Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D Minor

I have to admit that a love for Bach’s music is fairly new to me. I felt Baroque music lacked emotion and was somewhat boring. Then one day I was perusing YouTube and stumbled on a video of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D Minor. I don’t know if it was Gould or Bach, but I was mesmerized by this piece and listened to it nonstop for a week. This was Glenn Gould’s first public performance. He is introduced to the world by the one and only Leonard Bernstein, who is also conducting the concerto.

Composing music is somewhat similar to writing a play – you can be as descriptive or undescriptive as you want to be. Bernstein makes this point in the lecture preceding the performance. A playwright may write, “John walked into the room and said ‘Hello Martha.” Imagine if you were the director and that is all you had to stage this scene. You don’t know how old John is or how he talks. How he looks. You know nothing about the surroundings. There is a lot of blank canvas to fill in here.

Or the playwright could describe John as a middle-aged, balding, overweight New Yorker wearing dirty jeans with giant holes in the knees, limping slowly into an empty room whose linoleum floor is barely covered by smelly red carpet and whose walls have been carelessly smeared with peeling white paint. The more descriptive the playwright is, though, the less creativity and imagination are left to the director.

Though to civilians (like yours truly) all scores look intimidatingly the same, a composer also has the option to either just provide the outlines of a story and a few snatches of dialog, or to go to the extra mile in describing how the music should be played. The more descriptive is composer is in the score, the less room for creativity he leaves for the conductors and performers.

Mahler was incredibly precise with his music: He described every little innuendo of his symphonies. Bach was not descriptive at all. He left a huge space for interpretation of his music, and you can clearly hear that in this concerto.

Glenn Gould’s performance is vastly different from any other performance of this concerto. He plays it noticeably slower and accentuates the notes significantly more – his performance evokes melancholy where others deliver energy. Gould could not, however, have been able to slow down the concerto on his own; he needed an accomplice: Leonard Bernstein.

Glenn Gould’s debut performance (rewind to see Leonard Bernstein’s lecture)

Polina Osetinskya

Sviatoslav Richter

Murray Perahia

How Franz Liszt Revolutionized Piano and Classical Music

Franz Liszt was a Hungarian composer and pianist. I don’t think you can talk about Liszt without talking first about the evolution of the piano. The piano you see today in concerts hall or in private homes was not always like that. Though the earlier instrument had a similar shape and had a keyboard, its interior plumbing was completely different. In fact it was called a harpsicord – think of it as a harp (wooden frame with stretched strings) with a keyboard.

Around 1700 the harpsichord gradually transformed into a pianoforte, which had the same look as the harpsicord, but instead of the strings being plucked they were hit by little leather-wrapped hammers. The frame that held the strings was still wooden, and the strings were held at low tension. This is the instrument used by Mozart and the young Beethoven. The sound of the pianoforte is different from the sound we accustomed to hearing today: it is lighter, and the instrument did not have a double escape mechanism and thus could not repeat sounds rapidly – it speaks instead of signing. Each note is very clear and distinct, and the pianoforte has still not completely lost the sound of the harpsicord. Think of Mozart’s piano concertos or sonatas, which were written for pianoforte.

Mozart died in 1791, just as the fortepiano (or simply, piano), the instrument we are all familiar with, was starting to emerge. But from the late 1700s to the early 1800s the piano underwent a significant transformation. This transformation had a major impact on the music that was composed; and, in a musical feedback loop, composers impacted the instrument. Beethoven was one of the early adopters and beneficiaries of the piano’s evolution and played an important role in the evolution of the instrument. At one point he had broken 78% of the strings in his piano. He complained to the piano manufacturer that pianos wore out very fast.

The biggest differences between the pianoforte and fortepiano (the modern piano) are, first, that the frame the harp strings are tied to is not wooden but metal; the low-tension strings have been replaced with high-tension ones; the instrument has a range of two additional octaves (14 extra white keys); and the hammers are covered with tightly compacted felt instead of leather. These changes transformed a delicate instrument into an incredibly powerful beast that can replace an orchestra but that at the same time retains the gentleness of its ancestors.

This brings us to Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Liszt was born sixteen years before Beethoven’s death. He was a child prodigy and a virtuoso pianist. He was the first rockstar of Europe – he was Michael Jackson before Michael Jackson was Michael Jackson.

As luck would have it, on a trip to Paris, Franz Liszt stayed in a hotel right across the street from Erard Piano – a trailblazing piano maker that invented the double escapement movement that sped up the piano and significantly reduced the limitations of previous generations of pianos. Erard was also the first piano maker to fit pedals under the piano.

As the story goes, young Franz wandered into the Erard store and started playing on one of the instruments. Mssr. Erard smitten by the boy’s genius and also recognized a unique marketing opportunity. He made an endorsement deal with young Franz, providing pianos for all of Liszt’s performances. Liszt went on a three-year tour, giving several performances a day. No town was too small – he loved the attention and the applause. However, this tour was suddenly interrupted by his father’s untimely death.

In 1832 Liszt attended a concert of the Italian violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini. The violin had undergone its most dramatic improvements two hundreds years before the piano did, and it was a mature instrument by that time. After Liszt heard Paganni he remarked, “What wonderful things might be done with the piano if its technical possibilities were developed as those of the violin have been by Paganini.” He decided to become the Paganini of piano. For three years he stopped appearing in public and practiced non-stop (putting in Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours).

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.

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto

I wanted to share with you probably the most unique performance ever recorded (other than Rachmaninoff playing Rachmaninoff): Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.  I don’t like to use the term “best” when I describe musicians, for several reasons: first, I am not really an authority, able to determine who the best is.  Second, even “the best” are not best at playing their entire repertoire.  And finally, music is not a sport where success is objectively measured in seconds or score counts.

By the time you become a recording professional musician you are good, but there is something that is unique (and maybe there is even a little bit of randomness) that makes you into what I call a musical giant.  This concerto is performed by four giants of classical music: Herbert Von Karajan – conductor, Sviatoslav Richter – piano, David Oistrakh – violin, and Mstislav Rostropovich – cello.   Listen.  Enjoy!

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