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Maurice Ravel
La Valse
As early as 1906, Ravel intended to orchestrate a piece entitled “...
Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op.
The “Waldstein” piano sonata is considered one of the most impor...
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pezzo capriccioso, Op. 62
Tchaikovsky composed Pezzo Capriccioso for cello and orchestra durin...
Sergei Prokofiev
Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Maj
Sergei Prokofiev was already 58 years old when he composed his first...
Camille Saint-Saëns
The Swan
This piece from the French romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns be...
Franz Liszt
Hungarian rhapsody n. 12
Liszt was Hungary’s first internationally renowned composer. He c...
Frédéric Chopin
Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, N
The nocturnes are Chopin’s most intimate and personal utterances. ...

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June 19, 2017.  A Stamitz and a Bach.  Johann Stamitz was born on this day in 1717 in a small town of Německý Brod (German Ford in the Czech) in Moravia, then part of the Austrian Empire.   He studied in the Jesuit Gymnasium in Jihlava known across Europe for its high Johann Stamitzquality of musical education.  He then studied at Prague University and then, it’s assumed, embarked on a career of a violin virtuoso.  Sometime around 1741 Stamitz was hired by the Mannheim court of the Elector of Palatinate.  At the time, the court had an excellent orchestra.  In June of 1742 he played at a concert and, according to the advertisement, was to perform on the violin, viola d’amore, cello and double bass.  His rise was very quick: a year later he became the first violinist of the court orchestra, in 1745 – the Konzertmeister and in 1750 – director of instrumental music.  As such he was responsible for both composing and performing music for the court.  Under the leadership of Stamitz the orchestra improved even further, both technically and musically, becoming the most renowned orchestra in Europe.  In 1754, Stamiz went to Paris and stayed there for a year.  He performed, to great acclaim, in private residences of the nobility and also at the Concert Spirituel at the Tuileries Palace, the first ever public concert series.  Stamiz returned to Mannheim in the fall of 1755.  Two years later, on March 27th of 1757, he died at the age of 39.  Johann Stamitz, had two composer sons who became as well known as their father, and is mostly famous for his symphonies (he wrote 58 of them) and his orchestral trios.  Here is his Pastorale Symphony.  Virtuosi di Praga are conducted by Oldřich Vlček.

Johann Stamitz was three years younger than Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and 15 years older than another son of J.S. Bach, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach.  Johann Christoph was born this week, on June 21st of 1732 in Leipzig, where his famous father was the Thomaskantor.  Johann Sebastian was his son’s first music teacher, and, as many of Johann Sebastian’s sons, Johann Christoph attended the Thomasschule (St. Thomas School).  Not as famous as his brothers Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, or Johann Christian, he was a fine composer and a virtuoso keyboard player.  Johann Christoph is sometimes called the "Bückeburg Bach" as he spent many years in Bückeburg, the capital of the County of Schaumburg-Lippe.  Here is Johann Christoph’s virtuosic Piano Concerto E Major.  It’s performed by the wonderful Cyprien Katsaris.  Orchestre de Chambre du Festival d`Echternach is conducted by Yoon Lee.

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June 12, 2017.  Stravinsky, Pleyel.  Igor Stravinsky, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, was born on June 17th of 1882 in Oranienbaum (now Lomonosov) outside of Saint Petersburg.  For years, as we celebrated Stravinsky, we were traversing his life in its Igor Stravinskyamazing transmutations.   We’ve mentioned it before, but one can think of only one other artist who could change his creative styles so drastically and succeeded so enormously in every one of them – and that’s Picasso.  Last year we wrote about one of Stravinsky’s most successful neoclassical pieces, his ballet Apollo.  Apollo was composed early in 1928.  Stravinsky was living in France and leading, at least on a personal level, a double life: while still married to Catherine (Katya) Nosenko, mother of his four children, he had since 1921 been carrying on an affair with Vera de Bosset, then the wife of the painter Sergei Sudeikin (Vera would leave Sudeikin a year later).  Stravinsky bought a house in Anglet just outside of Biarritz and moved his family there.  When not visiting Anglet, he lived in Paris with Vera.   Katya knew about the affair but didn’t do anything about it.  Stravinsky stayed married to Katya for the remainder of her life; the last years were very unhappy.  Some years earlier Katya had contracted tuberculosis, which had developed slowly, but in 1938 she infected both Igor and their daughter Lyudmila.  Lyudmila died in 1930 at the age of 30, Catherine – three months later, in March of 1939.  Igor spent several months in a hospital but recovered.

But that was still to come.  In the meantime, in 1928, following the success of Apollo, Ida Rubinstein, a famous danseuse, commissioned Stravinsky for another ballet for her company.  Rubinstein wanted a romantic tale, and Alexander Benois, a wonderful Russian painter who had collaborated with Stravinsky (and Diagilev) on a number of projects, came up with the idea to base the ballet on the music of Tchaikovsky.  Stravinsky liked it; what came out of it was Le baiser de la fée (The Fairy's Kiss), a wonderfully inventive one-act ballet.  Bronislava Nijinska was the choreographer; the ballet premiered in November of 1938, marking the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death.  It’s interesting to compare two masterpieces, Apollo and The Fairy's Kiss, written just months apart – the apollonian stillness of the former and the inventive brilliancy of the latter.  In 1934 Stravinsky wrote a “Divertimento” – a suite based on the music of the ballet.  You can listen to it here.  The Bulgarian National Radio Symphony is conducted by Mark Kadin.

While in Paris, Stravinsky found an interesting source of income: writing arrangements for the piano manufacturer Pleyel.  The company had recently designed a piano player they called Pleyela and Stravinsky used its ability to play notes beyond the capacity of a human pianist.  By the late 1920, Playel was one of the major piano manufacturers in Europe, on par with Bechstein, Bösendorfer and the Hamburg Steinway.  The company was started by Ignaz Pleyel, a composer and piano maker, whose birthday we also mark this week.  Pleyel was born on June 18th of 1757 in Ruppersthal, Austria.  He moved to Strasbourg, Alsace, and eventually to Paris.  A prolific composer of many symphonies, quartets, etc., he didn’t leave a lasting mark, although he was well-received in England, which he toured the same time as his friend Haydn.  The field he really excelled in was business.  First, he established a successful music printing business, and then, in 1807, Pleyel et Cie, a piano manufacturer.  They were the first to introduce a metal frame and make an upright piano (or “pianino,” as they called it).  Chopin played Pleyels, and so did many other French pianists and composers.  Working with Wanda Landowska, they introduced the modern harpsichord.  And we shouldn’t forget their contribution to the performing scene: the company commissioned the original small Salle Pleyel and its replacement, the modern concert hall which serves as the home base to the Orchestre de Paris Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.  Igor Stravinsky was one of the conductors of the inauguration concert.

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June 6, 2017.  The Cliburn update.  The semifinal results were announced last night and both  Daniel Hsu and Georgy Tchaidze made it into the final round.  Congratulations to both!  In the final round they will perform a piano quintet (Daniel will play Franck’s Piano Quintet and Georgy – Dvořák’s Quintet op. 81) and then a concerto.  Daniel will play Tchaykovsky’s no. 1, while Georgy will perform Prokofiev’s Piano concerto no. 3.  Good luck and break a leg!


June 5, 2017.  The Cliburn and the IMF.  The 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is entering its final round: the six finalists will be announced later today.  Every lover of classical music in this country is aware of the Cliburn, the premier piano competition organized International Music Foundationby the late Van Cliburn in 1962, four years after he won the first Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow.  Many of the Cliburn winner and even participants who didn’t get top prizes went on to develop great careers: Nikolai Petrov, Radu Lupu, Rudolf Buchbinder, Cristina Oriz, Vladimir Viardo, Barry Douglas, Olga Kern, Aleksey Sultanov, to name just a few.  While the Cliburn is known worldwide, the International Music Foundation, a Chicago organization that presents high-quality music performances by emerging artists and supports music education in the area, isn’t well known even in its home city.  And yet, Chicagoans can listen live to some of the best young pianists who are today performing in Fort Worth: the flagship program of the IMF is the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts, and many of its “alumni” went on to participate in and win major music competitions.  This year, three such musicians, Daniel Hsu, Georgy Tchaidze and Rachel Kudo played at the Cliburn.  All three made it to the quarterfinals, while Hsu and Tchaidze went a step further, to the semifinals.  Today we’ll find out if they make it into the final round.  The 19-year-old Daniel Hsu is a native of San-Francisco.  At the age of 10 he was accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music where he studied with Garry Graffman and Eleanor Sokoloff.  He was named a Gilmore Young Artist in 2016 and a year later played a concert at Carnegie Hall.  In the preliminary round of the Cliburn, Daniel The Cliburn Competitionplayed Beethoven’s 31st piano sonata.  Earlier this year, he played the same sonata at the Dame Myra Hess concert; you can listen to it here.  In the quarterfinals, he played Bach’s Chaconne from the violin Partita in d minor, BWV 1004, arranged for the piano by Ferruccio Busoni.  You can listen to it in a live recording, here.

Georgy Tchaidze was born in Saint Petersburg and studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Sergey Dorensky.  He then moved to Berlin where he continued his studies with Klaus Hellwig at the Berlin University of the Arts.  Georgy is a winner of several international competitions and performed across Europe, North America and China.  Here he’s collaborating with the German-Korean violinist Clara-Jumi Kang in Johannes Brahms’s Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, Op. 78 in G Major.

Rachel Kudo was born in Washington DC.  She attended the Juilliard and currently works with Leon Fleisher.  She also studied with Joseph Kalichstein, Richard Goode, and Gilbert Kalish.  Like Daniel Hsu, Ms. Kudo is a winner of the Gilmore Young Artist Award and a two-time winner of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition.  It so happens that we have her recording of Johannes Brahms’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano in A Major, Op. 100, which she performed with the violinist Siwoo Kim.  It’s a fine compliment to Brahms’s first violin sonata.  You can listen to Violin Sonata no. 2 here.

Robert Schumann was born this week, on June 8th of 1810.  We’ll celebrate him another time.

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May 29, 2017.  A different Les Six.  No less than six noted composers were born this week.  None of them arrived at the pinnacle of their profession, but all six are very interesting in one way or another.  Chronologically, the composers are: Georg Muffat, Marin Marais, Mikhail Glinka, Marin MaraisEdward Elgar, Isaac Albéniz and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.  Muffat and Marais were born just three years apart: Muffat on June 1st of 1653 and Marais – on May 31st of 1656.  They even had the same teacher, Jean-Baptiste Lully.  In all other respects, their lives and their music were very different.  Muffat, of Scottish and French descent, led a peripatetic life.  Born in the Duchy of Savoy, he studied in Paris, then worked in Alsace before settling in Vienna.  From there he traveled to Prague and, eventually, Salzburg.  There he worked for the archbishop, as Mozart would 100 years later.  After a ten year stay in Salzburg he went to Rome where he met Arcangelo Corelli and many other famous musicians of the day.  He returned to Salzburg two years later but didn’t stay long.  He moved to Augsburg, Bavaria, and later – to Passau, where he lived the remaining years of his life.  He died in Passau, 50 years of age, on February 23rd of 1704.  Marais, on the other hand, was born in Paris and died in Paris.  He went to the choir school of St Germain-l'Auxerrois, one of the best music schools in Paris.  He studied the viol with several teachers, one of whom was the famous player Sainte-Colombe (it’s said that Marais surpassed him after six months of study).  He was invited to play at the orchestra of the Opera, where Lully was the music director. 

As composer, he wrote mostly for his instrument, the viol, eventually writing five books of Pièces de viole.  Some of his pieces were performed in Versailles and were well received.  He became a conductor of the opera around 1706 (the official title of the conductor was “batteur de mesure” – the one who beats the measure; that was the extent of conducting in the early 18th century, and that’s also what lead to Lully’s demise, when he hit his foot with the conducting staff and died of the gangrene several days later).  Here is Marais, Le Labyrinthe, from Suitte d'un gout etranger, which in turn is from Book IV of PiècesDe Viole.  Jordi Savall and friends are performing.  As for Muffat, we’ll hear a piece from the second set of suites which Muffat gave the Latin name of Florilegium (“Selection”).  He wrote two sets, Florilegium Primum and Florilegium Secundum, each set consisting of several suites of dances.  Here is the second suite from Florilegium Secundum subtitled Laeta Poesis.  You may hear some Lully in it, but it also anticipates Handel.  The Academy of Ancient Music is conducted by Christopher Hogwood.

Mikhail Glinka, born a century and a half later, on June 1st of 1804, occupies a special place in the history of Russian music.  It’s not very often that we can identify the “first composer,” but that’s really what he was - the first authentically Russian composer.  Of course, there were Russians composing secular music well before Glinka, Bortniansky and Berezovsky among them, but those, while quite gifted, mostly repeated the patterns of their Italian teachers.  Glinka’s music, on the other hand, was original, he went to the Russian sources and created a melodic world that affected generations of composers to come, from the Mighty Five who followed him to Tchaikovsky and the more conservative Soviet composers of the 20th century. Here’s one of his better-known pieces, the Overture to the opera Ruslan and Lyudmila.  Evgeny Mravinsky conducts the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.

Edward Elgar and Isaac Albeniz were also born three years apart, Elgar on June 2nd of 1857, Albeniz – on May 29th of 1860.  Both became “national composers,” Elgar almost officially, with his Pomp and Circumstance Marches being played at state events, Albeniz – purely by virtue of his music.   Both deserve proper treatment, hopefully soon.  And so does Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a child prodigy whose career never reached promised heights.

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May 22, 2017.  Wagner and Francaix.  Richard Wagner was born on this day in 1813.  For some years we’ve been following Wagner’s life by the milestones of his operas; last year we arrived at the end of the “Romantic operas” period, with Lohengrin, written in 1848 and its Richard Wagnerpremier in 1850, being the last one.  Wagner’s genius had matured, and during the next several years he would produce not simply “operas” but “music dramas,” the term Wagner himself used to describe what he considered to be a “total work of art,” art that combines music and theater into one unified whole.  He started working on Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) in 1848 and continued for almost 26 years, completing the composition of the last (fourth) opera of the cycle, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) in 1874.  During that period, he also wrote two other masterpieces, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  Wagner intended the Ring to be performed as a cycle, as it was at the premier, in the course of several days in August of 1876 in Bayreuth.  The premier took place in a specially built theater, the old opera house being too small for Wagner’s orchestra.  Wagner’s old patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, even though his relationship with Wagner had soured throughout the years, was instrumental in financing the theater.  The premier was attended by royalty (Kaiser Wilhelm was there, as well as Ludwig, and Don Pedro, the Emperor of Brazil).  The leading musicians of the day were also present: Anton Bruckner, Edvard Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and of course Franz Liszt, Wagner’s father in law.  And so was the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the major influences and, for a while, a good friend.

We’ll tackle individual operas of the RingDas Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – in due course: each one represents a challenging, exasperating, but in the end enormously satisfying, subject.  For now, we’ll just play the overture, or the Prelude, as Wagner called it, to Das Rheingoldthat’s how the monumental tetralogy starts, the beginning of all beginnings (Sir Georg Solti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in a 1967 recording).

A very different artist was also born this week, the French composer Jean Françaix.  Born 99 years and a day after Wagner, Françaix may be considered Wagner’s opposite.  Françaix once said that his goal is to "give pleasure": you would’ve never heard anything similar from Wagner.  Françaix was born into a musical family which encouraged his studies.  He was still a child when Ravel noticed him and wrote a glowing letter to his father, Alfred, the director of the Le Mans Conservatoire.  Françaix studied with Nadia Boulanger who later became his champion, playing and conducting many of his premiers.  His work was met enthusiastically.  Not very complicated, it had a natural charm and brilliance.  In addition to orchestral and ensemble music, Françaix wrote music for ballets (in collaboration with the great choreographer Roland Petit) and a number of film scores.  He wrote several operas; La princesse de Clèves (1964) was very well received.  Here’s his Concertino for piano and orchestra, from 1932.  The pianist is Claude Françaix, Jean’s daughter.

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