Liebestraum No. 3

Today I wanted to share with you a short solo piano piece by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, called “Liebestraum No. 3” (“Dream of Love”).  I almost (almost) want to issue a personal guarantee that this piece will grab your soul, squeeze it, turn it inside out, and put it back together.  This is probably one of the most popular pieces of music composed by Liszt, and thus it is easy to find performances by the who’s who of the music world.

  • Evgeny Kissin

  • Arthur Rubenstein

  • Liberace

As a bonus I want to introduce you to Daniil Trifonov – a 25-year-old Russian pianist.  In 2011, a few weeks after he won the Arthur Rubenstein competition in Tel Aviv he was awarded First Prize, Gold Medal, and Grand Prix at the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow (this is like the Olympics for musicians).

I’ve never seen anyone be hijacked this thoroughly by music and to internalize it as much Daniil does.  Just watch his face – he laughs and cries, experiences physical pain and joy, and in some moments his face looks like that of Gollum from Lord of the Rings. 

Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1

I want to share with you Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1.  As one of my favorite childhood memories, I remember walking home with my father on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  I was maybe nine years old.   There was the sound of classical music coming from the fourth-floor window of our apartment building.  Our neighbor was listening to music very loud.  My father said with admiration, “She is listening to Liszt.”   This was the first time I had heard of Franz Liszt.

I remember father explaining to me the “z” in his name and it was spelled differently from list, which in Russian means “leaf.”   I don’t remember the music, but I do remember a certain respect in my father’s voice for the neighbor and her preference in music.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Today I want to share with you Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” Niccolo Paganini, Italian violin virtuoso and composer, wrote 24 capriccios for violin – 24 very short but extremely difficult pieces to play. I feel like they were written for the performers, not the listeners – they are as difficult to listen to as they are to play (at least in large doses).

Sergey Rachmaninoff took themes from these capriccios and basically wrote a concerto for piano and orchestra. If you don’t listen to the whole rhapsody, you should at least give variation no. 18 a chance – as my son Jonah said last week, “This is the most beautiful piece of music ever written!”. Last Friday the kids and I listened to probably a dozen different performances of this variation.

Variation 18 – played by Rachmaninoff:

Variation 18 – played by Arthur Rubenstein

Variation 18 – played by Liberace, his own improvised version

Orchestra in 1968. This video is very special for several reasons. First, Stokowski was the conductor when the piece debuted in 1934 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Rachmaninoff playing piano. You would think his understanding of this music was better than anyone else’s. Second, it gives a very interesting glimpse into the role the conductor plays in the orchestra. My kids always ask me why the conductor matters, and this video answers that question so well: the conductor is the interpreter of the music.

You can listen to the original 1934 recording here.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Number 5

After I wrote last week about Arthur Rubenstein, the Polish-American-Jewish pianist, a  reader suggested I read Rubenstein’s autobiography, which consists of two books, My Younger Years and My Many Years.  I bought both.  I am halfway through the first one (it is the first “paper” book I’ve read in a few years – a very strange experience).  I like it so far. It provides a great insight into the world of music in the late 19th and early 20th century in Poland and Germany (Rubenstein spent his teens in Germany) and into a life of a great pianist.

Today I want to share with you Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Number 5, also called the Emperor Concerto, performed by Rubenstein.

This is Beethoven’s last piano concerto. He was working on it during a very difficult time, just as Napoleon was invading Vienna.  Bombardment was so close that Beethoven that he had to hide in his brother’s basement and cover his ears with pillows.

I have a theory that composers’ best work comes not when they are in a state of happiness and tranquility but when they face a lot of adversity (I’ve read that this was true for Mozart).  Concerto Number 5 is considered by many as one Beethoven’s best – it is my favorite for sure.

My son Jonah and I were watching/listening this performance on Saturday.  Jonah, who is taking piano lessons, asked me if his piano teacher could play this concerto as well as Rubenstein.  What makes Rubenstein so special?  It was one of those questions I just did not know the answer to, except to say, “He is better.”  But then I said, let me think about it.  An hour later, as I was reading Rubenstein’s autobiography, I came across the answer to my son’s question.  The difference is in “performing” versus “re-creating” music.  A lot of concert pianists can perform – they’ll hit every note, their technique will be flawless – but something will still be missing.  Only a few artists can take music, internalize it and truly re-create it.

I feel uneasy writing this, because comparing one performer (re-creator) to another is highly subjective.  Most classical music connoisseurs, present company included, are not qualified to make this judgment.  Often, the success of one artist and the failure of another, equally talented, artist are driven by random factors – a favorable review, the patronage of a famous musician etc.  Society often decides who the best and who is not.  This is where success begets success, as society’s opinions are contagious.

Here is a good example.  During his life Johan Sebastian Bach was not known as a composer.  Very little of his work was published.  But almost eighty years later after his death his reputation received a substantial boost when Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced Bach’s work.

This weekend I discovered a great documentary about Rubenstein.  Someone on YouTube had a perfect description of it: “So corny… but so good!”

Grieg Piano Concerto

Today I wanted to share with you the Piano Concerto in A Minor by Norwegian composer Edward Grieg, the only piano concerto he wrote.

It is one of those concertos that you have to listen to with eyes closed.  (That is why I am including it at the bottom of my article, not above).   I was going to write about Edward Grieg, but then I stumbled on Arthur Rubenstein’s performance of this piano concerto (he was 88 when he performed it), and then started reading about Rubenstein and found a wonderful obituary of Rubenstein from the NY Times in 1982.  There are a lot of great gems in it, so I’ll quote liberally from it.

Rubenstein was born in Poland to a Jewish family in 1887 and died in 1982 at the age of 95., For 85 of those years he played the piano in public.  He was extremely famous in his day.  He loved life … and women.  At the prime age of 90 he left his wife for a 33-year-old woman.

He once said:

“It is said of me that when I was young I divided my time impartially among wine, women and song. I deny this categorically. Ninety percent of my interests were women.”

”What good are vitamins?” Mr. Rubinstein demanded when he was asked, at the age of 75, to explain his youthful vivacity and fire. ”Eat a lobster, eat a pound of caviar – live! If you are in love with a beautiful blonde with an empty face and no brains at all, don’t be afraid. Marry her! Live!”

Practice for its own sake, however, was not Rubinstein’s notion of how to extract music from the printed notes. ”I was born very, very lazy and I don’t always practice very long,” he said once. ”But I must say, in my defense, that it is not so good, in a musical way, to overpractice. When you do, the music seems to come out of your pocket. If you play with a feeling of ‘Oh, I know this,’ you play without that little drop of fresh blood that is necessary – and the audience feels it.”

”At every concert I leave a lot to the moment. I must have the unexpected, the unforeseen. I want to risk, to dare. I want to be surprised by what comes out. I want to enjoy it more than the audience. That way the music can bloom anew. It’s like making love. The act is always the same, but each time it’s different.”

I can relate to the last paragraph.  I used to teach a graduate investment class at the University of Colorado.  After my first year teaching I stopped preparing for lectures.  I’d spend 20 minutes before the class thinking about what I wanted to talk about, and that was it.  That way, every time I taught I discovered something new for myself.

People like Warren Buffett and Arthur Rubenstein show us that it is always possible to become better at something you’ve been doing all your life.

 [H]e recorded the Schumann ”Carnaval” at 65; and when he recorded the piece 10 years later ”there was no question but that it was a better performance,” in the opinion of Harold C. Schonberg, then The New York Times music critic.

 “His colleagues consider him a miracle, geriatric experts mumble when they talk about him and nobody will put up much of an argument when he is called the greatest living pianist,” Mr. Schonberg wrote on Rubinstein’s 75th birthday….

One of his stories concerned the time he and Albert Einstein played a violin and piano sonata. The physicist missed a cue in one passage and came in four beats late. They started again, and once more Einstein missed the cue. Rubinstein turned to his partner in mock exasperation and exclaimed ”For God’s sakes, professor can’t you even count up to four?”

Also, you can watch a great interview with him when he was 90.  In this interview he talks about Grieg’s piano concerto (see minute 8).  When he studied in Germany in the early 20th century, “Grieg was considered a small fry … he was looked down upon.”  When Rubenstein came to the United States, he was asked to play the  “great Grieg concerto”.  His wife made him learn it. It took him three days, and then he recorded it.  He had Sergey Rachmaninoff at his house, and he remarked that Grieg’s piano concerto was the best concerto ever written.


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