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What are you listening to?

WEDNESDAY, January 27, 2021 – 2:20 AM

I’m doing something new this year. Each time anyone comments on anything I  have put into Spotlight I’ll put that at the top of the list, so if you want to see what people are talking about, be sure to read the latest comments.

I want to also start adding things in the future that people are listening to – things that I don’t even know about, music that is new to me, so if anyone mentions any piece of music that I do not know and that I like, I’ll add it to the list.

 

Are you cool or square?

SUNDAY, January 24, 2021 – 4:36 PM

It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got that Swing

For me some things are so cool that after they are done being “new and cutting edge” and fade into “old fashioned” they come back, get discovered by a whole new generation of musicians. I don’t know one serious musician of any age who is not awed by Ella Fitzgerald. By the time this music was also “over”, meaning no longer new, cool, earth-shattering, and by the late 60s rock music had pretty much become the only thing that young people listened to.

Fast forward to 2021, and you might be amazed to find out how many people who are once again discovering Ella and her “scat singing”, which is actually so hard to do that musicians just listen with wonder.

Are you cool or square?

Before I try to add something new or “retread” something, here is a question for you wannabee musicians: would you ever call someone “square” who think is “not cool”?

I was curious, because I tried to explain last week that “swing” music has to have a swing, meaning that any two eighth notes are uneven. The first is twice as long as the second, but the music is written evenly.

So we have two ways of interpreting steady eight notes. One is called “straight” rhythms, meaning you play what’s on the page, and the other is called “swing”,  meaning deliberately uneven.

That put me on the hunt for “square” (uptight, not loose, too formal) in contrast to “hip” (with it, up to date, informed about what is being said or done right now.) And that left me with a question: if straight rhythms are “square”, what is the best word for that in 2021?

It turns out that the word we usually use, “cool” – as opposed to “uncool” – has been around since around 1930. But it seems to now be almost as OK as “OK”. So I guess that nearly a century later, Ella is still “cool”.

2021: Jacob Collier then and now

SUNDAY, January 24, 2021 – 5:11 PM

2021: Jacob Collier then and now

The Sun Is In Your Eyes (Voice Memo)

This just came out at the beginning of this year. It’s just a simple recording on an iPhone.

Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing

I’m not sure what the first thing he presented to the world was, but this is quite early. He was either 19 or still 18 when this was done, depending on what month it was recorded.

 

1892: Rachmaninov: C# Minor Prelude

FRIDAY, January 22, 2021 – 10:06 AM

Rachmaninov: C# Minor Prelude, age 19

Rachmaninov

This to me is THE recording. It is the composer playing, and he just does things no one else does in parts. It is more interesting, more nuanced, and of course it’s the man who wrote the music. We are often disappointed when composers play, because sometimes they have not practiced enough and fake, or perhaps they are simply not the best pianists around, but Rachmaninov was a pianist other pianists listened to and admired.

If you listen carefully you hear things that no one else thinks of.

Voicing

This is about bringing out different lines or notes prominently. Here he plays the same phrase twice. The first time he brings out the top note of the RH. Then he brings out the same note in the LH. No one else did that. No one else does it. It’s not in the score. But it’s better.

Dynamics

The music is marked mf right before the ending, and most people do not observe that. It’s marked “dim.” before that meaning that he uses the rest of the piece to get softer and softer, delaying each chord as long as possible

While you listen to this stereo sound be amazed at the technology, because it was recorded not in the usual way but with something called a piano roll.

Lisitsa

I’ve only liked about three things this lady has ever recorded. She has one of the best techniques in the world, but I normally don’t believe she things about the music enough. But I try to keep an open mind, and there is something about this that is very special. She used more pedal in the beginning, very much what Rachmaninov wrote but perhaps more so. It has a bit of the sound of Debussy. Perhaps it is this last year that has made her more introspective, and she used the same voicing as Rachmaninov. She also starts the middle section very slowly, which has always been my concept. She leaves out one repeated phrase, which is what Rachmaninov did, so she listened to Rachamninov. Good for her!

Here are other interpretations

Kissin

Lugansky

Ashkenazy

His most famous piece…

Rachmaninov wrote this when he was still quite young. Experts differ on the exact timing, some saying age 18 and some saying age 19.

and it remained his most famous composition for the rest of his life. There are now many very few really good recordings of his most famous composition.

What’s New?

SUNDAY, January 10, 2021 – 3:05 AM

I started this idea about six months ago. My idea was to present whatever I was listening to at the moment. Then a day later I moved it to another place, “Yesterday”. I want to continue with the same idea here, whatever I’m listening to and writing about at the moment. But what is here will end up in the Spotlight Index as soon as I have the time to update those files.

1830: Mendelssohn: Rondo Capriccioso

FRIDAY, January 15, 2021 – 9:33 AM

Mendelssohn: Rondo Capriccioso, age 21

No one is quite sure when Felix Mendelssohn composed the Rondo Capriccioso, with some musicologists suggesting he wrote it as early as 1824 when he was 15 years old.

Mendelssohn put the date of June 13, 1830 on the revision, so we do know that by age 21 he finished it and possibly revised it. Mendelssohn is easily the most frightening musical prodigy in musical history of the last several centuries.

Claudio Arrau

The recording is downright primitive, but this is Arrau at his absolute technical zenith, and he has little of the shoulder and neck tension that he eventually showed as a old pianist. Most amazing is that here he is around 50 years old, still young for a top pianist, but already he plays with the thoughtfulness and introversion that made his playing unique. You will experience another pianist playing with this astonishing combination of virtuosity and otherworldly imagination. This would be my pick of all the performances I’ve heard, and it’s very nearly perfect technically even though it’s live.

Claudio Arrau again

There is nothing to see here, and it’s apparently a later recording. The piano is very slightly out of tune, but the recording is better. The same variety, contrast, sensitivity and fire is here. I’ve heard many people play this piece, and for me Arrau is the best. The number of times I’ve picked Arrau as the best of all players in a number of compositions escapes me, but it happens a lot. This man was truly a “pianists’ pianist” because he had a stunning technique in his prime, but you never heard virtuosity at the expense of lyricism and contemplation. I don’t know when this recording was made..

Murray Perahia

Perahia is another intensely musical pianist and was very close to Horowitz. This also starts very slowly and very lyrically. This a very fine recording and so very pleasant to listen to. You will hear more perfection in modern recordings because of both the improvement in technology and editing techniques that virtually remove all mistakes, but don’t conclude from that modern players play more perfectly in performance, where all sorts of odd things still do wrong.

Enzo Oliva

This is highly inflected, very personal and rather challenging in that he plays this very differently. What is frightening to me is how many pianists there are now with stunning technical mastery that I don’t even know by name or reputation. As our knowledge of the body works and how to make it all work continues to increase. This is not the most technically perfect live performance, but it’s close enough to convince me.

Alicia de Larrocha

She was a tiny little lady, barely five feet tall, but her playing sounds like she was around seven feet tall. I prefer the first part a bit slower, with more contemplation, but the fast part has never been played with more clarity, and the ending great. There seems to be something about small women in terms of accuracy and stunning finger technique, because Yuja Wang is very similar.

The Rondo Capriccioso is in two sections

But the first part was added later, so from this we know that the idea that Mendelssohn wrote this at the age of 15 is a best misleading.

Andante In E Major

Modern research has shown that this section was added to the original etude in E minor during the revision of 1830. It begins softly, and the melody has the style of his “Songs Without Words” a type of piano piece that was one of Mendelssohn’s specialties. It lyrically leads to a segue to the next section.

Presto In E Minor

Material from the opening section returns briefly, and the music shifts to E minor for an ending in thundering alternating octaves. The entire piece remains tremendously popular to this very minute.

1831: Chopin: Scherzo No. 1

TUESDAY, January 12, 2021 – 11:18 AM

Scherzo No. 1, age 21

Chopin was only 21 years old when he wrote this. His compositional style was so radically different, so original that we do not associate his early works with his being very young, and his writing style was already completely mature. Unlike most composers of his time he wrote very little for any instrument other than the piano.

Horowitz

Scherzo means “joke”, so a “scherzo” should be something light and playful. Chopin’s way of using this form is very different. For instance, although this is written in 3/4 time, it’s played so fast that you only hear four beats per measure because each beat is so fast that it sounds like one beat except in the middle section or “trio”, which is slow and thoughtful.

There is nothing playful or light about this piece, which not only is story but also has a ferocious ending. There is no happy ending. It ends in minor, with huge chords.

The structure is very simple and very repetitive. The form is ABA, where A is the beginning and end, then there is a coda. The trio section is the B part. However, each part also two sections, so you could also think of it as:

AAB, ABA, CDCDC, ABABA, Coda. In other words, it repeats a lot. The first A is marked with a repeat and two endings, but the repeat is generally omitted – and for good reason.

This Horowitz recording is the only one where I’ve ever liked of the fast part, though many people do beautiful things with the trio. The problem is that with so much repeating it can get boring or monotonous if there is not some important variation in the interpretation, and there is none in the music. This is actually very common for music of the time, where repeats were written out but nothing was changed in the music. Every phrase, every marking, even detail is the same. So if you don’t so something different at the end, it does not fully come alive.

Horowitz also uses chromatic octaves at the end rather than a conventional chromatic scale, and that used to be a common change. Today everyone seems to just use the written scale, and the way that so many pianists simply copy each other is now very common in a world where everyone listens to everyone else.

1844: Chopin Sonata No. 3

SUNDAY, January 10, 2021 – 6:24 PM

Chopin Sonata No. 3, age 34

I was still a very young kid when I first heard this music. I had already started to buy my own recordings, because it was still in the late 50s and very early 60s. There was on YouTube. I knew I had heard some famous music by Chopin, and my mother took me to a record store. I saw an album with two sonatas, No. 2 and No. 3. Less than 10 years later I performed No. 2. It turns out that there is another one, No. 1, but it’s almost never performed because it is a very early work and far less mature.

You want to start first with the last movement, because it’s the one everyone wants to play and is one of the most exciting things Chopin every wrote:

Start here:

Rafal Blechacz

I get very tired of young players who are over-hyped and just win some competition. Often they disappear completely in just a couple years. But competitions are sort of a necessary evil for young pianists, and every so often a contest winner is “the real deal” and goes on to gain worldwide fame. Some of the best have had magnificent careers for decades. Among others are Argerich, Pogorelich, Zimerman and so many others I would be here all days just typing names.

Dinu Lipatti

Lipatti set the world on fire. He died tragically from cancer around the age of 30. This particular performance was only heard on a very poor recording, but this new issue gives us very good sound and a very good idea what it was like to hear him. This is so good, it’s unbelievable.

Now the whole sonata

Rafal Blechacz

This year I’m trying to find as many live recordings as possible, and this young pianist is just a fantastic place to start. I may add other recordings, and I may add a ton of them because this sonata has been a crowd pleaser for over a century and half. Some of the other recordings you may actually prefer, but you won’t get to see the players, and for students seeing it terribly important.

Lost in a sonata

The last movement I believe is easily one of the best things Chopin ever wrote. Why do we not hear it even more? Probably because tradition is a very powerful force, and it is almost considered “bad taste” to play only one movement of a sonata – a way of thinking I could not disagree with more.

This movement could and should be a famous encore.

Ivo Pogorelich

He became internationally famous overnight because of a scandal. He washed out of an early round of a famous competition. Argerich, who was a judge, stormed off in protest, so as a result of the stink he had instant fame. He was one of the most interesting pianists I’ve ever heard. Sometimes I absolutely hate what he did, other times I love his ideas, which to me is what I look for, someone who challenges my ideas.

Argerich

She was at her peak here. This is the only the last movement, but perhaps you can see why she was one of Horowitz’s famous pianists. There has never been a man who played with more fire and intensity. Unfortunately there is nothing to see.

Who else?

There are probably 50 recordings on YouTube, so many that I can’t possibly listen to them all, but I will listen to more. Anyone who plays the piano and does not listen daily is not serious and will never be great. Listening is the most important thing we do.

1874: Dvorak: Symphony No. 5 in F major

TUESDAY, January 5, 2021 – 3:33 AM

You might consider this the last of Dvorak’s “almost lost to the world” symphonies, since the first five were not even numbered until long after his death. I find it impossible to believe that this wonderful symphony was not immediately a huge success. You might want to start with either of the middle movements. The 2nd is slow and in minor. The 3rd is light, in major, and has the feel and sound of his Slavonic Dances. Perhaps try this first:

21:50 – III. Scherzo. Allegro scherzando, Bb Major

Symphony No. 5 in F major, age 33

Instrumentation:

  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones
  • timpani, triangle
  • strings

Heiko Mathias Förster

0:29 – I. Allegro ma non troppo, F major
13:55 – II. Andante con moto, A minor
21:50 – III. Scherzo. Allegro scherzando, Bb Major
30:11 – IV. Finale. Allegro molto, F major

1st movement

There is a march at around 00:51 that sounds very Wagnerian, although at the moment I can’t identify which opera overture or prelude I keep hearing. Perhaps it’s “Der Meistersinger”. He’s obvious channeling Wagner. He’s also channeling Beethoven with his introduction, but he repeats that introduction when he repeats his exposition. I hear less of Brahms then later. I would call the writing here fully mature. There are a lot of fanfares for flute, trumpet and even horn. It gradually fades away at the end before a gentle ending.

2nd movement

There is a nice change of key. The obvious place to go to is either to F minor or D minor, but he morphs to A minor. This movement is only about eight minutes long, and it’s ending is almost unnoticeable because after only the briefest movement it continues with a short intro to the next movement. It gives a really nice contrast to the rather other three movements, which are quite sunny, all in major.

3rd movement

The whole symphony is around 40 minutes long, so the start of the 3rd movement is very nearly the midpoint re time. This scherzo is the shortest movement and has a lot of the feel of his Slavonic Dances, but this comes a few years before those dances. That shows that national dances were always part of his musical mentality. This movement starts with an intro. I have not checked a score to see how it’s marked. It is also relatively short compared to the outer movement.

4th movement

The last movement is a bit longer, but not overly so. The whole symphony is very well balanced in both length and mode. It’s astonishing to find out that for some time this symphony was not even listed as one of the numbered symphonies. This movement starts out with an introduction and has a very strong minor feel. It takes some time to gradually wander back to F major. I hear less Brahms in this symphony, and more Beethoven, but it is full of the sounds that only Dvorak wrote.

First performed several years later…

The symphony was first performed on March 25, 1879 at the Slav concert of the Academic Readers’ Association in the Prague Žofín concert hall, conducted by Adolf Čech.

Then it was not published until much later…

The composition was revised in the autumn of 1887 then published by Simrock in 1888. This also means that we are not hearing what Dvorak originally wrote, which is common. Composers go back over their earlier works as they mature. So what we hear today is a mixture of young Dvorak’s ideas mixed with later changes.

Dvorak’s fifth symphony, written within six weeks…

That’s not the speed of Mozart, but it’s impressive.

Perhaps his first fully mature symphony…

That seems to be a consensus. I’m still new enough to these earlier symphonies to be taking it all in.

Increasing master of structure…

I know from his late symphonies that Dvorak became a master of very tight structure combined with amazingly free-flowing ideas. He seemed to have tended towards long, sprawling ideas when he was young, something I would say he shared with Tchaikovsky. By his last symphony he had adopted a very traditional symphonic structure that worked perfectly with his expressive, intuitive style. You can hear that come together in this symphony. In general each symphony is a step forward in the maturation process, so that by the time we get to Symphony No. 6 we get to the symphonies that were originally those that were numbered.

Merging the past and the future…

He was always forwarding thinking in his expressiveness, and there was an increasingly nationalistic trend in many countries that allowed composers to inject folk music and dances native to their countries into their music. By taking the more Classical structure of earlier composers he united two worlds, and it’s that melding that makes his music so satisfying to listen to.

Similarities between this and Symphony No. 7…

The 7th symphony is exuberant and optimistic sounding, and I’d say for the most part this is true also of this symphony. It has dark moments too, but the optimism wins out.

The symphony was a big success…

I have read no negative reactions from critics, and the kind of reaction below was not unusual. In October 1887 Dvorak dedicated his symphony to celebrated German conductor Hans von Bulow, who had already been a great promoter of the composer’s works abroad during the 1870s. He responded to the dedication in a letter from1887:

“Esteemed Maestro! The dedication from you – alongside Brahms the most blessed composer of our times – is a higher honor for me than any grand cross from any prince. With the most heartfelt thanks I accept this honor. Your sincerely devoted admirer, Hans von Bulow.”

It’s so wonderful to read of such support from top composers and conductors!

1877: Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major

SUNDAY, January 3, 2021 – 9:36 AM

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, age 44

Instrumentation:

  • 2 flutes, 2 clarinets,, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons
  • 2 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani
  • strings

Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Estrada is always good, and this is another high energy performance.

Carlos Kleiber

This is a live performance from more than 20 years ago, and it used to be available on YouTube to watch. But recently the video was taken down, and it’s the best performance I’ve every heard, by a long shot. This is the same performance, but unfortunately there is nothing to see. The video costs a minimum of around $26. It’s famous, popular and hard to find.

1st movement

There is an introduction before the exposition, which is not repeated in many performances. This is a performance decision, and it shortens the length by five minutes. Some apparently think that using the repeat makes the first movement too longThere is a famous melody, 2nd theme, that is linked to the famous “Brahms Lullaby”.

2nd movement

He finishes the last movement on a D major chord, then morphs to F# major, a double morph. From there he goes to B major. The rest is just a tonal adventure, and the form is pretty complicated. But the most important thing is that even though the movement is marked as major, really important parts are in minor and very emotional. There is a great darkness in the middle of peace.

3rd movement

The really neat thing is that he starts the movement G major by double morphing from B major. So now that he’s in the new key of G major he can then use this new key as the IV chord to get back to D major for the final movement. It’s sly, slick and sneaky! This movement in 3/4 is an intermezzo.After the emotion of the 2nd movement, this relaxed and playful. The first section is a bit quicker than moderate. Then there is a middle section – which happens twice – that is marked fast, but not too much. The form is essentially A B A B A.

4th movement

It starts with very quiet strings, then there is a sudden loud attack. This movement is also in sonata form, so the 2nd theme comes in A major. Labels are hard, because you end up saying that “theme B is in A”, and maybe that’s why most people talk about 1st and 2nd themes. Then it’s back to the exposition again, or so it seems, but no – this time it moves right into the development section, always the most interesting part of any movement. There is a slow section, which is unexpected, at the end of the development, then back to the the beginning, including the soft entrance. This time the 2nd theme is also in D major (typical form), but before ending there is another section that sounds almost like a 2nd development section, and that gets really slow at the end. Then it picks up speed again and wraps up with a coda.

Brahms orchestra was not much bigger than that of Mozart or Beethoven, and with no percussion other than timpani. By his time four horns were standard.

His favorite symphony…

It was was composed in the summer of 1877, during a visit to Austria.

His 2nd symphony was his personal favorite, which makes me feel good to know because it is my favorite also.

“Pastoral”? Not really…

Brahms 2nd is often compared to Beethoven’s 6th symphony, labeled “Pastoral”, but this is much darker in parts, although the end is quite upbeat. He wrote this to his publisher on November 22, 1877:

“The new symphony is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written something so sad, so minor: the score must appear in mourning.”

In other words, this symphony is complicated emotionally and in parts quite intimate. But what he wrote was also very misleading. Brahms was known to be rather dry in his humor, probably very much like Rachmaninov.

Premiere…

It had to be postponed because the players were so preoccupied with learning Das Rheingold by Wagner that rehearsal was held back. It was given in Vienna on 30 December 1877 by the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Hans Richter and was very successful.