 1, 2012 at 2:01 PM | Posted in Music | 2 Comments
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with 2 bonus tracks

You don’t have to spend a lifetime listening to know that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven have a distinctive and easily recognizable sound. My guess that this was a problem for them as they built their careers.

‘Wolfgang, yet another Piano Concerto?’

‘My dear Beethoven, wouldn’t 31 Piano Sonatas have sufficed?’

The problem is that the work of even the greatest geniuses can sound undifferentiated in the face of a huge output. The problem, though, is not with the artist but with us, unless we come with an open and uncomparing mind and fresh ears.

I make this point to prepare you for Springsteen’s great new album, Wrecking Ball.

Freeing My Inner Piano

February 15, 2011 at 4:52 AM | Posted in Music, Personal Development | 4 Comments
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It's been waiting patiently

If I didn’t have a piano I would long for one.

I’ve had one for 25 years, a beauty, and my longing takes a different form. I want to play but until the other day I had set ground rules, fraudulent ones, that have kept me off the keys. I believe in doing things every day. I read everyday, listen to music everyday, play sports or work out everyday, have a great cup of coffee everyday. When I think of retirement I am sometimes puzzled as to what I could add to my schedule, doing so much already – besides doing more of each. I do think of playing the piano because I could do it everyday or close to it.

Three months ago, following my way, I began studying German everyday, through the offices of Rosetta Stone. I’ve enjoyed the daily-ness of one lesson a day, generally ten minutes or so. I’m in no rush. I thought of this while looking at my piano just the other day. Then I thought, suppose I come up with a new rule: that I will play piano everyday that I am home. This new rule has “everydayness” going for it.

One day I'll sing it for you

I’m trying something: instead of lessons or the extreme difficulty of playing the simplest Bach, I am going to learn to play and sing old songs, preferably sentimental ones. For my first I’ve chosen Love’s Old Sweet Song as it has a nice double entendre and appears in Joyce’s Ulysses. I will see if I prefer longing to play or actually playing.

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