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As Close as You Can Get? Glenn Gould Seeking the Ordinary in the Eccentric

Many are names of things we hold dear. An enigmatic musical poet, world- renowned pianist Glenn Gould continues to captivate years after his untimely death in 1982. Gould followed his sensational 1955 New York City concert debut at the age of 22, by taking his talent to the Soviet Union and became an equally prodigious star there, in the midst of the Cold War. But, after a decade-long thriving international career, he defied the critics and shocked and disappointed his fans by leaving the concert circuit completely.

As we know Gould became famous for his radical interpretations of the work of classical composers, especially Bach. He was a strange mix of a man, completely immersed in his music, handsome, charming, but an isolate. His complex recording technologies, including overdubbing, were unprecedented and his inimitable music and writing reveal a world view that we are still unraveling.

In 2010 the documentary Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould was presented and became yet another attempt to describe the iconic musician. With comments from the very few people who knew him well, as well as from one of the great loves of his life Cornelia Foss and her children, the documentary paints a portrait of a man of prodigious and meticulous talent who may have hankered after intimacy but found it difficult to achieve in any long term. Genius Within has been fairly conventionally constructed, it’s blessed by the exhaustive documentation of Gould’s life while he was alive. But it nevertheless makes this troubled but talented man live again, it’s actually very touching and gives insight into what made his music so extraordinary.

This look at his life weaves together never-before-seen footage of Gould, excerpts from his private home recordings and diaries, plus personal interviews with Gould’s most intimate friends and lovers to reconstruct his thoughts on music, art, society, love, and life.

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould


/patrick

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That Fascinating Dash of Blue

Since the early 20th century, jazz always had a significant impact on classical music and classical pianists. Composers found the rhythms, the blue quality in melody and harmony, as well as the spontaneous improvisation immensely fascinating and irresistibly modern.

Gershwin brought jazz into the classical concert venues

Even though composers like Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and even Soviet composers used jazz and blues in their works, it was Hollywood and Broadway which would enable jazz music to enter the classical concert venues and the key composer was George Gershwin. Gershwin’s symphonic works like An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F and the opera Porgy and Bess were influenced by French composers. In turn Maurice Ravel was strongly impressed with Gershwin, commenting, “Personally I find jazz most interesting: the rhythms, the way the melodies are handled, the melodies themselves. I have heard of George Gershwin’s works and I find them intriguing.”

…but Ravel rejected him

In the mid-1920s, Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period of time, during which he applied to study composition with the noted Nadia Boulanger who, along with several other prospective tutors such as Maurice Ravel, rejected him.

Ravel (at the piano) and Gershwin (to the right, apparently more interested in what Ravel is doing with his hands than smiling into the the camera) in New York 1928

Ravel (at the piano) and Gershwin (to the right, apparently more interested in what Ravel is doing with his hands than smiling into the the camera) in New York 1928

They were afraid that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style. Maurice Ravel’s rejection letter to Gershwin told him; “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?”. The orchestrations in Gershwin’s symphonic works often seem similar to those of Ravel; likewise, Ravel’s two piano concertos evince an influence of Gershwin.

Rhapsody in Blue – an experiment in modern music

Challenged by the question “What is American music?” and a comission by bandleader Paul Whiteman for an New York afternoon concert named “An Experiment in Modern Music”, Gershwin wrote the “American Rhapsody” which later was re-named “Rhapsody in Blue”. The version that was heard then was for a 24-piece jazz band, not for full orchestra which was written in 1942 and eventually became the most popular version. The opening clarinet glissando suggests a sound effect quote from a number of piano pieces by Ravel such as Jeux d’eau, Gaspard de la nuit or Alborada del Gracioso.

A performance by classical pianist with serious jazz skills

Let’s hear pianist Kirill Gerstein play the original 1924 version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Gerstein, a renowned international classical performer is also a trained jazz pianist from the famous jazz music school Berklee College of Music in Boston before attending the Manhattan School of Music, earning both his Bachelor’s and Master’s of Music degrees by the age of 20. In this particular concert Gerstein returns to his old Alma Mater in March 30, 2012 to perform togheter with students and faculty members at Berklee College of Music.

Gerstein plays Rhapsody in Blue (Jazz band version) at Berklee

Do you hear the jazz influences in Ravel’s music?
Grimaud plays Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G

How did George Gershwin play the piano himself?
Hear a live capture of I Got Rhythm from 1931

Read a recent interview with pianist Kirill Gerstein:
He got rhythm: Piano virtuoso Kirill Gerstein embraces classical, jazz… all that is unexpected


Reader Poll

While most pianists and piano music aficionados enjoy playing, or at least listening to, both classical and jazz, a combination of different musical genres can obviously compromise their unique genuineness. Or what do you think? Let us know in this week’s reader poll!

Do you like classical music with jazz influences?

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1. Feel free to post a comment below about your choice.
2. Share this page with any of your friends that would be interested in reading it and voting.


/patrick

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Moonlight Trapped in the Sonata Form?

Sonatas come in many shapes throughout the history of music. The name Sonata is derived from the Italian word “suonare” (to sound) as opposed to “Cantata” (to sing). Although we find many single movement pieces from the Baroque period and mid-18th century named sonatas, it is not until Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven develop a 3 (or 4) movement disposition that we can talk about the term ”sonata form”. They all added extra movements in order to create what Leonard Bernstein later explained: “… perfect three-part balance, and second, the excitement of its contrasting elements. Balance and contrast — in these two words we have the main secrets of the sonata form.”

The popular classical form

For both Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven it is still the first movement in the sonata which stands paramount in the construction. Additionally a slow movement and a fast movement could be added, each having a specific function in the musical argument of the complete piece. Beethoven eventually develops the form and strengthens each movement’s own specific character and even re-disposes the number of movements and alters the fast-slow-fast disposition of the Classial era.

How can we explain this immense popularity of the sonata for over two hundred years? What makes it so satisfying, so complete?
In Beethoven’s hands the piano sonata underwent a drastic development from his early works inspired by Haydn and Mozart until his late experimental and bold works with a much freer concept of form and drama. The term “sonata form” appears in the mid-19th century and Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas were the basis for the analysis.

The Moonlight Sonata is different

There are no specific reasons why Beethoven decided to title both the Op. 27 works as Sonata quasi una fantasia (”sonata in the manner of a fantasy”), but the layout of no. 2 (the Moonlight Sonata) does not follow the traditional fast–slow–fast. Instead, the sonata proposes an end-weighted journey, with the rapid music held off until the third movement. The sonata consists of three movements:
Adagio sostenuto-Allegretto-Presto agitato
The name “Moonlight Sonata” comes from the German music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab, five years after Beethoven’s death.

Beethoven: Sonata Sonata Op. 27 no. 2, piano sheet music:
Moonlight Sonata piano sheet music

Two distinctly different interpretations

Here we listen to a recent performance of the Moonlight Sonata by pianist Yundi Li from a popular TV-show in Japan. His interpetation is quite traditional with a slow and beautiful rendition of the first movement while his last movement is very clean and polished – indeed not one of the more wild and stormy versions we have heard. But that is perhaps what to expect by Yundi Li, who is a former International Chopin Competition winner (2000).

On the other hand we have Andras Schiff who, in recent years, has proposed a completely different interpretation of the first movement for three resons:
1. The nickname “Monlight Sonata” is nonsense.
2. Since the meter is “Alla breve” we should count two beats (half notes) per bar, calling for a quite light and quick tempo.
3. Beethoven writes in the beginning of the piece “Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino” which means “This whole movement must be played with the utmost delicacy and without dampers. (i.e. with right pedal down). If that means that we should keep the right pedal constantly down throughout the piece or to change pedal in a traditional way when harmony changes is the big question for debate.
Listen to Schiff’s lecture below for a more detailed description.

Yundi Li plays Beethoven Sonata Op. 27 no. 2 (from Japanese TV 2014)
1. Adagio sostenuto
2. Allegretto
3. Presto agitato

Andras Schiff:
Lecture about the Moonlight Sonata (Wigmore hall, London)


Reader Poll

Which intepretation of the 1st movement do you prefer?

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After voting:
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/patrick

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International Piano – July/August

A new issue of International Piano is out!
Content highlights:

  • Jean Muller: recording Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes
  • Rising stars: the top 30 pianists under 30
  • John Ogdon: remembering his talent 25 years on
  • Sheet music of Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat major, Op 53 and MP3 downloads of recordings made on the instruments at Finchcocks Musical Museum in Kent


Piano Street Gold members have instant online access to the digital version of the magazine.


/nilsjohan

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The Women Behind Chopin’s Music

Chopin revolutionised the nature of piano music composed both technically and emotionally but the actual musical instrument that provided his greatest source of inspiration was the female voice.
Other important parts of Chopin’s inspiration came from the women in his life. For 10 years, George Sand exerted her powerful influence on him, and he also gleaned much from listening to such great singers as Jeanne-Anais Castellan, Pauline Viardot and even the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind. Their exquisite tones and musicianship coalesced inside his mind’s eye, and he applied what he had heard to his compositions.

A documentary about Chopin’s unique piano style

In this documentary marking the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, pianist and trailblazer James Rhodes explores not only the Polish master’s music but also his complex relationships with women.

Rhodes’s film takes him from Paris to London and Warsaw as he delves, through exacting research, into the lives of the women who orbited Chopin’s star. Along with piano guru Jeremy Siepmann, Chopin specialists Adam Zamoyski, Emanuel Ax and Garrick Ohlsson lend their expertise to the film, and they comment on Rhodes’s playing and Chopin’s history. Opera singer Natalya Romaniw performs some of the arias that inspired Chopin and explores his cantabile piano writings by singing the melody of Nocturne opus 9, no 1.


/nilsjohan

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