Monday, December 31, 2012

Nielsen and Medtner

I've been getting into the piano music of Carl Nielsen and Nikolai Medtner today. I was familiar with Nielsen's symphonies but not the piano music. Medtner was actually a new name to me, although he is very well known in his native Russia. I will have to add them to my list of interesting piano composers from the early 20th century who are not played constantly. (Bohuslav Martinu is on that list too.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas, pipe organ

One of the many things I'm grateful for in my work is that I get practice time on an organ. Compared to my piano training, I have had only a little bit of instruction and practice on the organ. Till recently playing the organ just felt like operating a big machine. The organ and I are now starting to understand one another a bit better, I think.

And I'm starting to discover some very exciting new repertoire -- and new composers. One drawback of playing the piano, a very popular instrument with lots of solo repertoire, is that sometimes pianists don't know very much about composers who did not write lots of piano pieces. Occasionally my violinist wife surprises me with names of composers I've never heard of, but who turn out to be quite important composers of string literature. (Usually they are Italian.) Thanks to the organ, I am now becoming more familiar with people like Franck, Widor and Buxtehude. They're wonderful. Thanks, pipe organ! Merry Christmas to you too.

Friday, December 21, 2012

New free recording! Rachmaninoff

The Prelude in B major, Op. 32 no. 11. Perhaps the most understated of the Preludes. It might be my favorite.

Different people have different opinions about the meaning of Allegretto here. I experimented with a few tempi and settled on a fairly slow one. The music is based on meditative chords, largely in a warm cello register, and in the middle we pause to listen to some faraway bell-like tones. When played on the slow side, it sounds prayerful and almost yearning, complete with church bells. Faster, it sounds like a droll little dance with weird interruptions in the middle. I like slow. (So did the judge when I played this for an adjudication last year.)

I'm making a separate tab for the free recordings so that I don't crowd the sidebar too much -- here's the Soundcloud player right here in the post, and later you'll be able to get to this recording by clicking on the Recordings tab.

Image: "Ninilchik Russian Orthodox Church" by muchfuninc, from Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Arvo Pärt piano music

I love this recording of Arvo Pärt's piano music. Pärt is a present-day composer but he is very much like the great composers of the classical period in that he creates profoundly beautiful effects with very simple ingredients.

The Sonatinen, at least, I'd like to learn to play at some point in the not-too-distant future. The pieces named after people -- Für Alina, Für Anna Maria and Variations for the Healing of Arinuschka --  sound like they would be accessible to students. As I have some teenage students at the early- to mid-intermediate level I've been trying to keep an ear open for pieces that are technically not difficult but call for emotional depth. (I don't want them to get bored with cheery Clementi etc. all the time.)

Ralph van Raat has a lovely deep tone and a wise balance between feeling and reserve in his playing -- it's an honest, unaffected sound, perfect for Pärt, and he sounds just as serious and beautiful in the easier pieces as in the more difficult ones.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

New free recording: Handel

The Air and Variations from Handel's Suite in B flat.

I recorded this a year ago at Northfire Studios in Amherst. Really, this piece has been a favorite of mine since high school. Ebullient joy is one of the many emotions that is far easier to express in music than in words.

Here is the Soundcloud link

(and once again, if the link fails, I'm sure the embedded player at the top right will work.)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Con molto formaggio?

Well, Joseph Martin is more cheesy than I thought upon first flipping through the score. His arrangements are still in better taste than most of what I've found for piano though. I like him enough to play two arrangements for Christmas Eve.

Why is this? Organ hymn arrangements are so often wonderful. It is as if people who arrange hymns for the organ are trying to emulate Bach, while people who arrange hymns for the piano are trying to emulate Kenny G. Or perhaps I judge too quickly and have just not found the really good stuff yet? Help me out if you know...

Meanwhile, my spouse has pioneered the use of "formaggio" as a musical term. Examples:

Con molto formaggio
Poco piu formaggio
Ancora piu formaggio

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

New free recording! Debussy

"Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest," roughly "What the west wind saw." From book 1 of the Preludes by Claude Debussy.

It took me a long time to feel like I know how this piece goes. I learned all the notes but that was just the beginning. So much of this is wild sound effects that it was hard to find the musical tissue underneath (or to figure out if there was in fact musical tissue underneath.) I think now that the rhythms are the most important structural part of the piece. With lots of wild sound effects on top. Roiling clouds! Gusts! Moments of calm! Lightning! Random objects flying around!

By the way, if any of my Amherst Ballet friends are reading this, the storm music for "Tempest" was an orchestrated version of this Prelude.

I am new to Soundcloud and it appears that direct links to this recording sometimes work and sometimes do not work. I do not know why. I am certain that the embedded player (top right corner of this blog) will work. The image is a painting that looks exactly like this piece: "The West Wind" by Winslow Homer (public domain). Clicking on it should take you to Soundcloud. If not, just use the embedded player.

Sunday, December 9, 2012


wrote 37 bassoon concerti. 37! And hundreds for violin.

How many for keyboard? Two.

Oh well. I suppose pianists really have no right to feel neglected by composers. I do not expect anyone to pity us. (I really do love Vivaldi though.)

Hats off to the Amherst Symphony for a great show last night -- one of those Vivaldi bassoon concerti, a satisfyingly dramatic interpretation of Beethoven's fifth symphony, and Robert Flynn was a real stunner in the Weber clarinet concerto.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Joseph Martin for Christmas Eve

It's hard to find decent hymn arrangements for the piano. The organ literature is just bursting with beautiful settings of hymns. For piano, not so much, unless you like overly sentimental and cheesy arrangements.

I have gotten into the habit of improvising preludes based on hymn tunes in church. Everyone seems to find it meaningful, not to mention useful when there is a new tune for the congregation to learn. But for Christmas Eve I wanted something a little more thought-through and I wondered if better composers than me had ever tackled this project. There are a few things on, including an odd piece based on Christmas tunes called Weinachtsbaum by none other than Franz Liszt, but nothing that was quite the right length and feel.

I ended up ordering "Christmas Tapestry" by Joseph Martin. Other than an arrangement of Pachelbel's canon (do we really need another one?) the pieces look to be beautiful, prayerful and in good taste. His style is a little bit Debussy and a little bit George Winston. Hurrah! I'm glad it came today, though, because I'm going to need the 16 days of practice time...