Miscellaneous music thoughts

Comparing Solti's legendary Ring Cycle against other recordings (May 23, 20)
The Pittsburgh Symphony performing Bruckner's 9th symphony (Oct 20, 19)
Ohlsson playing all five Rachmaninoff concertos (Jun 3, 19)
The best concert in 5 years! (May 27, 19)
Review of a recent Olga Kern recital (Mar 22, 14)
The two best recordings of Chopin's Etude Op.25 No.12 (Jan 27, 07)
Looking for differences in piano performances (Oct 6, 04)
Ohlsson/BSO/Spano played Rachmaninoff's 3rd concerto on 9 March 2004 (Mar 12, 04)
Hamelin's recital at Boston Conservatory, 7 October 2003 (Mar 12, 04)
Stop sharing MP3s, please! (Aug 2, 03)
Ranking a bunch of piano pieces based on technical difficulty (Jan 26, 03)
Who can write critiques, and should we listen to recordings (Dec 16, 02)
Sviatoslav Richter's comments about other musicians (Dec 16, 02)
Two piano DVD recommendations (Nov 28, 02)
Some super bargain box sets from Universal Classics (Nov 27, 02)
Comparing four versions of Alkan's Le festin d'Esope (Sep 3, 02)
Ten recordings I listen to most often (Jun 9, 02)
Ohlsson/BSO/Märkl played the Rach 4 on Jan 24, 2002 (Jan 25, 2002)
Music-related plans for 2002 (Dec 16, 01)
Should "Krossover Krap" be banned? (Sep 3, 01)
BSO/James Levine played Mahler 3 on February 1, 2001 (Feb 16, 01)
Kristian Zimerman performed the Rach 2 with the BSO on November 30 (Dec 4, 00)
Christoph Eschenbach conducts Mahler 5 and plays/conducts Mozart 23 (Nov 5, 00)
Toscanini's last concert (Aug 3, 00)
Random violin-related comments (Aug 2, 00)
A conflict with Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer's review? (Mar 25, 00)
Hélène Grimaud played Mozart's No.20 with the BSO under Zinman (Mar 23, 00)
Probably Ashkenazy's best recording (Jan 24, 00)
Plans for next year (Dec 18, 99 and Jan 3, 00)
On the "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" series (Nov 14, 99)
Kemal Gekic's free recital at Longy School of Music, Cambridge (Oct 23, 99)
The relatively obscure pianist Eric Heidsisck's Beethoven complete sonatas (Aug 21 + 24, 99)
Ponti's and Nojima's Liszt (Jul 25, 99)
Is the playing side more important? (Jul 24, 99)
I can't stand this any more! (Jul 16, 99)
Three CD recommendations (Apr 17, 99)
More on the Milstein Tchaikovsky (Apr 14,99 and added a few comments on Jul 17, 99)
Milstein plays the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto - A REALLY pleasant surprise (Apr 13, 99)
String quartets (Apr 1, 99)
Hamelin's amazing recital at Harvard (Mar 21, 99)
Tureck's Bach, Uchida's Mozart, and Moiseiwitsch's Chopin (Mar 20, 99)
Hummel, Alkan, Shostakovich, Busoni, and Tureck (Mar 19, 99)

Comparing Solti's legendary Ring Cycle against other recordings (May 23, 20)

Ever since I attended the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Siegfried” in Nov 2018, I have been obsessed with Wagner’s 14-to-15-hour “Der Ring des Nibelungen”. Up until that performance I owned “only” 19 recordings of the complete Ring, but since then I have acquired 15 more. I bought my first Ring in Nov 1995, and like many other collectors I opted for the most widely praised version: Georg Solti’s Decca recording made between 1958 and 1965. According to the
Sir Georg Solti discography page on Wikipedia, this recording “has twice been voted the greatest recording ever made, the first poll being of readers of Gramophone magazine in 1999, and the second of professional music critics in 2011, carried out for the BBC.” However, even after listening to it at least a dozen times over 20+ years, I still didn’t appreciate it. Having amassed 34 Rings, I decided to carefully compare a majority of them (26 to be exact) to see where Solti stands.

I should first state my criteria. Virtually all critics and customer reviews on Amazon focus much more on the singing than the orchestral playing, but being an instrumentalist, I am the opposite, paying at least 70% of my attention to the orchestra and no more than 30% to the singing. Of course the singing does matter, but as long as it is done with sufficient feeling, relative ease and reasonable accuracy, I am satisfied. After spending a couple months listening to those 26 Rings, I found 7 of them to be clearly superior to Solti’s, and I rank them as such:

1) Wilhelm Furtwängler / La Scala 1950 (live staged performance, 14 CDs, Opera d’Oro)
2) Joseph Keilberth / Bayreuth 1955 (live staged performance, 14 CDs, Testament)
3) Karl Böhm / Bayreuth 1966-67 (live staged performance, 14 CDs, Philips)
4) Wilhelm Furtwängler / Radio Italiana 1953 (live radio broadcast, 13 CDs, EMI)
5) James Levine / Metropolitan Opera 1989-90 (live staged performance, 7 DVDs, DG)
6) Marek Janowski / Berlin Radio 2012-13 (live concert, 13 SACDs, Pentatone)
7) Marek Janowski / Staatskapelle Dresden 1980-83 (studio recording, 14 CDs, RCA)
8) Georg Solti / Vienna Phil 1958-65 (studio recording, 15 CDs, London/Decca)

This comparison has elucidated why I never warmed up to Solti’s version. The entire 14.5-hour performance is permeated with a dark, cold and heavy atmosphere which I find suffocating. The orchestra is technically perfect, but 80 – 90% of the time it simply provides an uninspired accompaniment to the singing, so it often sounds boring. Once every half hour or so, the orchestra suddenly gets insanely strong, as if it suffers from bipolar disorder. The dream cast’s singing is likewise technically perfect, but is even less inspired than the orchestra’s playing. Notice that the above list contains only two studio recordings. I find the singing to be less lively in all the studio recordings I sampled (including Karajan’s and Haitink’s, which didn’t make the above list) than in any of the live recordings. I suspect that the vocalists become more emotionally involved when they have to act out the story in a staged performance, and even if it’s just a non-staged concert performance, having a live audience still helps quite a bit. Finally, I am bothered by Birgit Nilsson’s voice in this particular recording, which sounds like a man singing falsetto. I must emphasize that I generally do like Solti's Wagner, especially in "Tristan und Isolde" and his first "Die Meistersinger", so I certainly do not have any prejudice against him.

At the end of this article I will try to explain the popularity of Solti’s Ring but before that, let me briefly critique the other 7 recordings on the list so that you see why I prefer them over the Solti:

The 1950 Furtwängler Ring is the clear winner. It is fluid, spontaneous, and has an excellent mix of a wide variety of moods. The singing is wonderfully expressive and the orchestral playing is engaging but never aggressive. Though lasting ~14 hours (with two cuts), there is not a single dull moment. In my opinion this is the most satisfying recording by the great conductor, certainly better than his Beethoven symphonies. That being said, now and then the mood can get a bit too lighthearted / carefree, but I am nitpicking. The 1955 Keilberth Bayreuth recording is the first stereo Ring (though not released until 50+ years later), and the most thrilling Ring I have heard. It is fast-paced, dramatic, fiery, and often downright wild especially in the brass section. 14 hours of nonstop excitement is a bit overwhelming though, which is why I rank it below Furtwängler’s more balanced rendition. The 1966-67 Böhm, also from Bayreuth, is kind of similar to the 1955 Keilberth as it is also full of vitality and fire, although it feels a bit less theatrical especially the singing. The orchestra is more polished but less “fun”. The 1953 Furtwängler is significantly slower than his La Scala performance, lasting just over 15 hours albeit with no cuts. It is gentler, more pensive, and somewhat inhibited – this was not a staged performance like the 1950 version – but still quite musical, and the broad tempi help highlight the long melodic lines. The orchestra is also technically messier, and I wonder if Furtwängler purposely took a slower tempo to try to help. It was probably a decent orchestra, but Furtwängler’s spur-of-the-moment conducting style was not easy to follow. The majority (two thirds?) of critics prefer this over the 1950 Ring, primarily for its substantially better sonics. Luckily I grew up listening to ancient recordings from the 1930s, so the 1950 Ring’s poor sound does not bother me much. I could almost have ranked the 1989-90 Levine video above the 1953 Furtwängler. I enjoy the breathtaking orchestral playing though it sometimes sounds untidy, possibly caused in part by putting the microphones too close to the orchestra so that several musicians stood out too prominently. I also love the movingly expressive singing (and acting) especially by Siegfried Jerusalem and Hildegard Behrens, which literally brought tears to my eyes, though now and then they got so carried away that some notes sounded slightly off. I appreciate that Levine was not afraid to slow way down in the quiet passages, but sometimes he overdid it and made the music sound dull. The 2012-13 Janowski is rather similar to the Levine in that its orchestral playing is just as breathtaking. Janowski has probably conducted the Ring more times than anyone else alive today (except perhaps Levine), and he clearly matured between his 1980-83 recording and this 2012-13 remake, demonstrating more creativity and drive. On the downside, the singing is sometimes noticeably shaky; if it's "noticeable" to me, it has got to bother the critics a great deal! The 1980-83 Janowski is also highly spirited but it is interpretively more straightforward, which is why I rank it below the 2012-13 version. But I prefer it over the Solti because it has a more relaxed atmosphere and the excitement is spread out more evenly, so that on the whole it is more enjoyable than the Solti. Both Janowski recordings have fantastic sonics.

Why do people like Solti’s Ring so much? Being the first studio recording of this monumental music, its historical significance is unquestionable, and considering that stereophonic recording was still in its infancy, this project was a marvelous engineering feat. Moreover, many critics and opera fans care much more about technical perfection than I do, especially regarding the singing, whereas I value musicality and expressiveness over technique. Further, I bet I am not the only person to find the orchestra’s playing dull 80 – 90% of the time, but people tend to focus more on the bombastic passages, e.g. the last ~7 minutes of “Götterdämmerung” is spectacularly awesome indeed. Finally, for many if not most people, this was their introductory version and so some of them imprinted on it.

So, which version do I recommend to people shopping for their first recording of the Ring? I think it must not be monophonic, thereby ruling out the 1950 Furtwängler even though it is my favorite. If a clean studio recording is a must, I would recommend the 1980-83 Janowski. Had I gotten this instead of the Solti first, I probably would have learned to appreciate the Ring sooner. (In case you are curious about my opinion of the studio recordings by Karajan and Haitink: I find the former too mellow, and the latter too "classical".) If that person does not mind a staged live performance which is not edited and has audience noise, I would recommend the 1966-67 Böhm. If the person assures me that s/he is not only okay with an unedited live performance with audience noise, but also a relatively primitive stereo sound, I would recommend the 1955 Keilberth. And if someone wants a DVD or Blu-ray video, then obviously I would suggest the 1989-90 Levine. I also own Levine/Luisi's 2010-12 Ring on Blu-ray, but this was not among the 26 Rings that I analyzed for this article.

The Pittsburgh Symphony performing Bruckner's 9th symphony (Oct 20, 19)

When I first moved to Ann Arbor MI almost 10 years ago, one thing about this city that appealed to me was that it is within 5-hour drive from several respectable orchestras: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Toronto (I inadvertently overlooked Cincinnati). After attending the Pittsburgh Symphony's 10/20/2019 concert at Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh, I have finally seen all five orchestras. The conductor was Manfred Honeck, an Austrian who has been Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony since 2008. The pre-intermission piece was Mozart's piano concerto #22 with soloist Igor Levit, and the post-intermission piece was Bruckner's 9th symphony. I drove 5 hours for this concert because I aim to see all 9 Bruckner symphonies live, and the 9th symphony is rarely performed. If I remember correctly, according to Bachtracker's concert finder this was only one of two American performances of this symphony in the 2019/2020 season. Most Bruckner symphonies are programmed so infrequently because they don't sell well, and indeed attendance at this concert was rather poor.

I had never heard Honeck's recordings or, for that matter, even his name, so the Mozart concerto was the first time I had ever heard him conduct. In general I dislike hearing Mozart concertos so often in concerts -- I suspect pianists like to perform them just because they are technically easy -- so I did not pay very close attention during the concerto. Nonetheless, Levit's beautifully polished sound stood out, and so did Honeck's dynamic interpretation, but since I was not listening attentively, that is all I can say about the first half of the program.

Honeck's dynamic style was again apparent in the first two movements of the Bruckner, in fact even more so than in the Mozart. I appreciate that he strived to bring life to the music, but I felt that he was overdoing it. He not only had a tendency to divide long melodic lines into short phrases, but he also loved to exaggerate volume changes within each phrase. In both movements he employed an extremely wide dynamic range, which is usually appropriate for Bruckner, but he seemed to emphasize the ffff sections by holding back everywhere else, so the playing sounded too suppressed at least 80% of the time. Due to these questionable interpretive choices, I was quite annoyed throughout the first two movements and was expecting him to get even worse in the third. In my opinion this is the most difficult Bruckner symphony movement to appreciate, so I worried that he would "help" the audience appreciate it by emphasizing details and distorting phrasings even more than in the previous movements. To my relief, he approached the third movement completely differently. The wide dynamic range was still there, but he preserved the integrity of broad melodic lines much better, avoiding needless volume changes. He presented this esoteric movement in an impressively lucid and organized way, and I don't think I had ever been so convinced by this movement before, not even when listening to Furtwangler or Barenboim. After the disappointing first and second movements, Honeck fully redeemed himself with his masterly interpretation of this movement.

The audience applauded very enthusiastically. I left after clapping for just a couple minutes because it was getting late and I still had to drive 5 hours to get home. It took me several minutes to first use the restroom and then walk downstairs to the ground level, but as I was walking out of the building I could hear that the applause was still going strong. This seems to be a sophisticated audience.

Based on this concert I can tell that the Pittsburgh Symphony is a highly competent orchestra. I surely hope to see it again in the near future.

Ohlsson playing all five Rachmaninoff concertos (Jun 3, 19)

I was in Indianapolis on May 31 and June 1 to see Garrick Ohlsson perform all five Rachmaninoff concertos with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, under music director Krzysztof Urbański. The May 31 concert began at 8 PM and featured the Paganini Rhapsody followed by the 4th concerto in the first half, and the 2nd concerto in the second half. The June 1 concert, which started at 7 PM, had the "Vocalise" and the 1st concerto in the first half and concluded with the 3rd concerto. Thus, Ohlsson performed the five Rach concertos within about 25 hours, probably the first time anyone in the world has done so. Being a huge fan of the Rach concertos, I simply could not miss these historic back-to-back concerts, even though I had to drive just over 4 hours to get there.

I had seen Ohlsson twice before, in 2002 and 2004 when he performed the Rach 4 and the Rach 3 in Boston, and he did both with incredible technical perfection and ease (see my review articles below). But he is now 71, an age by which many pianists have become technically sloppy. Does he possess the technique and stamina required for this pianistic marathon? I am happy to report that the answer is a resounding "yes". He played all five pieces in an amazingly effortless and relaxed manner, and his legendary sonority was still largely intact.

The least satisfying was the Paganini Rhapsody. He was a bit slow in several variations, and he seemed to be holding back throughout the piece, possibly because he needed to conserve energy. He still sounded reasonably loud, projecting better than the average pianist, but he was not very loud on the "Ohlsson scale", and his playing lacked fire. He was virtually note-perfect, except for a couple of missed notes at the beginning of the 19th variation. In the 4th concerto he sounded a bit more exciting and by then he seemed to be more warmed up, though I believe he was still significantly more reserved than in the Boston performance I had witnessed back in 2002. The 2nd concerto was clearly the highlight of the May 31 concert, with his playing exhibiting more vitality and feeling. His tone was gorgeous in the lyrical passages, and I noticed that he often used the soft pedal in such passages. The most memorable spot was in the slow movement, when the opening theme reappeared near the end of the movement. He played it as softly as possible, with the help of the soft pedal. The third movement was the least note-perfect movement of the entire evening, with more than a dozen wrong notes, often at relatively easy places; I bet he was getting exhausted. But he finished the movement strong and, as expected, the audience applauded and screamed like crazy. Considering that he had just played three concertos, we did not expect him to give an encore, but he actually did: the Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2. He announced it the same way that he had announced it back in 2004, saying "This is Rachmaninoff's most famous solo piano piece". The playing wasn't very clean, although I was impressed that he could still play so forcefully at the end of such a demanding program.

Thus, he played better and better over the course of the first concert: a mediocre Paganini Rhapsody, a decent Rach 4, and a pretty good Rach 2. This upward trend continued at the second concert: an even better Rach 1, and a really good Rach 3. I think the second concert validated my hypothesis that he had been conserving energy at the first concert. The Rach 1 was rather electrifying, especially in the first-movement cadenza where the bass chords were phenomenally powerful. But no matter how powerfully he was playing, his body still hardly moved. The Rach 3 is arguably Ohlsson's signature piece -- he has recorded it three times -- and it was probably the most convincingly executed piece of the entire cycle. He was definitely no longer holding back, and by now he was playing like those twenty-somethings at a Cliburn or Tchaikovsky competition. Remarkably, the timings of the three movements were not very different from the ones that I had jotted down from two of his Boston performances back in 2004. In fact the first two movements got slightly faster:

March 6, 2004 (which I heard on the radio): 16'57", 11'16", 14'21"
March 9, 2004 (which I heard in person): 17'01", 11'33", 14'25"
June 1, 2019: 16'52", 11'04", 14'54"

The first movement sounded somewhat bland at times, but the cadenza (the short one) was very well done, especially the crescendo leading up to the climax. He hit a few wrong notes in all three movements and on the whole his playing was not as tidy as in his 2004 Boston performances, but keep in mind that he is now 71, and this time he had to play not just the Rach 3 but also four other challenging concertos. The audience again applauded fiercely, and he again gave an encore, announcing that "This piece is not by Rachmaninoff. It is so well-known that it needs no introduction." It was Debussy's "Clair de lune", performed in a mesmerizingly subdued way.

As if playing all five Rach concertos over two nights wasn't enough, Ohlsson and the Indianapolis Symphony would perform the 4th and 2nd concertos once more at a "concert with brunch" event on June 2. Insane!

The best concert in 5 years (May 27, 19)

On May 24, 2019, I went to Detroit MI to see the Detroit Symphony Orchestra perform the Prokofiev 3rd piano concerto and the Bruckner 3rd symphony under guest conductor Kent Nagano. Beatrice Rana was soloist in the Prokofiev concerto. She exceeded my expectations especially her technique, which was phenomenal. She adopted fairly fast tempos and often played quite loud, yet she looked completely effortless and in the entire piece I noticed just one minor clinker. Her forcefulness and technical ease reminded me of Daniil Trifonov's Mar 2018 performance of the Prokofiev 2nd concerto in Cleveland OH. Some have called Rana "another Argerich". I think in terms of her mechanism and fiery intensity, she totally qualifies to be called "another Argerich", although in this concerto she lacked Argerich's lyricism and passion, as she captured mainly the percussive aspect of the piece. For encore she played Chopin's Etude Op. 25 No. 1, where she was much more lyrical but surprisingly, she sounded a bit shaky technically. Still no wrong notes, but she was very cautious when her right hand made those big jumps in the melody. I got her autograph during the intermission.

What I have written so far is largely positive, but certainly not positive enough to justify calling this "the best concert in 5 years". It was the Bruckner symphony that made this concert the best I have attended in 5 years. I got a little nervous as the 1st movement of the symphony began: the string players sounded a bit too loud, so I was concerned that Nagano's interpretation might be similar to a couple of disappointing Bruckner and Mahler concerts I had recently attended, with mostly mf to ff and insufficient mp to pp. But my concern was quickly and fully dispelled when the orchestra subsequently displayed an enormous dynamic range, all the way from barely audible pppp to the most overwhelming ffff. Throughout the ~60-minute piece, Nagano demonstrated impressive craftsmanship, shaping every phrase with style, and even the pauses were well thought-out. The violin, viola and cello sections were particularly moving. His gestures were very economical, and he smiled frequently during the beautiful passages. In the abovementioned recent Bruckner and Mahler concerts, the conductors had a tendency to rush as if they feared that the audience would be bored if they took too long to finish these composers' substantial symphonies. Nagano never rushed, but instead relied on his fascinating interpretation to avoid boredom. Bruckner's symphonies are among the most "esoteric" ones in the repertoire, so I was impressed by the audience's highly enthusiastic applause. If Bruckner's symphonies were performed this well more often, they would be much less esoteric. As I still had to drive almost an hour to get home after the concert, I had not planned on getting his autograph, but I had enjoyed this concert so much that I simply had to meet him to tell him that "I am a huge Bruckner fan, and your interpretation is the best I have ever heard. Your control, dynamics, and craftsmanship are amazing." He was very modest and responded that "You have a very good orchestra. Not all orchestras can pull this off so well" (I am paraphrasing a little bit because I don't remember every word he said).

I had never paid any attention to Nagano's work but this has definitely changed. I will get his Blu-ray Audio set of the Bruckner #4, 7 and 8. Three things that I had not known about him until I looked him up: 1) he was born in the US, not Japan; 2) he is music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, in fact he has been for a long time (since 2006); in 2015, he replaced Simone Young as general music director of the Hamburg State Opera. Young had caught my attention a while ago by being the only female conductor to have recorded the entire Ring Cycle. Coincidentally she will be conducting the Detroit Sym next weekend, but the program isn't interesting and I will be out of town anyway.

The most satisfying symphonic concerts I have attended have all been conducted by US-born Americans: James Levine, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Kent Nagano.

Review of a recent Olga Kern recital (Mar 22, 14)

I went to a "surprise" recital recently. It was surprising in two ways. First, I had bought a ticket to see Denis Matsuev's recital, but he had to cancel due to pneumonia and he was substituted by Olga Kern. I would rather see Kern anyway, because I had already seen Matsuev twice before (including a tasteless Rach 3), and because I had never seen Kern live. Second, it was surprising because she deviated A LOT from the program that she had announced shortly before the concert. It wasn't a particularly great concert, but since I hadn't written a concert review in so long, I decided to do this one.

She did follow the first half of the program, which consisted of Schumann's "Carnaval" and Chopin's Second Sonata. In both compositions, I was impressed by the high degree of freedom with which she played, especially in terms of tempo changes and emphasizing "inner voices". It was somewhat reminiscent of the free style that was pervasive in the early 20thcentury. Her technique was admirable and there were nice moments in both pieces (for example, I liked how she alternated between forte and piano in the middle section of the 1st movement of the Sonata), but on the whole I wasn't very convinced. For instance, I was somewhat annoyed by her two hands being constantly out of synch in the lyrical passages, a la Paderewski. Moreover, she had a tendency to emphasize the left hand whenever a passage repeated (presumably to avoid sounding repetitive), even when the left hand had nothing interesting to say. Furthermore, every now and then, she slowed down so much that I thought she was having a lapse in memory. And finally, I always prefer the last movement of the Chopin Sonata played simply, with all the notes articulated evenly and clearly, like Argerich's early DG recording or even Wilhelm Kempff's glacially slow rendition. Unfortunately, Kern played this movement in the style of Horowitz, which I find too fancy and pretentious.

For the second half of the program, she had announced to play 12 of Rachmaninoff's 24 Preludes. So I was surprised when she started with Etude-Tableau Op.39 No.9. I bet most people in the audience had no idea that she wasn't following the program, especially since the total number of pieces remained 12, but she couldn't fool me! These are the pieces that she actually played:

Etude-Tableau Op.33 No.7
Etude-Tableau Op.33 No.6 (she took a bow after this, then played the pieces below nonstop)
Prelude Op.32 No.1
Prelude Op.32 No.5
Prelude Op.32 No.8
Prelude Op.3 No.2
Prelude Op.23 No.7
Prelude Op.32 No.10
Prelude Op.23 No.5
Prelude Op.32 No.12
Prelude Op.23 No.2

I felt that she was more at home with these pieces than with the Schumann and the Chopin. No one besides Horowitz sounds "right" in the Etude Op.39 No.9, but I enjoyed all the other 11 pieces. The best was the last piece (Op.23 No.2), in which she played the left-hand melody very beautifully -- for once the left hand was worth highlighting! The other exceptionally good performances were the Etude Op.33 No.6, Preludes Op.32 No.5, Op.32 No.8, and Op.32 No.12. I was pleasantly surprised by the rather strict tempo that she adopted in the Op.32 No.12. In my opinion, most pianists use too much rubato in this piece.

She gave three encores: Rachmaninoff's Barcarolle, Mussorgsky/Rachmaninoff's "Gopak", and Rimsky-Korsakov/Rachmaninoff's "The Flight of the Bumble Bee". During the Cliburn Competition, she said she once had a dream in which Rachmaninoff told her not to use any pedal in the Barcarolle. Well, she used quite a bit of pedal in this piece, though probably a bit less than usual. All three encores were well played, though the "Bumble Bee" was a bit rushed.

There was one thing that I couldn't stop wondering throughout this concert: How come so few pianists can play pianissimo nowadays? At this concert, Kern sounded fairly loud even in the quietest sections, and she was obviously trying to play as soft as she could (e.g. in the middle of the Funeral March movement). Virtually all the other pianists I have seen live had this same problem. On CD, I can hear a lot more wonderful soft playing. Do you think it's something fabricated by the recording engineers? Or perhaps no one uses the soft pedal any more? I understand that students are taught not to use the soft pedal, but world-class pianists should have the guts to use it.

The two best recordings of Chopin's Etude Op.25 No.12 (Jan 27, 07)

Someone emailed me John Browning's recording of the Ocean Etude and claimed that no one else plays it better. That got me curious, so I dug out 19 other recordings for comparison. As you read through the list, try to guess which two I like the most:


It's easy to sound monotonous in this piece, so I think one needs to bring out as much emotional and tonal variety as possible. I also don't like interpretations that are too strong; the "turbulent ocean" aspect doesn't need to be emphasized too much. Of these 20 versions, my top picks are ..... David Bar-Illan and Alfred Cortot. Bar-Illan's long melodic lines are compelling and beautiful, and he uses subtle but effective rubati. Cortot's performance is full of deeply moving pathos. It also has the most mechanistic problems, but I don't care. Pollini's may be a distant #3 but I am not sure. The rest, including John Browning's, don't impress me much, and Perlemuter's is just plain horrible.

Looking for differences in piano performances (Oct 6, 04)

Just a few minutes ago I wrote back to a visitor of this site who asked me how to compare piano recordings. He said that he found it not so easy to notice differences between performances of the same piece, and to decide how some are better than others. He asked me to use Rachmaninoff and Kapell's Rach 2 recordings as an example. Since I hadn't added anything to this page in ages, I thought it's about time to do that, and I thought my response to that visitor's questions was somewhat appropriate for this page. So I copy-and-pasted that email right here:

I normally don't reply so quickly, but your question is quite interesting, and I also hadn't listened to either recording in a long time and wanted to re-listen to them to compare them carefully.

First of all, let me point out that in general it's harder to discern differences in concertos than in solo pieces. So, if you want to hone your ability to detect differences between performances of the same piece, start with solo pieces. Also, focus on great artists from the past. Pianists like Arrau, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Hofmann, etc. played very differently from each other. Nowadays, most pianists sound the same.

Rachmaninoff and Kapell are certainly two "great artists from the past", and I find their styles in this particular concerto to be totally different. They both play at similar tempi, and they are both technically very competent, so in this case you can't easily distinguish between them based on these two criteria. In many other cases you can, e.g. Arrau's Waldstein Sonata is much slower than Gieseking's, and Helfgott hits millions more wrong notes in the Rach 3 than Volodos. Compared to those kinds of differences, the differences between Rach and Kapell in the Rach 2 are more subtle, but with practice one can differentiate between them quite easily. Rach is much more delicate, relaxed and is on the whole more moving, while Kapell is much stronger, more tense and more exciting. Rach impresses with the variety of his treatment of lyrical passages, whereas Kapell is more compelling in the heavy, chordal passages. Which one is better? Of course that's entirely subjective. When I listened to these versions just now, at first I liked Kapell a lot more. But after a while, I started to prefer Rach's lyricism and delicate touch. I think there is a lot more to discover in Rach's performance, and his playing will remain enjoyable after many repeated listenings. On the other hand, I feel that I have heard "everything" after hearing Kapell for just a few minutes. I mean, he was a really good pianist, but he definitely pales when compared to the great Rachmaninoff.

Ohlsson/BSO/Spano played Rachmaninoff's 3rd concerto on 9 March 2004 (Mar 12, 04)

As you may already know, I am crazy about the Rach 3. What’s been really frustrating is that it is performed so infrequently. This was only the second time in my life I had ever seen it live. The previous time was back in spring 1998, performed by an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin (while technically competent, I think she was musically rather immature). Krystian Zimerman almost played it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2000, but decided to play the Rach 2 instead at the last minute (see here for a review of Zimerman’s concert). Ironically, at piano competitions, almost everyone plays the Rach 3! This is because it is considered to be the most difficult concerto in the piano repertoire, and all these young contestants want to show off what they can do with it. In fact, Garrick Ohlsson himself won the 1966 Busoni Competition at the age of 18 with this concerto, which was recorded and issued on a Nuova Era CD. Regrettably, I still don’t have this CD, or the recording he made three years later for CBC Radio Canada.

Because of the rarity of Rach 3 performances, I really couldn’t afford to miss this concert, and so I traveled all the way from Providence RI to Boston to see it, even though that involved spending almost four hours on buses and subway trains. He performed four times, on March 4th, 5th, 6th, and 9th, and I went to the last one. As usual, I purchased a rush ticket, because I am indigent. The rush ticket line was pretty long, especially considering the rather cold weather (we had to wait outside the Symphony Hall for almost an hour). My seat was on the second-floor left balcony, which certainly wasn’t a good spot in terms of acoustics, but the advantage was that I could see his fingers very clearly.

Rachmaninoff once said that this notoriously taxing concerto was written for elephants. And Ohlsson, who is well over 6 feet tall (a head taller than the conductor Robert Spano) and probably two times more massive than Rachmaninoff, is an elephant among classical pianists! Indeed, the extreme physical demands of this work didn’t seem to bother Ohlsson the slightest bit. He made the minimal amount of body movements, even when his hands were jumping around or when he was generating big sounds, reminding me of the video of Horowitz playing the same work with Zubin Mehta in 1978. However, he was far less showy than Horowitz – he obviously didn’t like to bang at all. Yet, his sound projected well and could be heard clearly over the orchestra throughout the piece. He played with plenty of feelings, particularly in the long quiet passages, but he never sounded sentimental. Instead, his playing was serene and warm. However, he did sound a little too objective. Perhaps that’s the result of having played this piece for 40 years. Everything sounded well planned, which is certainly not a bad thing, but adding more spontaneity would have made the performance even better.

I must emphasize that by “objective” I didn’t mean that he played just like most recordings on CD and had nothing new or interesting to say. In fact, he had many of his own ideas. For example, he emphasized the left hand very often, sometimes simply to avoid playing the same phrase exactly the same way when it appeared again, but usually to bring out interesting details that are often neglected by other pianists. Furthermore, there are many spots throughout the concerto where the tempo suddenly gets faster in a new section. In many cases, instead of changing the tempo abruptly (which most pianists do), he started speeding up one or two measures before the new section, making the transition more natural. When I said “objective”, I was referring to the calculated quality of his playing. It was a convincing performance, but at the same time it didn’t seem very inspired. I don’t think he experimented with any new ideas on the spot.

Indeed, his performance from March 6th (which I recorded off the radio) was almost identical, except that he was slightly slower on the 9th. Here are the timings:

March 6th: 16:57, 11:16, 14:21
March 9th: 17:01, 11:33, 14:25

By just looking at these numbers, you may think that he played pretty slowly, e.g. the timing of the third movement is about the same as that of Van Cliburn’s very slow Carnegie Hall recording. Actually, many of the tempos Ohlsson used were really fast, and these apparently slow timings were just because he slowed down substantially in most of the quiet passages. The big jumps in the first movement cadenza (he chose the short and in my opinion more difficult version) were very fast and yet accurate. The beginning of the third movement was also fast, and the most shocking thing is that he didn’t simplify the left hand in the first few bars! That’s something extremely difficult to do. In fact, Rachmaninoff himself simplified those notes in his recording. (However, Ohlsson didn’t always stick to the score. He redistributed notes between the two hands at a number of spots, or even omitted a few notes in some cases. I bet many pianists do that, but it’s hard to tell unless you can see their hands. I couldn’t tell he had made all those changes when I listened to him on the radio.) Equally amazing were the notoriously tricky left-hand octaves shortly before the climax in the third movement. He played them as fast as Argerich, Horowitz and Volodos (and as loud as the latter two), but he didn’t hit a single wrong note in both concerts.

On the whole, it was a satisfying performance. Technically, it rivals many “live” recordings on CD. Marc-Andre Hamelin played this piece in many cities around the world recently. I didn’t hear any of those performances, but I can’t imagine him being much more perfect than Ohlsson. Of course, we gave him a standing ovation, although there was no “primal screaming” reported by Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer for the March 4th concert that he attended, with the exception of the really excited guy right in front of me. After a prolonged applause, he played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.3 No.2 as an encore, which he announced as “Sergei Rachmaninoff’s most famous piece”. He played it wonderfully, and the firm sound of the chords was awesome. He had played the same encore on the 6th, but played Chopin’s Waltz No.1 and a Chopin nocturne on the 4th and the 5th, respectively (according to Dyer’s article and a friend who works at the Symphony Hall). Incidentally, Ohlsson is widely known as a Chopin specialist, having recorded all of the Polish composer’s piano works.

As usual, I went to the green room to meet him. While in line, I overheard the music students behind me saying that Ohlsson and the conductor smiled at each other many times throughout the performance. I was so busy watching Ohlsson’s fingers that I didn’t notice that at all. I wonder why they smiled at each other so many times. Ohlsson was evidently tired, and I wasn’t in the mood to chat either, so we didn’t chat much:

Me: Thanks for the first Rach 3 in Boston since Kissin’s 1993 performance. You played MUCH better than he [a 100% honest compliment].

Ohlsson: Hahaha! He’s young. But he’s a genius.

[I gave him the program and two CD covers to sign.]

Me: What’s your favorite recording of the Rach 3?

Ohlsson: Oh, it’s hard to say….Mogilevski’s recording is very good. It’s on an old Russian LP from the 60s….. [Interestingly, in my backpack was a copy of that exact same LP, which I had just bought from a used record store. Actually, I already had two copies of that recording but I bought a third copy as a backup. I should have taken it out to surprise him! Equally interesting is that Zimerman had also told me Mogilevski’s version was his favorite Rach 3, though it’s the live recording that he preferred.]

Me: How about Cliburn?

Ohlsson: That’s a nice one, too. You know what, I really don’t remember which recordings are good. I haven’t listened to anything since 25 years ago!

Our conversation ended there. The person in front of me asked him why he chose the short cadenza. “The rest of the first movement is very dark and heavy, so I like the lighter version more. But I like the other version, too. Most people play the long one today.” Then he asked what’s his favorite concerto. “It’s this one, the Rach 3! After that, the Beethoven 4th, then, probably the Brahms 1st.” So, even though he has recorded many lesser known concertos (those by Busoni, Copland, Scriabin, etc.), he still likes the regular warhorses the most.

Hamelin's recital at Boston Conservatory, 7 October 2003 (Mar 12, 04)

This recital took place on October 7, 2003. I didn’t write about it immediately afterward because I was extremely busy. Then, I forgot about it, and now it has been more than five months. Fortunately, I jotted down some notes shortly after the recital, which helped me remember how it went.

It was a free recital at Boston Conservatory, as part of the Piano Master Series. So many people showed up that extra chairs had to be brought in, causing the recital to start about 15 minutes late. The first piece was Mozart’s sonata K.330, which was well played. The most memorable part was the slow movement. He played it in a profoundly soft manner which almost caused me to stop breathing. Though Mozart is generally considered to be technically “easy”, both of the two wrong notes that he hit in the whole evening were in the third movement of this sonata.

The ensuing Schumann Fantasiestucke Op.12 was much less satisfactory. In fact, I found it quite disgusting. It is one of my favorite Schumann pieces, but in Hamelin’s hands it became unbearable. I think he totally missed the point. He was often way too fast and inappropriately bombastic in the left hand. However, as expected, his technique was awe-inspiring. For example, I had never heard Traumes Wirren played so fast before. But of course, the poor interpretation ruined everything.

After the intermission, he played seven of Szymanowski’s mazurkas (Op.50), which he had recently recorded for Hyperion. I was totally unfamiliar with these pieces. All I can say is that both the compositions and Hamelin’s playing sounded all right to me.

The final pieces were three pieces from Albeniz’s Iberia, and these were the highlights from the evening. Hamelin clearly had the most fun with these pieces, although he could have been a lot more exuberant – it sounded like he purposely downplayed. I really don’t understand why he often holds himself in check. My guess is that he tries to fend off his reputation as being “one of history’s greatest technicians” by suppressing his phenomenal technical gifts. If this is the case, then it’s a big pity.

He gave three encores. The first one was Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau”, where Hamelin displayed his unparalleled finger control. The other two were his own transcriptions of folk songs (I think). Both were very soft pieces. I had never heard them, but found them quite beautiful and soothing.

A friend heard him play in Toronto several days earlier. Instead of the Schumann, he played Beethoven’s sonata Op.111, which this friend thought was a terrific performance. Perhaps the recital at Boston Conservatory would have been much better had he played that sonata instead.

Stop sharing MP3s, please! (August 2, 03)

I was updating the "Tips for beginning collectors" page, and was horrified by the fact that nearly all of the great CD stores I had been to in the last few years no longer exist. This includes both online and brick and mortar stores. I think the main reason so many online stores went out of business in the late 1990s and early 2000s was that there were so many of them, and only the fittest few could survive. But we all know why brick and mortar stores have been in rapid decline: peer-to-peer MP3 sharing. First there was Napster, then Morpheus, and more recently, Kazaa. If the current trend continues, before long there won't be any more CD stores, and that would be really bad for many CD collectors, because it's fun to shop at CD stores! Even if you don't care about shopping CDs, you should remember that it is illegal to distribute copyrighted recordings. Read this article about a 17-year-old kid who had to pay $15,000 in fines. Yes, I used to freely download and give away MP3s myself, but I stopped doing that. Now, I only trade out-of-print or hard-to-find items, which people can't get in stores anyway.

If you really like music, you would want musicians to continue to make CDs. Therefore, support them by buying their CDs. If you think they are too expensive, my Tips for buying CDs page might help.

Ranking a bunch of piano pieces based on technical difficulty (January 26, 03)

I went home for Christmas last month, and played the piano for the first time in a year. I played many pieces that I used to play a lot 5 - 10 years ago. Recently, someone asked me what were the most difficult pieces I had attempted. So, I thought it might be fun to list all the pieces I played during the Christmas vacation in increasing order of technical difficulty. To this list I will also add several pieces that I didn't play at home last month, but because they are important I will include them--These I will put in brackets:

Liszt: Consolation No.3
Chopin: Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. posth.
Rachmaninoff: Prelude Op.3 No.2 "It"
Mozart: Sonata in C K545
Haydn: Sonata in C Hob. XVI/50
Schubert: Impromptu D899 No.4
Schumann: Scenes From Kindergarten
Liszt: "Chapelle de Guillaume Tell" from Pilgrimage
Schubert: Impromptu D899 No.1
Mozart: Concerto No.23
Schubert: Impromptu D899 No.2
Liszt: Liebestraum No.3
Mozart: Concerto No.20
Liszt: Un Sospiro
Mozart: Sonata in F K332
Liszt: "Sonetto 104 del Petrarca" from Pilgrimage
Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G sharp minor Op.32 No.12
Liszt: "Les jeux d'eau a la Villa d'Este" from
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No.15
Beethoven: Concerto No.3
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No.11
Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G minor Op.23 No.5
Liszt: Funerailles
Mozart: Sonata in B flat K281
Beethoven: Emperor Concerto
Chopin: Polonaise No.6
Chopin: Scherzo No.3
Scriabin: Etude Op.8 No.12
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No.6
Liszt: "Vallee d'Obermann" from Pilgrimage
Tchaikovsky: Concerto No.1
Beethoven: Appassionata Sonata
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No.12
Liszt: Sonata in B minor
Chopin: Etude Op.10 No.4
Rachmaninoff: Flight of the Bumble Bee
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Chopin: Scherzo No.1
Schumann: Toccata
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No.2
Liszt: Mazeppa
Addinsell: Warsaw Concerto
Liszt: La Campanella
Chopin: Etude Op.25 No.6 "Thirds"
[Chopin: Etude Op.25 No.11 "Winter Wind"]
[Liszt: Wilde Jagd]
Brahms: Concerto No.1
[Liszt: Don Juan Fantasy]
Liszt: Mephisto Waltz No.1
[Liszt: Norma Fantasy]
[Brahms: Concerto No.2]
[Rachmaninoff: Concerto No.3]
[Liszt: Feux Follets]
[Brahms: Paganini Variations]
[Beethoven: Hammerklavier Sonata]

I have left out Ravel's "Gaspard" and Balakirev's "Islamey", because I sight-read each of them only once, several years ago, and therefore don't know exactly where they should be on the list. I guess "Gaspard" shouldn't be more difficult than Liszt's Mephisto Waltz, and "Islamey" is probably as difficult as Brahms' Paganini Variations.

Who can write critiques, and should we listen to recordings (December 16, 02)

I have two general thoughts which stemmed from reading Monsaingeon's book about Richter.

One or two visitors of my web pages signed my guestbook saying "You idiot, stop criticizing all these great pianists, unless you can play better than they....blablabla" (or something to that effect). Is that criticism reasonable or not? In this book, we see Sviatoslav Richter criticizing other pianists. He could play better than most of the pianists he criticized, and therefore he certainly had the authority to point out what's wrong with them. But look, was he a great conductor too? And a great singer? He never hesitated to comment on conductors, violinists, vocalists, etc. How many of us have complained about food served at a restaurant? Or about G.W. Bush's foreign policy? Most of us aren't cooks or politicians, yet we are entitled to our own opinions. Why should music appreciation be any different? Look at Harold Schonberg, who is probably America's most famous classical music critic. He learned the piano as a child, but never developed into a professional level. I suspect that as a pianist, he isn't much better than I. And yet, he has written millions of words about pianists of all ranks. Music is for everybody, and everyone has the right to express their feeling about what they heard. I often disagree with Schonberg's critiques, but I have never said he should shut up.

From time to time I have heard self-proclaimed authorities say that professional musicians rarely listen to recordings. That's a myth they made up. Yes, it's true that most music majors at American univerisities do not like to listen to recordings, which is something pretty sad. A friend of mine is study music at a university, and he loves to buy and listen to classical CDs. Amazingly, nearly all of his classmates don't understand his obsession with recordings. "Why listen to recordings, when you can play the pieces yourself?", they would say. In contrast, many professional musicians (music students aren't professional yet) listen to lots of recordings. From the quotes in the next article and throughout the Monaingeon book, it's obvious that Richter listened to recordings often. Zimerman told me he had nearly 100 versions of the Rach 2. Bolet once said that "I wish that every young pianist would really study--I don't mean just listen, but really study the performances of Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Moiseiwitsch, Hofmann, and Friedman and really analyze what made their performances so great." (from David Dubal's "Reflections from the Keyboard"). I think one of the many reasons why today's young classical musicians sound boring is that they don't take the time to explore great recordings from the past. I have a friend whose piano teacher repeatedly told her not to listen to any classical piano recordings. Good lord!

Speaking of comments in the guestbook, I also have thoughts about some of them, which I will put on this page someday.

Sviatoslav Richter's comments about other musicians (December 16, 02)

I bought Bruno Monsaingeon's book "Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations" (Princeton, 2001) yesterday. It's the paperback version, which is much cheaper than the original hardcover version. This book is divided into two halves, plus an appendix. The second half, entitled "Notebooks: On Music", is a collection of the great pianist's comments on nearly 1,000 recordings/concerts by himself and other musicians. I haven't read all of them in detail, but I specifically looked for his comments about a number of well-known musicians. He is critical of many famous artists, but criticizes his own performances the most severely. Below are some of his comments which I find interesting. In brackets are my own reactions to his comments. All these are quick notes that Richter wrote down soon after hearing each concert/recording. They read somewhat like emails!

1) Concert in Bonn - Prokofiev's Five Melodies and Two violin sonatas, played by Kremer and Argerich: "I didn't like this at all. But it's hardly surprising, as these people go out on stage and play without any rehearsal; what can they expect? It's nothing less than scandalous (especially the violin). I can't begin to understand how people can adopt this approach to art. The outcome - a tumultuous success." [I haven't heard the Kremer/Argerich team in concert, but in their studio recordings, they usually sound well-rehearsed.]

2) A TV broadcast - Brahms' Intermezzo Op.119 No.2 played by Ashkenazy: "Total disappointment. Expression = zero. Nothing happens. And this is Volodya Ashkenazy! Is he from another planet?" [This doesn't surprise me at all. Expression = zero, indeed. That's something pianophiles have been complaining about Ashkenazy for decades.]

3) Recording - R. Strauss' Sinfonia domestica conducted by Karajan: "I'm not entirely sure what Strauss wanted here, but for me this sort of performance of one of my favourite works is simply unacceptable. After all, 'domestica' suggests a certain chamber atmosphere, a kind of reserved and agreeable warmth. So what are these exaggerated fortissimos and this misguided monumentality doing here?" [Haven't heard this recording, but Karajan certainly tried to make everything sound monumental. I thought that would be appropriate for this symphony, no?]

4) Recital - solo pieces by Bartok, Brahms and Schubert played by Radu Lupu: "With this pianist, everything is so carefully calculated and weighed up in advance that there's nothing unexpected or surprising. The meal is served up as though on a large tray, but you know in advance exactly what it's made up of. And so it was with Schubert's G major Sonata - irreproachable and level-headed. Such an interpretation doesn't surprise you in any way, all the notes are perfectly in place. But is the result really interesting? No. It lacks any sort of thrill and leaves the listener (or me, at any rate) cold." [I find Lupu's recordings boring too. So Richter is saying he is equally boring in concert.]

5) Recording - Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Paganini played by Michelangeli: "I'm currently working on these study-variations and so I listened again to Michelangeli's recording. And unfortunately (yes, unfortunately) I didn't find what I was looking for. Everything proved to be a little stilted and superficial, very much in the style of a 'study'. I fully understand that it's hard to break away completely from the technical side of this music, but even so one would like a little more distance from it. Of course, it's easy to say this - and I've no wish to criticize a great artist." [I feel great when a great musician like Richter describes a recording exactly the same way I described it. Very true, Michelangeli treated this virtuosic piece as if it were just an etude. It's a cold treatment, but such virtuosity!]

6) Recital in Moscow - Beethoven's Diabelli Variations played by Nikolayeva: "She understands virtually nothing of what she's playing. Such tempi are harmful to your health; the rest is boring and prosaic." [I have the first half of her complete Beethoven sonatas. I played the first track on the first CD, and had no intention to play the rest of the 5-CD set. Her playing is a total mess, and can be accurately described by Richter's comment regarding that particular recital too. He uses equally harsh words to describe another of her recital.]

7) Recital at the Pushkin Museum - Chopin solo pieces played by Murray Perahia: "What happened? A terrible attack of nerves? Lack of confidence in his own abilities? Or circumstances of which I'm unaware (it's rumoured that an idiotic female interpreter-cum-guide pushed him to the limit)? But the fact remains that this famous pianist played virtually everything badly and that his Chopin left me cold. When I asked him why he didn't do the repeat of the exposition in the B minor Sonata, he seemed surprised and exclaimed 'But no one does it', adding that the same is true of Schubert's sonatas?!?!? He seemed unhappy." [Even in recordings, his highly homogeneous sound can sound boring, but I think he has gotten more dynamic in recent years. Based on other accounts I have heard, Perahia's studio recordings use lots of editing, and he is much less consistent in concert.]

8) Recital in Munich - Scriabin's and Chopin's sonatas played by Pogorelich: "Pogorelich, in the flesh. Bizarre, and one doesn't know why...You have the impression that he doesn't understand what he's playing. It's not affectation, but rather something physical." [EXACTLY!!!! Several Pogorelich fans have argued with me about Pogorelich. I have never found real passion in his playing, and he doesn't present his unconventional interpretations with conviction. Richter is a great pianist, and he agrees with me!]

9) Recording - Beethoven's Hammerklavier played by Schnabel: "No, you should never trust metronome markings. As proof, here is Schnabel's recording of the Hammerklavier: it's totally unacceptable, absolutely impossible to listen to." [It's indeed hard to hear exactly what he is playing. And I have EMI's transfer from the early 1990s, which is supposed to be the worst transfer. Pearl, Dante and Naxos have reportedly done much better jobs. Anyway, I agree with Richter's view about metronome markings.]

1) Concerts at the Pushkin Museum - Bartok's Elegy No.1 and Allegro barbaro played by Zoltan Kocsis: "I think Kocsis is one of the most serious young musicians of our day; he's clearly more serious than Gavrilov (in spite of the latter's diabolical talent); and perhaps more original than Ranki. Above all, however, it's clear that he's infinitely more interesting than Pollini or Ashkenazy. He's sure of himself, obstinate and wilful, but this doesn't stop him from playing well." [I have quite a few recordings by Kocsis but never had a chance to listen to them closely. I thought he glossed over Rachmaninoff's concertos by playing them too fast. But I should look into his Bartok set on Philips more carefully.]

2) Recording - Johann Strauss' The Blue Danube played by Lhevinne: "...in an unbelievably difficult transcription....brio, virtuosity, circus music. A live performance; fantastic success for Lhevinne." [I am not aware of a live recording of Lhevinne playing this treacherously difficult piece. If you have read one of my other web pages, you would know I totally agree with Richter that this is a fantastic success.]

3) Concert in Oslo - works by Ravel and Schoenberg sung by Jessye Norman: "Entrance of the black queen in a stunning dress. The audience was spellbound. Her singing scales the highest peaks of vocal artistry: her pianissimo is as staggering as her fortissimo. She can do anything, and she does it all so well, including unnecessary gestures. She's beautiful, she's a symbol, she's a unique phenomenon.....As an encore, a song in E flat by Richard Strauss. Splendid. Then the Habanera from Carmen. This sends the audience into ecstasies. She sounds convincing, in spite of an impossibly slow tempo that's more suited to a funeral march...." [Yes, she has good techniques, but is scary to look at......]

4) Concert - Several trios played by the Beaux Arts Trio: "A magnificent programme! Whenever these artists perform, it's a real artistic event. Pressler is particularly close to me as a musician...." [Yes, the Beaux Arts is one damn good ensemble. Their Haydn string trio recordings blow me away.]

1) Recordings - Bach's Partitas played by Gould: "Glenn Gould, 'the greatest intepreter of Bach'. Glenn Gould has found his own approach to Bach and, from this point of view, he deserves his reputation. It seems to me that his principal merit lies on the level of sonority, a sonority that is exactly what suits Bach best. But, in my own view, Bach's music demands more depth and austerity, whereas with Gould everything is just a little too brilliant and superficial. Above all, however, he doesn't play all the repeat, and that's something for which I really can't forgive him. It suggests that he doesn't actually love Bach sufficiently." [I think the digital/mechanical quality of Gould's playing makes it sound superficial. But I don't think skipping repeats necessarily suggests that Gould didn't like Bach.]

2) Recordings - Chopin's Studies Op.25 Nos.1 and 5 played by Horowitz: "What can one say against this? Yet there's nothing that one feels like saying in its favour either. A pianist! Phenomenal fingers...But what about the music?" [These are from Horowitz's "Last Recording" CD on Sony. I haven't listened to these two tracks in years. Will re-listen to them. But I am not surprised that Richter didn't find Horowitz interesting musically. They have such different approaches to Chopin.]

Two piano DVD recommendations (November 28, 02)

DVD video isn't considered a new format any more. It's rapidly replacing VHS, and even DVD burners are getting common, but there still aren't that many classical music titles available, especially in the U.S. However, based on the current trend, the future seems bright for opera fans, e.g. there are already two complete sets of Wagner's "Ring", and many operas by Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, etc. are continuously being added to the catalog. Unfortunately, the piano department pales in comparison, but so far I have seen two titles that are worth recommending:

1) "The Art of Piano - Great Pianists of the 20th Century". This was shown on the PBS back in 2000, and so if you taped it you saved yourself $25. It runs for 108 minutes and has many rare performance clips. All these clips are enjoyable, but several of them are particularly amazing. I had never thought I would see a Liszt pupil (Francis Plante) play Chopin's Op.10 No.7, when he was 89 years old in 1928. He was so old and this is also a very demanding etude, and so he played extremely slowly, and yet he LOOKED very energetic while playing, swaying back and forth as if he were one-fifth as old. Other amazing clips include young Glenn Gould playing (while humming LOUD) the 2nd Partita, Richter playing the third mvt of Tchaikovsky's 1st Cto (amazing because this clip from 1958 has colors), Richter playing Chopin's Revolutionary Etude (such hair-raising technique!), and Backhaus at home playing excerpts from Beethoven's 4th cto (very moving). On the other hand, most of the commentators look stupid, particularly Evgeny Kissin, Daniel Barenboim, and Tamas Vasary, and perhaps Piotr Anderszewski also. I think they should have been told well in advance what questions they would be asked to answer. At one point, Kissins uttered "Nevertheless...." and then there was a 9-second pause, "....it's not virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity." Gyorgy Sandor seems to be the only interviewee who really makes sense. But on the whole this video is well-done, and I would say it's much better than the "Golden Age of the Piano" video made a few years earlier by David Dubal. The "Golden Age" actually isn't that bad, but it has fewer clips and Dubal talks way too much, about things most pianophiles either already know or don't care about. And Dubal looks (and talks) like a freak.

2) "Great Pianists on the Bell Telephone Hour (1959-1967)". This is a more recent production, released only a few months ago. The running time is 129 min. It is all performance clips (of complete movements), no interviews. These were originally made for the Bell Telephone Hour TV series, and the quality of the pictures is not that great. But the images are good enough to let you see the pianists' fingers, and it's indeed fun to watch pianists you have heard on records many times but have never seen. The pianists featured are Arrau, Bolet, Browning, Casadesus and family, Cliburn, Entremont, a kid named Lorin Hollander (never heard of him), Iturbi, Janis, and Johannesen. I especially enjoyed seeing Byron Janis play the third movement of the Rach 3, which confirmed that the amazing technique that he displayed in his legendary RCA and Mercury recordings isn't just due to editing. Casadesus was in his late 60s but still in a very good shape. Cliburn was as expressive as ever, but he also sounds shaky, just like his audio recordings. And watching the very special way Arrau hit the keys is, as in all the other videos I have seen, an educational experience. I can't describe every one of them, but take my word for it, they are all good stuff.

Some super bargain box sets from Universal Classics (November 27, 02)

I am not going to write lots of comments this time. I just wanted to make sure that you are aware of these super deals from Decca, DG, and Philips. They keep releasing these really tempting box sets, and if you have just started to build a collection, you are in luck.


**Bellini: Norma, I puritani, La sonnambula, Beatrice di Tenda
05/14/2002 London/Decca DC10 467789

**Stravinsky: Ballets, Stage Works, Orchestral Works /Ansermet
05/14/2002 London/Decca 467818

**Liszt: Piano Works / Jorge Bolet
10/09/2001 London/Decca 2LH 467801

**Chopin: The Piano Works / Vladimir Ashkenazy
06/03/1997 London/Decca 2LC13 443738

**Haydn: The Piano Sonatas / John McCabe
06/24/1997 London/Decca 2LH12 443785

**Mahler: The Symphonies / Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
02/01/1992 London/Decca 2LC10

Deutsche Grammophon:

**Wilhelm Furtwangler - Recordings 1942-44 Vol 1
10/08/2002 DG Deutsche Grammophon 471289

**Wilhelm Furtwangler - Recordings 1942-1944 Vol 2
10/08/2002 DG Deutsche Grammophon 471294

**Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen / Levine, Metropolitan Opera
10/08/2002 DG Deutsche Grammophon 471678 (But I remind you that the DVD-video version costs just a litle more, so you might want to get that one instead)

**Mahler - The Complete Recordings / Sinopoli, Philharmonia
05/14/2002 DG Deutsche Grammophon 471451

**Dvorak: String Quartets / Prague String Quartet
10/10/2000 DG Deutsche Grammophon 463165


**Chopin: Piano Works / Claudio Arrau
10/09/2001 Philips 2PH 468391

**Beethoven: Sonatas for Piano and Violin / Oistrakh, Oborin
10/09/2001 Philips 2PB4 468406

**Haydn: The Piano Trios / Beaux Arts Trio
09/16/1997 Philips 2PH9 454098

Comparing four versions of Alkan's Le festin d'Esope (September 3, 02)

The other day I listened to four recordings of Etude Op.39 No.12, Le festin d'Esope by French composer Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888). This extremely difficult piece consists of 25 variations, each depicting a different animal. The four pianists compared are Marc-Andre Hamelin, Raymond Lewenthal, Michael Ponti, and Ronald Smith. All four of them were/are known for their penchant for unfamiliar works.

Perhaps the best known of the four is Hamelin's Hyperion recording (8 min 35 sec, rec. 1994). He has been an avid promoter of Alkan's music, and without him far fewer people would be aware of the French composer. Hamelin believes that all of Alkan's metronomic instructions must be followed, and he is one of the few pianists who have the capability to do that. In terms of technique, he is obviously the best among the four pianists. For him, this treacherously difficult work is a piece of cake. For example, in the two back-to-back variations with super fast single notes in the right hand and tricky jumps in the left hand, he is the only one who doesn't slow down and doesn't mess up even a single note. However, musically he is too calm for my liking. He sounds too clean and misses a lot of the humor in the music.

The English pianist Ronald Smith is also known for his Alkan. His version on EMI (8 min 55 sec, rec. 1977), which is probably out of print, is worth exploring. He plays with many different moods, and you can hear one surprise after another. He makes each variation sound unique, which is very appropriate because each variation represents a different animal. Among these four pianists, Smith obviously has the most fun and does the best job capturing the humor. However, it's also obvious that he experiences quite a bit of technical problems, and I think that's why he plays some of the variations considerably slower than Hamelin or Lewenthal. But his creative ideas more than make up for the technical deficiency.

Now it's Ponti's turn. This guy plays everything, and it's not surprising that he has recorded some Alkan. His version on VoxBox (8 min 48 sec, rec. 1970) is part of a 2-CD set with dozens of etudes by Hummel, Moscheles, Tausig, Henselt, Alkan and Rubinstein. Of the four recordings, I like Ponti's the least. It is the least thoughtful, poorly organized, and technically the sloppiest. He plays like a madman, and I mean the David Helfgott kind of madman! But I like the repeated notes he added to the variation that starts at 00:28. Ponti actually has a first-rate mechanism, and can be very musical when he wants to. The problem is that he tries to play too many pieces and thus never has the time to work on any of them in depth. Also, like most other Vox recordings, this one was minimally edited, or even not edited at all.

I have saved the best version for the last. Lewenthal was one of the earliest proponents of Alkan's piano music, and the legendary recordings he made for RCA were unavailable for many years, but some of them were finally re-issued on a "High Performance" disc. The Le festin d'Esope (8 min 38 sec, rec. 1965) on that disc is one of the most listened to tracks in my collection. Though not as impeccable as Hamelin's superhuman technique, Lewenthal's technique is nevertheless up to the task, and is far more adequate than Ponti's or Smith's. Lewenthal's rendition is nearly as playful as Smith's, but is much tidier and better thought out. I particularly like the LOUD descending chords in the variation that begins at 4:51, and the EVEN LOUDER heavy chords in the variation that immediately follows (5:02 onward). I tell you, I must have listened to these two variations at least 5000 times! He slows down in the variations with super fast single notes in the right hand (4:11 onward), probably because he can't maintain the tempo, but the slowdown actually makes a lot of musical sense. Without the temporary slowdown, most of the piece would have the same tempo and would sound monotonous. If you don't already have this CD, please get yourself a copy. The Quasi-Faust and Hexameron (by Liszt et al.) on the same disc are as impressive as the Le festin d'Esope.

The ten recordings I listen to most often (June 9, 02)

In roughly descending order:

1) Ella Fitzgerald sings "This Can't Be Love" (“Ella Fitzgerald & Billie Holiday at Newport”, Verve 559 809)
2) Ella Fitzgerald sings "Too Close For Comfort" (“Ella Fitzgerald & Billie Holiday at Newport”, Verve 559 809)
3) Raymond Lewenthal plays Alkan's "Le Festin D'Esope" (RCA High Performance HP 63310)
4) Count Basie plays “Swingin' At Newport” (“Count Basie at Newport”, Verve 833 776)
5) Ella Fitzgerald sings "Mack the Knife" ("The Complete Ella In Berlin: Mack The Knife", Verve 519 564)
6) Gil Shaham plays Sarasate’s "Carmen Fantasy" (Deutsche Grammophon 457-583)
7) Louis Jordan's “Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens“ ("The Best Of Louis Jordan", MCA Records 4079)
8) Bill Haley sings "(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" (“Bill Haley and his comets – From the original master tapes”, MCAD-5539)
9) Jorge Bolet plays Wagner/Liszt's "Tannhauser Overture" ("Great Pianists of the 20th Century - Jorge Bolet", Philips 2PM2 456-724)
10) Alanis Morissette sings "All I Really Want” ("Jagged Little Pill", Maverick 45901)

Ohlsson/BSO/Jun Märkl played the Rach 4 on Jan 24, 2002 (January 25, 02)

The concert was quite good. Ohlsson is a big man, and he made the piano look like a toy piano. I don't want to comment much on his playing, because I am very unfamiliar with the concerto. But I will say that he played in an incredibly effortless manner. His body, arms and hands barely moved, even when he was playing big dense chords. Nevertheless, he was able to generate a big sound. This performance confirmed that when Zimerman played the Rach 2 in the last season, he was indeed too soft, because last night I could hear Ohlsson's playing much more clearly, even though the orchestra played pretty loud. Ironically, due to Zimerman's much more exaggerated gestures, he LOOKED as though he had played louder than Ohlsson.

I had never seen the conductor's name before. It was his Boston Sym Orch debut last night. According to the program notes, he is rather well-known in Europe as an opera conductor. Besides the Rach 4, he conducted Fauré's Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande and Mendelssohn's Symphony No.3. He tended to play in a dramatic style. He paid attention to fine details, and liked to emphasize parts that are often ignored. His energetic interpretation was clearly very welcomed by the audience. I enjoyed his interpretation too, but in my opinion, he could have done a better job in soft passages, which he often overplayed.

I chatted with Ohlsson at the backstage, and got his autographs on two CD covers and the program, all of which can be found here. I started the conversation by saying "Thanks for the awesome performance!" I told him that I had been searching for his Rach 3 on Nuova Era for three years, and still couldn't find it, because it was out of print. So I asked him whether he had extra copies of the disc that he could sell to me. He said he had never had a copy of that CD himself! It turned out that that particular recording was an "illegal" (the word he used) recording made at a competition (he mentioned the name of that competition but I have forgotten what it was). He was only 18 and it was only the second time he had played with an orchestra. I asked him whether he had played the Rach 3 recently, and he said he had played it in New York just a few weeks ago, to replace Pletnev.

Music-related plans for 2002 (December 16, 01)

Another new year is approaching, and it's time to sit down and plan what to do next year.

First, I am very happy that my CD acquisition rate has been going down. I got 1,456 CDs in 1999, 1,030 in 2000, and 925 so far in 2001. There are only 15 days left in 2001, and so it is unlikely that I will have acquired more than 1,000 CDs by the end of the year. This healthy trend will certainly continue next year, and I will do whatever I can to keep the number of CDs purchased next year below 600.

I will also continue to buy more jazz CDs. My jazz CD wishlist contains about 100 CDs, and most of them appear to be rather hard to find. As usual, used stores will be my primary source of these CDs, although I will get some of them from SamGoody as well, since I get SamGoody gift cards every once in a while. Titles I am especially anxious to get include "Atomic Basie", Nat King Cole's "Jumpin at Capitol", "Big Band Cole" and Complete Capitol Recordings, several albums by Slim Gaillard, Oscar Peterson/Count Basie's "Satch And Josh", Bessie Smith's Complete Columbia Recordings, and Dinah Washington's Complete Mercury Recordings.

Of even more importance, however, are the remaining versions of the Rach 3. I am pretty confident that I will find at least 5 more versions next year, bringing the total number of versions that I own to 100 or more. I will try to ask someone to get the Horowitz/Mehta DVD, released only in Asia, for me. According to a friend (who may or may not be right), Pletnev's DG version will be released soon, and it will certainly be easy to find. Gilels/Kondrashin's version, to be released on Doremi, probably won't be too hard to obtain either. I believe this is the first time this recording is released outside Russia. I probably will also bite the bullet and get the ultra-expensive "Bernstein Live" set (for Berman's version), and three versions available only at hmv.co.jp.

I will also need to get more complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas. Thank God that Annie Fischer's set Hungaroton is finally re-issued as a single box, which I will definitely get.

Unfortunately I probably won't be able to attend any Boston Symphony concerts from February onward, due to schedule conflicts (mostly social events that take place at the same time as the concerts). However, there are very few interesting concerts in the remaining months of the current season anyway.

Finally, I will try to sell most CDs I have duplicated. This will help keep my CD count low.

Should "Krossover Krap" be banned? (September 3, 01)

I recently read a speech by Sony Classical's Peter Gelb, where he defends the production of "Krossover Krap" CDs. Most people who take classical music seriously hate Krossover Krap (KK). Here are some of my thoughts about this topic.

KK is euphemized as "music that appeals to the public" by Gelb, and in recent years Sony Classical has released quite a few KK albums. These albums have been scorned at and critcized by all classical music critics. However, if Sony didn't sell any KK and just keep selling traditional classical titles the way they have been doing for decades, how can they make any money? Nowadays, most classical CDs don't sell well--an album is considered quite successful if a few thousand copies are sold worldwide. If they don't change the way they do business, they will go bankrupt. They can change in several ways. The first option is, they can stop hiring expensive musicians and engineers, and hire those who cost much less instead, which is something Naxos has been doing from the very beginning. I don't know whether you'd like that or not, but I certainly don't, because what has made Sony different from most other labels is their roster of stellar artists: Horowitz, Bernstein, Gould, Stern, etc. A second option is, give up classical entirely, and switch to purely KK or even pop. But that would certainly be a big loss for all classical music fans! The third option, which Sony has chosen, is what I consider to be the most reasonable thing to do: make some KK CDs that sell well, and then spend some of the profit on making traditional classical CDs, recorded by big-name artists. This way they won't go bankrupt, can keep supplying us with high-quality classical CDs (though it might be a relatively small portion of their products), and produce music that is crap to us but is liked by many others. And KK can also be educational too. Most people don't appreciate classical music, and in order to "convert" them, the most effective way is to do it step by step, and KK will make a good first step. After an initial exposure to KK, the next step may be some tuneful waltzes by Strauss or something exciting like Mussorgsky's "Night on the Bare Mountain", and then some Mozart symphonies, etc. etc. So, in the long run, KK may actualy help to revive classical music.

In summary, as far as I am concerned, I don't have problem with the recent rise in the production of KK CDs, as long as these labels continue to make good classical CDs. I would rather see these KK CDs on the market than to see all these companies go out of business.

BSO/James Levine played Mahler 3 on February 1, 2001 (February 16, 01)

I had not seen such a long rush ticket line at the Symphony Hall since Anne-Sophie Mutter's concert in February 1999. Fortunately, I lined up very early so that I was able to get a ticket. Such a long line should not have been a surprise at all, since Maestro James Levine is a very popular figure in Boston. In fact, everyone is praying that he will succeed Seiji Ozawa as the orchestra's music director.

Mahler's 3rd symphony, lasting approximately one hour and a half, is the longest symphony in the standard repertoire. The monstrous first movement alone lasts as long as the entire Beethoven 5th symphony, and therefore the intermission was placed between the first and second movements. This was probably the best performance of the first movement I had ever heard (although I have to confess I have never compared different versions of this movement on CDs carefully). He had the whole orchestra under control. Not a single phrase was played arbitrarily. Although interpretatively the performance was quite straightforward, it encompassed a wide emotional range. Levine was infinitely better than Eschanbach in organizing the work (scroll down to see a review of Eschanbach’s Mahler 5 concert), even though the 3rd symphony is musically trickier than the 5th, at least to my ears. Under Levine’s baton, transition between segments always made sense, and not a single note was out of place. The orchestra also played with a better technique than when they played the 5th symphony under Eschanbach, including even the brass section. The women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and American Boy Choir, and mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson were also in top form in the fourth and fifth movements. It was interesting to see that when the fourth movement was over, the conductor gave the choirs a cue, and they literally jumped up, in perfect synchrony, and started singing “Bim bamm, Bim bamm” within a few milliseconds. And as soon as that movement was over, both choirs sat down very quickly and the final movement began immediately. In the final movement, Levine displayed his impressive skill in plotting the gradual development of emotional details and his strong sense of architecture.

Everyone else in the audience was as impressed by the performance as I was, and the standing ovation was probably the longest I had ever witnessed. Contrast this with the Eschenbach concert, where the applause lasted one or two minutes at most! I brought five CD booklets and the program to the backstage to try to get Levine’s autographs, but unfortunately a guard walked out and told us that the conductor was very tired and would not meet anyone. However, the mezzo soprano did meet us, and I got her autograph on the program. Being totally ignorant about her and her recordings, I did not chat with her much, besides telling her that I liked her wonderful performance and asking her whether she had recorded any Mahler symphonies (and she said "No").

If James Levine indeed becomes the BSO’s next music director, I will of course have plenty of opportunities to get his autographs in the future!

Kristian Zimerman performed the Rach 2 with the BSO on November 30 (December 4, 00)

This concert was funny. When the program was first announced at the Boston Symphony web site back in July, it was Rachmaninoff's 3rd concerto, and being a fan of the Rach 3 I was of course ecstatic. About two months later, I checked the web site again and it had been changed to the Rach 2! I was disappointed, and suspected that Zimerman couldn't handle the far more difficult Rach 3 and was chickening off. Then, a few weeks before the concert, when I looked at the web site again, it was changed back to the Rach 3! So what was going on?

As a result, it was uncertain exactly which concerto he would play, until I got a rush ticket and a copy of the program a few hours before the concert started. And it turned out to be the 2nd concerto. I was tempted to think perhaps Zimerman actually had always known he would play the Rach 2, but he purposely advertised with the better-selling Rach 3 to sell more tickets (Indeed, all three shows were sold out). Of course I hope this was not case.

The concert began with John Corigliano's Second Symphony, which was commissioned by the BSO and that performance was the world premiere of this composition. It was an interesting and at times very exciting work, and apparantly very difficult to play too. For instance, I think there was a part where different sections of the orchestra were playing in different time signatures, but no one made any mistakes. I heard that they will record this work next week.

When Zimerman walked onto the stage, I could not believe how white his hair had become. He is only 44! My seat was on the balcony behind the pianist's back, and so I could see his fingers clearly. I was unable to see his face, but that's okay because he was not a hot female. I seriously learned this work several years back and I am therefore very familiar with it. There are quite a few very difficult spots, where pianists usually slow down or screw up, or both. But they were child's play for Zimerman. He played them very fast, and yet he did not have to struggle, and in fact his fingers appeared to be very relaxed. He used pretty fast tempos for all three movements, which was quite a surprise because he tends to prefer slow tempos (e.g. his recent Chopin concertos on DG take up two discs). He used a composed style, and he never sounded forced, maintaining a gentle tone throughout the work. That's great for the lyrical romantic passages, but when the orchestra played loud (e.g. the climax in the middle of the 1st movement, where the pianists played dense chords), I couldn't hear him at all. This is actually not unusual in concerto concerts, but the problem with Zimerman was, even when the orchestra was not playing very loud (say, just mf), most of the time he was still only barely audible. He certainly had something fresh to say in this overplayed work, because I could hear new things (e.g. different pedaling, bringing out staccato in the left hand, tempo changes, etc.) here and there WHEN I COULD HEAR HIM. But because it was so hard to hear him, I am sure he did many things which escaped my ears. This was the first time I had seen the Rach 2 live, although I have many versions of this work on CD. On CDs, I have never heard anyone being swamped by the orchestra as much as Zimerman was at the concert. This makes me wonder whether Zimerman was really softer than everyone else, or the loud piano sound on CDs is simply due to a closely placed microphone? Zimerman will record this work for DG soon, and it will be interesting to see whether he will sound louder in the recording. Incidentally, the orchestra played superbly. I think the BSO is still a good orchestra, despite what the critics have been saying.

I went to meet him after the concert. Instead of meeting us in the green room, he walked out into the lobby and met us there, something rather unusual at the Symphony Hall. He was only around 5 feet 7, and he had changed his shoes to sneakers. The line was not terribly long, but he was very nice and had long conversations with some of the people in front of me, and so it was a long wait. Being a considerate person, when it was my turn to chat with him, I kept the conversation brief so that people behind me would not have to wait for too long:

Me: Thank you very much for the performance.... [I actually had planned to say "wonderful performance", but my reservation about his low volume subconsciously caused me to drop the word "wonderful", and so I appended it to that sentence immediately]...it was really wonderful! [I gave him 5 CD booklets and the program to sign, which can be seen here. He used his own marker.] May I ask you why it was changed from the 3rd concerto to the 2nd?

Zimerman: Oh, it's because the recording project was canceled. I was going to record all five concertos, but now only the first two will be done. Actually, I already recorded No.1 in 1997, and will record No.2 soon. [This is obviously not a very satisfactory answer, because even though the project was canceled, he can still play it in concert. But I didn't ask him any more about this, because I thought it would be too rude for me to do so.]

Me: I love the Rach 3....

Zimerman: I love it too!

Me: ....and so I was really disappointed when the program was changed. I have 78 [should have been 79, but that's not critical] versions of the Rach 3.

Zimerman: Wow! I love to collect too, and I have 91 versions of the Rach 2, but only around 50 Rach 3's.

Me: Ha, I beat you! [He laughed.] So you have many CDs?

Zimerman: Yes, a lot of CDs, and my students make MP3s for me and so I have many recordings in MP3s too. It's really convenient to put so many recordings on one computer.

Me: Yes, sometimes I make MP3s for friends too.

Zimerman: And MP4 is coming soon. It will have greater compression AND better sound quality.

Me: So which version of the Rach 3 do you like the most?

Zimerman: Oh, it's really hard to say. Every pianist does something nice. I may like one pianist from this bar to that bar, and another pianist in other places. But in terms of the overall performance, I would say, Cliburn....and Mogilevsky's live performance. He made a studio recording, but I am talking about his LIVE recording. [I had never heard of a live recording by Mogilevsky and so I should have asked him for more information, but I did not. I was so stupid!]

Me: I see. What about Horowitz with Ormandy?

Zimerman: Yes, that's a good one too. It's very special, just like Horowitz himself.

Me: I like that one the most. And now I am looking forward to YOUR Rach 3. I hope you will record it eventually.

Zimerman: I will try, but it will be difficult. [What does that mean? Does it mean he had a hard time learning it?]

Me: Please, at least play it in Boston....[I was going to say more, but Seiji Ozawa walked by and made a joke]

Ozawa: Kristian, you are still here? I am leaving now, see you tomorrow. We are changing the program for tomorrow. We will play...Chopin.

Zimerman: Yeah, No.3! [I thought that was a good place to stop, so I said "It's nice meeting you" and then left.]

When I was waiting in line, I overheard the guy behind me saying Zimerman had recorded the Chopin ballades twice, and when the second recording was released, Zimerman paid Deutsche Grammophon money to make them stop selling the first one, because he was happier with the second one. Such a perfectionist.

Christoph Eschenbach conducts Mahler 5 and plays/conducts Mozart 23 (November 5, 00)

Mozart's 23rd piano concerto is one of my favorite concertos, and Mahler's 5th symphony is one of my favorite symphonies, and so last Thursday's concert where Christoph Eschenbach and the Boston Symphony played both works was a must-see. Eschenbach had been the music director of the Houston Symphony for over ten years. Though my hometown is Houston, I had never seen him until this BSO concert. Eschenbach started out as a pianist and he made a number of piano recordings, and he is even featured in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century series on Philips. However, besides a few recordings in which he plays as an accompanist, this concert was the first time I had really heard him play.

There were certainly nice moments in both works, but on the whole it was a not-so-good concert. The Mozart concerto was played first (of course!). Eschenbach conducted from the keyboard, and his gestures were beautiful. The orchestra, particularly the violinists, played with grace and elegance. Unfortunately, Eschenbach's playing was less satisfactory. In the outer movements, his scales were dreadfully uneven and stiff. In addition, he haphazardly added staccato and pauses here and there, and his phrasing was often random. But I don't like these two movements very much anyway. It is the slow movement which I love, and Eschenbach's playing in this movement was the absolute best I had ever heard! He used a very slow tempo, probably the slowest I had heard. He played with a songful tone, and he magically varied the volume to fully bring out the melancholy in the theme. When he played pianissimo, time stood still, and I said to myself, "If I ever play this concerto in a public concert, I will play it like that!"

The powerful Mahler 5th symphony was played in the second half of the concert. Eschenbach had recorded Mahler's 1st symphony for the Koch label, and so I thought he was probably pretty good at Mahler and would do a decent job in the Mahler 5. But it turned out to be a disappointing performance. I wouldn't say it was horrible, but it certainly left much to be desired. Part of the problem had to do with the orchestra. In particular, the principal trumpetist and French hornist made embarrassingly many mistakes. The brass section is invariably the least accurate section in live concerts, but it was really bad that night. Eschenbach himself was responsible for the poor performance too. In the Mozart, his conducting was quite good. But in the Mahler, he seemed to be not very capable of handling the complexity of the music. He seemed to be lost quite often. When only a few parts were playing, he had no problem at all. In fact, in many places where only the string players were playing, he could skillfully control the dynamics of their playing, and long melodic lines were shaped nicely. But when the music got complicated, especially in the third movement, he just didn't know what to do and the orchestra played aimlessly, even though he believed he was familiar with the work (he conducted without the score). One could even see that in his conducting: When the music was simple, his gestures were full of special signs, giving specific instructions to the musicians. But he would beat like a metronome when many parts played together.

I had seen Daniele Gatti and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra play the Mahler 5 before, in October 1997 in Austin TX, and their intense and tight performance was much better than what I heard last Thursday. The BSO will play Mahler again in about three months, this time with James Levine conducting the 3rd symphony. I certainly will attend the concert, and hopefully they will play better this time! I met Eschenbach at the backstage after the concert. Only a handful of people were in line, which could be an indication that others weren't very impressed by the performance either. I complimented him on the slow movement of the Mozart, and got three autographs, two of which are shown here. He appeared to be a very taciturn person.

Toscanini's last concert (August 3, 00)

I have something to share with you. The following essay is from the booklet accompanying an Arcadia CD of a stereo recording of Toscanini's last concert appearance:

"Toscanini's concert at Carnegie Hall on the 4th of April 1954 was one of the most dramatic and moving events in a world certainly not lacking in "coups de theatre" (one only needs to think back to his unexpected and astonishing debut in South America when, at a moment's notice, he had to conduct a performance of Aida due to the sudden indisposition of the designated conductor). On the 4th of April the man gifted with one of the most incredible memories in the history of music (he was the first to conduct without a score) made the bitter discovery of his own fallibility and senescence, concluding in this way his long career. The chronicle of this concert has been told many times over by the Maestro's biographers, basing their accounts on B.H. Hagging's [sic] notes, the American critic who had been present at the rehearsals as well as at his last performance. The programme was dedicated to Wagner's music (as for his final concert at the Scala) and at the eve of the concert the Maestro had already complained of lapses in his memory in relation to the Prelude and Isotta's Death in "Tristan". These were, therefore, substituted by the Overture and the Bacchanale from "Tannhauser", pieces which Toscanini claimed to remember better. However, it was during the Bacchanale piece that the conductor began to show signs of uncertainty until eventually he dropped his baton and so stopped the music. The Maestro covered his eyes with his right hand, causing panic in the recording studio since the concert was being broadcast live. Guido Cantelli (Toscanini's protege) put a record of Brahms's First on while Ben Grauer, the presenter, announced that the interruption was due to a technical fault. Having recovered, Toscanini managed to continue right through to the end of the concert - finishing on the triumphant notes of the "Maestri Cantori". On that sad Sunday in April Toscanini experienced the bitterness of the end of a magnificent career."

So why didn't he just use the score? Because he thought people would laugh at him? No, it's because he had extremely poor vision and couldn't see anything.

Unfortunately, that mishap has been edited out in this recording. I believe this is Toscanini's only stereo recording.

(****As pointed out by a visitor of this page, the above story is almost certainly not 100% accurate--In reality, the music did not stop. Please refer to Harvey Sachs' Toscanini biography and B.H. Haggin's "Conversations with Toscanini" for a more accurate account.)

Random violin-related comments (August 2, 00)

I just thought I should scribble something on this page.

My four favorite violinists: Fritz Kreisler, Nathan Milstein, Zino Francescatti, and Anne-Sophie Mutter. No one plays miniature pieces as well as Kreisler, and the 11-CD Complete RCA recordings set is indispensable. But Milstein beats Kreisler in concertos, and the 6-CD Milstein set on EMI is also indispensable. Francescatti's Beethoven sonatas with Robert Casadesus is the best version of these works I have heard. I have numbers 4 through 10 on Sony and am looking for the first three sonatas (did he record them?). Mutter is at her best in such passionate pieces as Ravel's Tzigane and Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy, but sometimes she can mess up large-scale works. Other violinists I like include Leila Josefowicz, Leonid Kogan, Jascha Heifetz, Alfredo Campoli, etc.

I have noticed a serious gap in Universal's (i.e. Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, and Philips) discography: They have very few recordings of short pieces for either solo violin or violin/piano. They have plenty of recordings of the standard concertos, sonatas and works for violin and orchestra, but for solo violin and violin/piano works, there are two discs of Grumiaux on Philips, "Presenting Joshua Bell" on Decca, Bell's Kreisler CD on Decca, Josefowicz "Solo" and "For the End of Time" CDs on Philips, several versions of Paganini's 24 Caprices and Bach's Sonatas and Partitas, and perhaps only two or three others. Not a single recording of Bazzini's "Dance of the Goblins"! I think this is a problem Universal really should rememdy. For instance, they should get Gil Shaham or Leila Josefowicz to record Ernst's "Last Rose of Summer", a bunch of short pieces by Sarasate, Waxman's Carmen Fantasy for violin and piano (I don't like the orchestral version), etc.

A conflict with Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer's review? (March 25, 00)

My friend compared my Grimaud review (below) with the one by the Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer about the same concert, and emailed me saying "Sorry, here is the review from Boston Globe. Either Dyer's review is stupid or yours childishly unprofessional. I intend to agree with Dyer, but he is too nasty". I will cut-and-paste Dyer's review below and then cut-and-paste what I emailed back to my friend.

Mr. Dyer wrote:

"The French pianist Helene Grimaud was not a happy choice for soloist in Mozart's D minor Concerto, K. 466, although with Zinman she has made widely praised recordings of concertos by other composers. In her previous BSO gig, she delivered an athletic but unamusing performance of Ravel's G major Concerto. This time was worse. Pictured in a program ad with a wolfish-looking animal and praised as ''a heroic pianist,'' Grimaud sounded neither wild nor heroic; instead she was dainty, feeble, scared-and-scrambled sounding, and entirely without pianistic or emotional projection - in this of all pieces. When you could hear her at all, she reduced this powerful work to the level of an exercise from Czerny's ''School of Velocity'' or ''Art of Finger Dexterity.'' Earlier this season, Gianluca Cascioli at the BSO and Jonathan Biss at the Gardner Museum revealed themselves as natural Mozart pianists. Grimaud clearly has no feeling for Mozart, and last night hardly sounded like a professional pianist at all. Zinman knows better - he conducted concertos with the greatest of Mozart pianists, the late Annie Fischer; he and the BSO constantly reminded us how much more there is in this music."

Here is the email I wrote to my friend "Farmer":

Farmer, thank you for the article from the Boston Globe. At first sight Dyer's view may seem to be exactly opposite from mine. But upon closer look, both he and I actually heard almost the exact same thing (See below).

> wolfish-looking animal and praised as ''a heroic pianist,'' Grimaud sounded
> neither wild nor heroic; instead she was dainty, feeble,

This refers to her soft playing. Both Dyer and I noticed the softness, but it's too "feeble" for his taste, while I think it's wonderful. Different people have different tastes.

> scared-and-scrambled sounding,

Remember that I (and you too, Farmer) commented that her playing could be too rushed at times. Again, Dyer is referring to the same thing here. For me, it was a "minor imperfection". For him, it's a big sin.

> and entirely without pianistic or emotional
> projection - in this of all pieces.

This time I can't agree with him. I could hear a lot of emotional projection in her playing, especially in the main theme in the first mvt, i.e. "la LA la La---lala" (I am sure you know what I am referring to).

> When you could hear her at all,

Remember that in my review, I pointed out that Zinman was often too loud, covering up Helene? I blamed Zinman for being not considerate enough, while Dyer blamed Helene for being too weak. I think both of us are being too subjective here. Instead of blaming one or the other, we should have said something like "The conductor and the soloist needed more communication".

> she
> reduced this powerful work to the level of an exercise from Czerny's
> ''School of Velocity'' or ''Art of Finger Dexterity.''

Once again, Dyer was expecting more power from the performance, and as I have said many times, Helene focused on the meekness of the piece instead. It's a matter of taste.

> Earlier this season,
> Gianluca Cascioli at the BSO and Jonathan Biss at the Gardner Museum
> revealed themselves as natural Mozart pianists. Grimaud clearly has no
> feeling for Mozart, and last night hardly sounded like a professional
> pianist at all. Zinman knows better - he conducted concertos with the
> greatest of Mozart pianists, the late Annie Fischer;

Another thing I can't agree with Dyer. I have Annie Fisher's Mozart concertos and they are HORRIBLE! And this guy Dyer calls her "The greatest of Mozart pianists", can you believe it?? Did he forget Pires, Uchida, Lili Kraus, Badura-Skoda, Landowska, and a couple dozens others??

But nevertheless, both he and I wrote pretty much the same things in our reviews, except the part about emotional projection. So, obviously, neither of us is "stupid" or "unprofessional". It's only our tastes that differ. Also, it appears to me that Mr. Dyer is rather conservative. As I pointed out in my review, Helene's rendition was highly individual. Not everyone can readily accept such a different view of a familiar piece.

Hélène Grimaud played Mozart's No.20 with the BSO under Zinman (March 23, 00)

So, I finally stepped my feet into the BSO concert hall. Of course I had been inside the building before, but this was the first time I went into the concert hall. Rush tickets were on sale outside the building three hours before the 8pm concert, and the line was not very long, and so I managed to get a ticket, for merely $8! I had been looking forward to this concert for over a year, because I am hopelessly infatuated with Ms. Grimaud!

The rush ticket I got was for a seat in the very last row, and without the help of a telescope, there was no way I could see anyone on the stage. The work she played was Mozart's 20th Concerto, which was the second work in the concert. Thank God, I spotted a number of empty seats in some of the front rows, and when the first work was over, I moved to one of those empty seats. The only reason I came was to see my beloved pianist, and I had to make sure I could get a clear view of her!

So she walked onto the stage. That was the first time I had seen the real person, and to my delight, she looked even better than she does in her best CD photos! I don't think I had seen a performer sway as much as she did during the performance. Her swaying was especially exaggerated during the tutti passages. And in many instances, when she had just finished a relatively exciting passage and wouldn't have to play again for a while, in conjunction with removing her hands from the keyboard, she would sway her whole body backward (away from the keyboard, that is) while raising her left leg almost one foot high, by straightening the leg. She also often stared at the ceiling while playing. When other performers do such things, I would find them disgusting, but somehow I actually enjoyed watching Hélène do it, probably because her motions and gestures were so stylish. Despite all these big motions, her face remained more or less expressionless throughout the performance, unlike some other pianists' making ugly grimaces. Once in a while, she would turn her head slightly toward the audience, and that's when I could see one of her mesmerizing eyes! To be honest, I watched the whole performance with drool!

Okay, this page is supposed to be about music thoughts and so I'd better talk about how she played. Her rendition was simply the best I had ever heard, better than all of the versions I have on CDs. Her playing was exceptionally exquisite. She also played with a great deal of individuality. She was very expressive, but was never affected. She was expressive in an elegant, natural way. Her tone was transparent and pure, and she was very good at creating a wide variety of tones, something that is clearly not found in, say, Uchida's Mozart. But I think Hélène's greatest gift was when she played soft. In particular, I was marveled by the way she subdued the volume in the middle of the cadenza in the first movement. Also, in the stormy middle section in the second movement, she cleverly used pp at various points, adding diversity to this passage which many pianists tend to play mechanically. Today people are obsessed with virtuosity. We often hear pianists who play loud and fast, trying to be another Horowitz or Argerich. But it is very hard to find someone who can play soft as skillfully and thoughtfully as Hélène. Unfortunately, although Mr. Zinman was her long-time collaborator, very often when she held back the volume, he failed to do likewise, and consequently her wonderful soft playing ended up being drowned by the orchestra. I think there was only one minor imperfection in her playing, namely, she sometimes sounded a little rushed, especially when she started each of the two cadenzas. But this was also another thing which added to the personality in her performance.

The concerto was over. I yelled "Bravo" and applauded like crazy, and as soon as the whole congregation had stopped clapping hands, I quickly ran to the green room to meet her, during the intermission. Surprisingly few people wanted to see her, and I didn't have to wait for more than 5 minutes. I shook hands with her. I had been warned by one of her friends (not directly, but through my pen pal) that Hélène had "the strongest, most painful handshake". But what I received instead was a very gentle one. This probably indicates she liked me (just kidding, hehe!!). She was definitely the most attractive woman I had met in my whole life, even more attractive than Anne-Sophie Mutter. Her smile couldn't be more magnetizing. I also enjoyed her wonderful French accent. (She spoke a fluent English.) I complimented her performance, telling her that it was the best performance I had ever heard. "I am a big CD collector and have many versions of this concerto. You played better than all of them". I wasn't trying to make her happy; I was being 100% truthful. Then I gave her my 6 CD booklets and the program book to sign. "I have two markers, one sharper, the other thicker. Choose the one you like." You won't find better service elsewhere! (Click here to see the autographs and you will notice that she signed two of them using the finer marker and the rest using the bigger one. She liked the big one much more.) I said I hoped she would record the concerto soon, and she said she didn't have any plan for that yet. I also asked her to record more solo works. In my opinion, her concerto recordings have not been as good as her solo recordings (but of course I didn't tell her that!). "Oh, yes, I certainly will record many more solo works!" was her response. I told her that her Chopin Ballade #1 on Denon was very good, "It's as good as Michelangeli's" (Again, it wasn't flattery). And she was of course very pleased. As a result, when she signed the program, she wrote, "To Kwoon: Thank you for your kind words."

The other two works in the concert were American composer Christopher Rouse's pretty-good work "Iscariot", and Stravinsky's "Petrouchka". Mr. Zinman was too restrained in the latter. I think it should be a more bombastic work, and the orchestra should have rocked the house. From the audience's rather indifferent applause I could tell that other people were disappointed too.

Probably Ashkenazy's best recording (Jan 24, 00)

This recording is his 1963 Rach 3 on Decca, with Fistoulari conducting. I was very surprised by this performance, which is so different from almost everything else I have heard him play! His playing is more gentle than most other versions I have heard. You don't hear the banging in his later recordings at all, except in one or two isolated occasions in the third movement. He deliberately eschews virtuosity (he plays the more virtuosic, more difficult short cadenza, but even here he doesn't sound virtuosic; rather he has made it sound poetic), which may disappoint some listeners who look for fireworks in this work. But besides the Horowitz/Ormandy version, I haven't heard another version which is as moving as this one. I have complained many times about Ashkenazy's ugly tone in his later recordings, but in this performance, his tone can actually be very touching. The songful theme in the opening of the first movement is incredibly moving. It's calm, yet emotional. He deeply feels the music, but unlike Cliburn, Ashkenazy never sounds affected. There are many details throughout the concerto that he plays very differently from others. But he doesn't play differently for the sake of playing differently. He really understands the work and has his own view of the work, and he presents his view to the listener in the most convincing manner. His playing will make one listen to this familiar concerto with new ears. I consider this one of the top 10 versions of the Rach 3. Forget about the Ashkenazy/Previn, which I couldn't hate more. Get this one.

Plans for next year (Dec 18 and Jan 3, 99)

As the year is coming to a closure, it's a good time to come up with musical plans for the coming year:

1) Since I already have around 3K CDs, and so many of these I still haven't listened to, I will try hard to buy as few CDs as possible. My goal is spending no more than $2,400 (~400 CDs) on CDs for the whole year.

2) I will unwrap most of the CDs that are still in the wrapper and listen to them.

3) I definitely will get all the remaining volumes in the Complete Mozart Edition, probably during a big Polygram sale at Tower Records. Used-CD stores and auctions take way too long.

4) I will keep buying any cheap ($2.99 or less) Naxos CDs I find at used-CD stores, because one of my goals is to possess all Naxos recordings.

5) Try to get Anne-Sophie Mutter's latest Vivaldi CD from the cheapest source possible (I really hope one of the CD clubs will carry this title).

6) Get many CDs of Kristian Zimerman.

7) Meet and get autographs of Anne-Sophie Mutter in mid February and Helene Grimaud in late March. I will get Anne-Sophie to sign on the same poster she signed last time again, as well as five CD booklets. I will get Helene to sign on five CD booklets (I don't have her posters).

8) Study my violin CDs carefully, for good reasons (some of my friends will know what these reasons are).

9) I will not practice the piano at all.

10) If possible, get a new, inexpensive stereo. The one I am using now can't play 70% of my CDs.

11) Analyze several recordings for the Complete Horowitz page, starting with the Liszt/Horowitz Hungarian Rhapsody #2, followed by Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition".

12) For the "All versions of the Rach 3 on CD" project, I will keep relying on used-CD stores, auctions, big sales and other cheap sources. Let's see how many more versions I can get this way. I could try to order versions not available in the States from a European online store, but that would cost a lot and therefore I will avoid doing that. The only versions I still don't have but have seen recently either at a local store or an American online store are Ashkenazy (Decca, very easy to get), Cherkassky (Decca, as a very expensive special import at HMV), Collard (EMI, an affordable special import), Ogawa (BIS), Ousset (HMV Classics), Ponti (Dante, expensive), Postnikova (Russian Revelation), Samosko (Cypres, which is in an expensive 3-CD set recorded from a piano competition), Smith (APR), Trull (Audiophile Classics), and Zilbertstein (DG, expensive special import at HMV). Of course there are many other out-of-print versions.

13) Buy several more complete Beethoven piano sonatas sets. I am particularly interested in the Barenboim on DG which is now on 9 budget CDs (used to be on 12 FULL-PRICED CDs!), the Nat on EMI, the Backhaus on Decca, Frank on Music & Arts, and Taub on Vox, but I will get any other versions if they are cheap.

14) Get Alanis Morissette's "Unplugged" CD.

On the "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" series (Nov 14, 99)

All 100 volumes on 200 CDs of this ambitious set have finally been issued. I have both praises and complaints about the series.

First, why aren't Bachauer, Barere, Lazar Berman, Hamelin, Novaes, Petri, Pogorelich, Rosenthal and Sauer included? On the other hand, the CONDUCTOR-who-conducts-from-the-piano-once-in-a-while Andre Previn is included. What the heck???

Regarding the selections of specific recordings, I think they have made quite a few good picks. Arrau's Balakirev Islamey is finally available on CD. The Ashkenazy set has his Transcendental Etudes, which have been unavailable in the States. Cliburn's Tchai 1 and Rach 3 are put together. For Curzon, they chose Mozart concertos other than the #23 and #24, both of which are already available on a London's Classic Sound CD. The long-awaited Cziffra 24 Chopin etudes are included in their entirety. The Fleisher set avoids his Brahms concertos, which were re-issued recently on Sony, but includes the harder to find Weber and Copland sonatas. They avoided the Chopin nocturnes in the Francois (available on EMI's 2-fer), and all Bach recordings in the Gould (they are everywhere, on Sony). The Friedman set contains pretty much all of his important recordings of Chopin and Mendelssohn. The inclusion of Myra Hess is a great idea, because many people have probably forgotten this great pianist. The Janis set has selections that make a good complement to the Mercury CDs. The Rachmaninoff set contains only his great solo recordings and avoids the concertos, which are of course great recordings but are already released on RCA as a convenient mid-priced set.

However, there are equally many bad choices. I think they should have chosen more obscure recordings. For instance, Anda's Bartok Concertos are good stuff, but are easily obtainable on a DG Originals disc at mid price. Backhaus' Brahms 2 has been re-issued MANY times by London/Decca. It would be much better if they had picked his Brahms 1, which has been almost impossible to find in the States. The Bolet Vol.2 is virtually identical to a very affordable Double Decker set. The Gieseking set should have included his Rach 3 with Barbirolli, which has never been transferred to CD, and it was supposed to be a very very good performance because Rachmaninoff dropped the concerto from his repertoire after hearing it. The Hofmann set is very bad, because none of his late recordings are included. The Pollini set's having all 12 Op.10 Chopin etudes presents many people with a difficulty: Those who already have the DG disc that has both Op.10 and Op.25 can't buy the set because half an hour of music is duplicated, while those who don't have the DG disc may want to get the whole 24 etudes rather than getting only the Op.10. For Schnabel, we have enough of his Beethoven recordings (the complete sonatas can be found on at least 6 different labels!). Why not give us some of his Brahms (I am curious to hear the concertos), Mozart, and Schubert? And we really don't need two volumes of Gulda, Haskil, and Kovacevich, and three volumes of Brendel and Kempff. One for each of these would be enough.

Kemal Gekic's free recital at Longy School of Music, Cambridge (Oct 23, 99)

I just came back from the rising star Kemal Gekic's piano recital at Longy. The hall was small, providing an intimate setting. The program consisted of Liszt's Years of Pilgrimage - Second Year in the first half, and in the second half Chopin's Scherzo No.1, Berceuse, Mazurka Op.30 No.4, Waltz in E minor Op. Posthumous, and the Second Sonata. He gave three encores: Liszt's transcription of Schubert's Serenade, Liszt's Transcendental Etude No.12, and Liszt's transcription of Rossini's William Tell Overture. There were extra seats on the stage.

The first half of the recital was a disaster. He tried to use an improvisational style, but he did a bad job and the result was he made these great pieces sound extremely disorganized. Another thing I didn't like was the way he rolled the numerous broken chords in these pieces, especially those in the left hand. They were too heavy, slow, hesitant, and in general random and pointless. A third problem was, from time to time he would suddenly hold back the volume, seriously disrupting the forward flow of the music. I also found him too stiff and loud in soft passages. After he finished the last piece of the first half of the program, the Dante Sonata, many people (about 50%) in the audience gave him a standing ovation. I remained seated.

The all-Chopin second half was much better. The First Scherzo was the best. The way he brought out inner voices, most of them in the left hand, was great. I think this piece's most important part is the left hand, and I was glad he brought it out wonderfully. The Berceuse was too strong and stiff. The Mazurka was too rushed. The "student piece" Waltz in E minor was acceptable (sorry for being so vague but I can't remember how he did it). The Sonata was satisfactory. The best was the development in the first movement. His rather original treatment was surprisingly coherent. The middle section of the Funeral March movement was the only time in the whole concert where he played really soft. He placed an unexpected accent on the last note of this movement, and started the fourth movement without fully releasing the pedal. This way he made a logical transition to the final movement. He finished the fiendishly difficult last movement in 1 min 9 sec, without a scratch. This time almost everyone stood up, and I was no exception.

The Schubert/Liszt Serenade was again too loud. The 12th Transcendental was very well done. He made the depiction of snow storms vivid. The Rossini/Liszt was better than his recording on Naxos. The abandon with which he played it at the recital cannot be heard on the CD. Tons of wrong notes, but who cares? When the finale started, people recognized the famous theme and laughed. I yelled "Bravo" when the piece was over.

He looked very tall on stage, but when I met him at the reception after the recital, it turned out that he was only about my height, around 5'9. I conversed with him:

Me: Thank you for the great concert! [Shook hands with him and gave him the program and a black pen to sign] I really liked the way you connected the third and fourth movements of the sonata.

Gekic: I just did what was written on the score.

Me: Really? How come I have never heard anyone does that?

Gekic: They don't read the score carefully. There is an accent on that note. People say I play my own way, but in fact I am just following what's written.

Me: That's interesting. I will go look at the score. I also like the way you brought out the inner voices in the Scherzo No.1.

Gekic: You mean those in the middle section?

Me: No, everywhere.

Gekic: Again, all these are in the score.

Me: Hmmm, I will look at the score again then. Would you sign these CDs too? [Gave him the two CDs and he signed them. Click here to see them.]

Gekic: So are you a pianist?

Me: Well, kind of. I am an amateur.

Gekic: We are all amateurs.

Me: You are so humble!

Gekic: No, the word "amateur" came from "amore", love. We all play the piano out of love and nothing else. That's why we are all amateurs.

Me: That's true. And finally, I hope you will record the Tannhauser Overture.

Gekic: The....William Tell Overture? It's on the CD your have [He pointed to my CD].

Me: No, I really mean the Tannhauser Overture, by Wagner, not the William Tell.

Gekic: Yeah, I will. It's coming soon.

Me: Great! Thanks again for coming and hope to see you again!

Gekic: Bye!

As expected, Russell Sherman was in the audience. Not sure if he joined the standing ovation.

The relatively obscure pianist Eric Heidsisck's Beethoven complete sonatas (Aug 21 + 24, 99)

This is an 8-CD EMI France set that I recently bought. Born in 1936 in France, his teachers included Cortot and Kempff. These sonatas were recorded between 1967 and 1973. His playing may be a bit flashy and quirky for some, but he is good at bringing out interesting fine details of the music. He is exceptionally creative, having as many interpretational tools as one could imagine. The playing is extremely unconventional, and when the music has started for just a few seconds you can already hear something new. His wayward behavior messes up the last three sonatas, but he is quite convincing in most of the other ones. This is a very pianist-centered Beethoven that is completely different from Arrau's and Gilels' composer-centered interpretations. I definitely like this set much more than Richard Goode's banal performance, and wonder why the latter's set is so popular.

Ponti's and Nojima's Liszt (Jul 25,99)

I bought a very interesting recording of the Wagner/Liszt Tannhauser Overture two days ago, on the Newport Classic label. He plays very much like Horowitz! Horowitz didn't record this piece, and in fact he probably never played it, but if he had he very likely would have played it this way. There are tons of wrong notes, but they are all marvellous, "Horowitzian" wrong notes (I am referring to Horowitz in his late years). It is quite hard to find such demonic excitement nowadays. Yes, it is a pretty vulgar rendition, and it doesn't sound like Wagner at all, but it is nevertheless very enjoyable. The same disc has Medtner's Sonata Tragica in c, Rachmaninov's Sonata #2, Moscheles' Etude #9, Blumenfeld's Etude for Left Hand Alone, and Rubinstein's Staccato Etude.

Another excellent Liszt CD I got on the same day is played by Minoru Nojima, on the Reference Recordings label. Mr. Nojima is one of Japan's foremost pianists. He won the second prize in the 1969 Van Cliburn competition. His playing is filled with wonderful, novel ideas. One can hear something new in virtually every bar, even in the hackneyed Mephisto Waltz #1 and La Campanella. The other works on this CD are the Sonata, Feux Follets, and Harmonies du soir. It's very unfortunate that he has made so few recordings.

Is the playing side more important? (Jul 24,99)

The other day I went to a used-CD store, and overheard a guy talking to the salesperson:

Guy: "This disc has a few scratches. Looks like it may skip."

Salesperson: "Don't worry. All of our CDs are guaranteed."

Guy: "But the scratches are on the playing side!"

Salesperson: "Yes, they are on the playing side, but if it skips, you can return it within 7 days."

You may be shocked if I tell you this: scratches on the nonplaying side, i.e. the side with the label, is thousands of times more detrimental to the CD. It's because the data is recorded on that side, right underneath the label. The laser reads the data from the other side. If the label side is scratched, you lose the data, and that part of the CD is dead. But if the playing side is scratched, as long as the scratch isn't too deep, and as long as the scratches do not run along the disc's circular tracks, the disc is healthy. I have hundreds of CDs with scratches on the playing side. All of them are perfectly functional. But one of the discs in my Gilels plays Beethoven sonatas set has a VERY TINY scratch on the label side, in the last minute of the last track. That part of the CD won't play at all.

I can't stand this any more! (Jul 16,99)

I just got my 38th version of the Rach 3. This one is Leif Ove Andsnes' live recording on EMI with conductor Paavo Berglund. I don't have anything to say about the performance at this point, since I haven't listened to it. But there is one ridiculous paragraph in the program notes that has compelled me to write something about it. Let me quote that paragraph:

"The technical demands made on the soloist, especially by the original version of the first movement cadenza and the rattling speed of the Finale, have daunted pianists, including Rachmaninov himself who, in his own recording of the work, chose to play the alternative, lighter, first movement cadenza. Josef Hofman [sic], the work's dedicatee, never played the concerto in public. In this recording, made at performances in Oslo's Concert Hall in March 1995, Leif ove Andsnes plays the original cadenza and finds, in the concerto as a whole, a balance between musical restraint and showmanship - in the words of a critic present at these performances, 'a marvellous interplay between the head and the heart'."

I have seen claims like this one - that the original, long candenza is damn difficult and is much more difficult than the shorter one - many times in CD program notes. I can't stand it any more, because IT IS JUST WRONG. Yes, the long cadenza probably has five times as many notes as the short cadenza, and it would be very very damn difficult if played as fast as the short cadenza. But the truth is, it is much slower than the short one. I worked on both versions a few years back, and it wasn't long before I could play the long cadenza at the standard tempo, with few wrong notes. But the short cadenza, the fastest I could play was only a little faster than half the standard tempo! The skips in the second half of the cadenza are really murderous when you play them fast enough. The program note author's claim that Rachmaninov chose the short cadenza in his recording because the composer was intimidated by the transcendental difficulty of the long version is even more absurd. The real reasons Rachmaninov picked the short version were that: 1) each side of a 78-rpm disc could record only up to 4 min 50 sec and he made numerous cuts and used the short cadenza to save space, and 2) he thought that the short cadenza was more suitable for the structure of the whole concerto. And how come Josef Hofmann, one of the greatest technicians in history, never played this concerto? The author is trying to imply that even the almighty Hofmann was daunted by it. But I am sure he doesn't have any evidence for that. No one knows why he never played it. Some say it's because his hands were too small. Yes, his hands really were small, but his specially designed piano also had small keys, and so he should have been able to play it on his own piano. I guess he just didn't like it, but it's just my guess.

By the way, yesterday I found that the bestselling version of the Rachmaninoff concertos at barnesandnoble.com was the inferior Ashkenazy/Previn set. That's another thing I can't stand!

Three CD recommendations (Apr 17,99)

1) Earl Wild's "The Demonic Liszt" on Vanguard: I got it yesterday and it is one of the most exciting Liszt CDs in my entire collection. It has the Don Juan Fantasy, Mephisto Waltz and Polka, Gnomenreigen, Waltzes from Gounod's Faust, and a relatively rarely heard Reminiscences de Robert le Diable--Valse Infernale, all played with the highest level of excitement. Marc-Andre Hamelin may play with more perfect mechanics, but Earl Wild is much more wild (Hamelin is often too restrained). Wild is certainly one of the most exciting Lizst players since Horowitz.

2) Alfredo Campoli plays the Tchaikovsky (conductor Argenta) and Bliss (conductor Bliss) violin concertos on Beulah: I have only listened to the Tchaikovsky and was very impressed. Both were recorded in mid 1950s. He plays a different edition, which is possibly the Auer edition but it may be Campoli's own edition. As many as 30% of the notes are different from the usual edition. He plays with a very virtuosic style. I like his staccato the most, which are so short and so spirited. If you have heard this recording and the Milstein version I discussed a few days ago, you will realize how boring most of today's violinists are.

3) Rafael Orozco plays Rachmaninoff's 4 concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody, on Philips Duo: I have only heard the Rach 3 and it's a very good performance that is unfortunately not very well known. He plays with a firm sound and with a good sense of rhythm. His technique is first-class, and he can be quite electrifying at times. However, he rarely plays softer than an mp. Also, the microphones probably were put too close to the piano and so the orchestra sounds a little distant. But no matter what, it's definitely better than Ashkenazy's thoughtless and limp performance. People really should stop buying the Ashkenazy/Previn set and get this one.

More on the Milstein Tchaikovsky (Apr 14,99 and added a few comments on Jul 17,99)

I want to call your attention to three particularly interesting spots in this recording. Pay close attention to the several measures before the first climax in the first mvt (5:42 to 5:51). Milstein puts emphasis on the long notes (in the score all notes in these bars have the same value, but most violinists drag several of these notes longer, which is a very good idea), and the result is awesome. He also plays these long notes infinitesimally earlier, and the neurotic effect is indescribable. The tone is also superb. The fast tempo that he uses is also an important factor here. Most violinists play way too slow, and as a result the tension and fun are lost. It is rare to hear such high level of communication with the listener's nerves. I just compared that same spot in Zukerman on Sony (from my neighbor), Chang on EMI, Chung on London, Mutter on DG, Spivakov on EMI, Kremer on Leningrad Masters, Vengerov on Teldec, Gitlis on VoxBox, Kennedy on EMI and Perlman on EMI and Menuet. Milstein beats them all easily (sorry, my Anne-Sophie!). (I can't compare the 1955 Heifetz because he changed the notes. The 1934 Heifetz and Oistrakh on Sony are at home and so I can't compare them). The second great spot is attributed to the Pittsburgh Sym Orch, who does a wonderful job in the section leading to the coda (7:34 to 7:45). The strings play the several waves of fast notes (16th notes) marvellously, by playing each wave with an exaggerated crescendo and finishing it abruptly. Lastly, Milstein plays the whole coda faster than all others and with more fire (I usually don't equate speed with excellence, but in this case it's a virtue). Particularly breathtaking is 7:52 to 8:04, where the cooperation with the orchestra is also superb. Guys, I would recommend this disc even if it were a full-priced CD. But the fact is, it's only US$3.99 at regular price. Nothing could be better than that! Milstein recorded this concerto several times. I haven't heard all of them, though I have heard the one on London/Decca at my friend's home, which is quite good but not as good as this one on Seraphim.

Milstein plays the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto - A REALLY pleasant surprise (Apr 13,99)

Yesterday was the last day EMI was on sale at Tower, and so I bought the Milstein plays Tchaikovsky + Brahms Concertos CD on Seraphim ($2.99 plus tax only!). I have already listened to the Tchaikovsky several times. Wow, what a fantastic performance! I have never heard this hackneyed concerto played with more joy and fun. His style is skittish and even a little "naughty". Rubato is used wonderfully and naturally. The tempo is on the fast side (by today's standard), and unlike most modern performers, Milstein doesn't drag the tempo in certain lyrical sections. His tone is reminiscent of that of the great Kreisler, making this performance even more special. This recording has brought me so much joy (it actually made me laugh). Definitely one of the best purchases of the year. Highly recommended. I haven't listened to the Brahms yet. This is only my second Milstein CD. I certinaly will buy more recordings by him in the near future.

String quartets (Apr 1, 99)

Not much to say this time. Just want to express my admiration for Mendelssohn's string quartets. I got his complete string quartets played by Melos Quartett yesterday and was fascinated by them. I have the complete string quartets by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Borodin, and a bunch by Haydn, and none of them has disappointed me. I am planning to get complete sets by Shostakovich, Dvorak, Bartok, and the remaining ones by Haydn in the near future.

Hamelin's amazing recital at Harvard (Mar 21, 99)

I just came back from it. It was super amazing! I am now convinced that he is the greatest technician in history! His volume control is immaculate. Even the most absurdly difficult passages were a piece of cake to him. His sound was ultra smooth, which only a perfect technique like his could achieve (I was reminded of Karajan), and I think he did it even better than Michelangeli. However, his playing lacked passion, and sometimes I think introducing some heterogeneity or angularity to the sound might be good. And in the virtuoso pieces (Alkan's Op.39 No.12 and Liszt's Norma Fantasy), I wish he had played with more demonic drive. But technique-wise, he is peerless in history. He played with the score for Medtner's Sonata Romantica. I had never heard the Alkan before, and when he played it, I almost couldn't refrain from laughing! It's a hilarious showpiece, and is darn difficult, and he played it like a joke! And as an encore, guess what he played: The entire first movement of Schubert's sonata D.960!!!! When he finished playing it, his hands remained on the keyboard for at least ten seconds, and I thought, "Oh no, he is going to play the whole thing!". But thank God, he didn't. He played the Schubert wonderfully. It's a very calm, lyrically, beautiful rendition that was tinted with sadness.

Afterward, I rushed to the green room to meet him. Robert Levin (a Harvard music professor, and I have his autographs on my autograph page) was already there talking with Hamelin, and Hamelin's teacher Russell Sherman was also in the room. When it's my turn to meet him, I said "Hi Mr. Hamelin. It was an AMAZING recital. I think you are the greatest technician in history". "Thank you, thank you", he said. "May I have your autograph..." "Sure" "Please write slowly, because the ink of my pen comes out slowly." He started to write and he said "Oh, I see what you are saying". He was done, and I said "Thanks. So, which piece is the most difficult piece you have played?" First he said "Well, that doesn't matter, does it? It really doesn't matter!" Then he tried to come up with a more definite answer, "The Schubert is very hard. I learned it very late. It's hard to communicate it the way it is supposed to be communicated." "And you communicated it VERY well." "Oh, thank you so much, thank you very much." He seemed to be touched, "In fact I really wanted to play the whole thing!" Then I asked "Besides yourself, who do you think is the greatest pianist in history?" "Oh, I really can't tell." He appeared embarrassed. "Oh man, I can't answer any questions tonight! Well, it's really hard to answer. So many pianists have done great things." Then Russell Sherman interrupted, "The jazz pianist [I forgot the name] is very good. Have you heard his name?" Hamelin said "Really? No! Has he made any recordings?" Sherman said, "Yes, several." Hamelin said "Oh, I should check them out then". Then for some reason the teacher and the student got emotional and embraced each other. While they were doing so, I asked Hamelin the last question, "Are you coming again soon?" "I hope so" was his response, and they were still hugging each other. "Thank you very much, Mr. Hamelin!" "Thank you! I am so glad you came!" I said, "I am glad you came too!"

The hall was only about 70% full. The event wasn't publicized well enough. The pirate recording I made turned out to be okay.

Tureck's Bach, Uchida's Mozart, and Moiseiwitsch's Chopin (Mar 20, 99)

As I promised, I bought the Tureck plays Goldberg Variations CD. It's wonderful! It is a very musical playing. I will certainly try to get more recordings by this Bach specialist. I also bought the complete Mozart piano sonatas set by Uchida. It's also very excellent. Before, my only experience with Uchida was some of her Mozart concerto recordings, which are absolutely boring and sluggish. In these sonatas, however, she plays with spirit, grace, and the most natural phrasing. Much much better than Jeno Jando, who only knows how to bang. And better than Lili Kraus too, who is often too expressive and sounds affected. If you are thinking about getting a set of the complete Mozart sonatas, this is the set of choice! I still haven't unwrapped my Pires set, which is supposed to be quite good too. Yes, I definitely think female pianists play Mozart better than their male colleagues. Uchida, Kraus, Haebler, Landowska, Pires, all of them are very good Mozart players. Last night, I listened to a Moiseiwitsch disc which I bought a few months ago. I was very impressed by his Chopin recordings, especially the Ballade #3, which can rank with Cortot's recording. Wonderful performances like these can be rarely heard nowadays. When compared to these giants, pianists like Perahia and Ashkenazy are immediately put into the shade. The first half of the 20th century was indeed the Golden Age of the piano. Many people have complained that the pianists on my "Top 12" list are all dead. Well, there is nothing I can do, since the greatest pianists are indeed all dead!

Hummel, Alkan, Shostakovich, Busoni, and Tureck (Mar 19, 99)

I just listened to a CD I got yesterday, of Hummel's piano sonatas #2 and #5. It's a pleasant surprise. Fantastic music. I hightly recommend. The pianist of this Arabesque disc is Ian Hobson, but I think any versions of these pieces will be okay. Also recommendable is Olli Mustonen's London/Decca disc of 24 Preludes by Shostakovich and 25 Preludes by Alkan. Both are great sets of preludes. Right now I am listening to Busoni's Piano Concert, played by Garrick Ohlsson. Quite interesting. It's the longest piano concerto in history, lasting almost 72 minutes. These are some of the new compositions I have listened to lately. Yesterday I saw a used CD of Rosalyn Tureck playing Bach's Goldberg Variations, on VAI. I decided not to buy it, since I wasn't very fond of this work and I already had several versions of it. However, today I just realized that the Penguin Guide gives it a rosette. Although I usually don't trust Penguin, this time it may be worth giving it a try. Next time I visit that store, I will get it, provided the disc is still there. The same store also had a Howard Shelley disc of Hummel's piano concertos on Chandos. After hearing the Hummel sonatas, now I think I should get the disc.

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Last Update: May 23, 2020