Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thoughts on Vladimir Horowitz

Horowitz Rediscovered At Carnegie Hall

by David Was

Vladimir Horowitz , whom many identify as the greatest pianist of his day, quietly recorded all of his Carnegie Hall recitals in the 1940s as a private reference library. He analyzed them with students and colleagues, but because they were made for archival purposes only, the recordings were never deemed fit for public consumption. They sound scratchy and thin, even after digital restoration, but the music is of such power and glory that it demands our attention nonetheless.

Horowitz, in the 20 years since his death, has only gained in stature as one of the titans of 20th-century music

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hang on to your hats...

We interrupt this program for some astonishing piano playing from Zsolt Bognar:

Hank brings you the finest in music...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Cheney's Secret Service protection extended

WASHINGTON (CNN) – Protection for former Vice President Dick Cheney has been extended, Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan confirmed to CNN Tuesday.

Donovan would not say for how long the extension will last.
What an appalling waste of taxpayer's money on behalf of the disgraced former Vice President. Cheney is the richest VP in history. He can pay for his own protection. Richard Nixon, who dishonored a higher office than Cheney, paid for his own protection after leaving office.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thursday, July 16, 2009


A follow up to my July 5th post.
Here is the text from the Sun Messenger police blotter:

"A South Euclid man, 21, was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence after witnesses saw him collide into the back of a legally parked car on South Belvoir Boulevard July 4. He registered a .266 BAC and officers requested blood samples to check for other drugs."

His BAC was more than 3 times the legal limit.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sviatoslav Richter – a Dissent

Was Sviatoslav Richter the “pianist of the century”, as the cover of a recent Deutsche Grammophon boxed set claims? The 20th century included such titans of the keyboard as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Hoffman, and Vladimir Horowitz – not to mention other noteworthy pianists as Arthur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Specialists like Glenn Gould occupied a universe all their own and defied comparison to others.

I bought myself a copy of “pianist of the century” and listened to every disc. It represents the smallest pie-slice of Richter’s prolific discography. My familiarity with Richter’s recorded output goes back to my adolescence when I first started listening to Classical music: the 1960 RCA recordings (many of which I have both on CD and the original LPs), the 1958 Sofia recital, some of the Melodia recordings that were issued on Columbia, several Schubert Sonatas on various labels, and the Liszt Concertos with Kondrashin on Phillips – which are my favorite Liszt Concertos and favorite Richter recording. But I must put my cards on the table and bluntly state that I didn’t much care for DG’s boxed set, and it wasn’t just because of the presumptuous title. Many of the performances are poorly recorded, in the concertos the accompaniments are sub-standard (certainly not Richter’s fault), and Richter’s piano often has a “thumping” quality that is antithetical to tonal beauty. There are also the irritatingly fawning liner notes by Jeremy Siepmann. In just about every way, encountering this set was more of a chore than a pleasure.

While I wouldn’t call Richter the pianist of the century, I would say that he was uniquely representative of piano playing in the second half of the 20th Century – in the sense that he encapsulated many of the changes that were taking place at that time, as old traditions were swept aside and new practices solidified. Indeed, when Richter first emerged in the West, much of his playing was rooted in the old-school Russian tradition – passed on by such teachers as Heinrich Neuhaus. Harold Schonberg wrote as much in one of his early Richter reviews, calling some aspects of the pianist’s playing provincial – and Schonberg was far from the only critic to note that. But over time, Richter’s playing became less specifically Russian – and more generally European.

But while some may consider the "pianist of the (half) century" remark a compliment, for me, Richter represents precisely what went wrong with piano performance after about 1950: The rejection of a tonal aesthetic, the equation of glacial tempos with profundity (this was generally an issue for Richter only after 1970), the pretense of humility (including fetishizing of the score), contradicted by barely disguised contempt for the audience. (What Siepmann's notes derided as “playing to the gallery” I think of as having respect for the audience, who after all, buy the tickets and pay the bills. Great artists have proven that it’s possible to please the audience without sinking to the lowest common denominator.)

I will confess here that I never saw Richter perform in person – by the time I was old enough to go to concerts, Richter had sworn off the United States. But I am not convinced by the frequently cited excuse that Richter made certain approaches “work” in live performance that did not carry over in recordings. That’s simplistic rationalizing. I’ve heard enough pianists both live and on record (including Horowitz, Arrau, and Brendel, among many others) to know that what works, works – regardless of where the listener sits.

Richter didn’t help his own cause by being difficult to work with – even by the taxing demands of Classical performers. He would frequently rehearse in the hall until just before the concert was scheduled to begin, disallowing the piano tuner from properly preparing the instrument. (That’s why the piano magically retunes itself in many of Richter’s patched “live” recordings.)  And he would badmouth colleagues whenever the opportunity arose.  His tendency to despise others arose from his own self-loathing in matters ranging from his homosexuality to his own insecurity as a performer.  As he said in a documentary, "I don't like myself."

And then there were Richter’s “winter” years. Nearly every performing musician, unless he dies young, has to cope with the reduction in abilities that accompanies age. The last two decades of Richter’s career were sad indeed, with a decline in mental power so precipitous that he had to depend on the score when performing (a humiliation covered by the pretense of reverence for the score). It would be unfair to judge Richter solely on his final years – although it goes without saying that the average music lover is not acquainted with Arthur Rubinstein’s or Claudio Arrau’s pre-stereo recordings, and thus has an incomplete appreciation for their playing. It’s a rare performer who knows when to stop. Toscanini continued to give concerts at least three years longer than he should have – although his studio recordings from that time continue to impress. Horowitz went through a medicated period when he was playing poorly, stubbornly soldiered on over the protests of his inner circle – before taking a two year sabbatical to de-toxify and emerge as a very different pianist. Violinist Jascha Heifetz was an exception who quit the stage and recording some 14 years before his death – he probably could have gone on for years earning high fees and coasting on his reputation.  The Richter who toured the United States in 1960 bears little resemblance to the elderly pianist who was fawned over by pretentions "disciples" - many of whom couldn't read a note of music.

As with many unique performers, Richter was highly influential. Pianists who play more “normally” tend to be less so – one never hears a young competition winner touted as the next Ashkenazy, or Perahia. Like Horowitz and Gould, there were numerous younger pianists who tried to make a career of imitating Richter’s mannerisms. How many kids have tried to pretentiously adopt Richter’s ridiculously slow tempos in Schubert’s D. 960 Sonata? (Anyone who has ever played pianos from Schubert’s era, with their lack of sustaining power, will know that Richter’s tempos on Schubert’s pianos would have rendered the works incoherent.)

But Richter’s influence has begun to fade. Over the last two decades or so, pianists have come to realize that the Richter/Pollini paradigm has boxed them into a corner. This is exactly why Volodos enjoyed something of a vogue in the United States a decade ago (he remains popular in Europe). It’s also why transcriptions and original compositions by the performers (notably Marc-André Hamelin) are becoming all the rage again.

Listening to Richter's Deutsche Grammophon recordings, I keep coming back to what Neville Cardus wrote: The last thing we learn in the arts is that a pure aesthetic pleasure is the rare and right one – especially in music. It is easier in music to lean on philosophy than it is to make music.

Richter never learned that. Nor, I fear, did many of his acolytes.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Loud BOOM on July 4th...

Danny was working overnight on July 4th. Around 11pm, I was enjoying a quiet evening at home with Mason when I heard a huge bang from the street. For a split second, I thought it was a large fire cracker, but then the screeching tires and honking horn made me realize it was an auto accident in progress.


I called 911, headed outside and saw the following: my neighbor’s minivan, which was parked in front of my house, had been pushed off the street onto my next door neighbor’s lawn. The rear was caved in (especially on the left side) and the back gate had been forced open to the extent that the spare tire had fallen out. 


A Honda Civic SI was on the median, the airbags deployed, the front end smashed. From where the van had been parked to the median was a wet trail on the pavement. 


A Subaru station wagon was in the left lane, with a medium sized dent on the front.


Apparently, what happened was the driver of the Civic was going about 50mph in the right lane. He saw the minivan late and went to change lanes – cutting off the Subaru. But he still hit the minivan, pushing it over the curb onto my neighbor’s lawn. The Civic veered onto the median while the Subaru driver slammed on his breaks.


People routinely drive too fast on South Belvoir Boulevard, and since it’s a curving road, visibility can be a problem. The speed limit is 35mph, but it should really be 25 or at the most, 30. Belvoir is not mixed use, it is entirely residential. 


Within seconds of my calling, a police car was on the scene. Within moments an ambulance and more cars joined them. While an officer redirected traffic back toward Elmwood and blocked off our section of Belvoir, the other officers were checking on the vehicle occupants. It became obvious that the driver of the Civic, a young man who stated he was 20 but looked younger, was at fault. Two officers performed a sobriety check in my driveway, and the young man was clearly impaired. I heard him admit to the officers that he had consumed five beers. (I outweigh this kid by at least 60 pounds, and five beers would leave me falling down drunk.) The young man was taken away in handcuffs. His passenger had a small cut on his arm and was allowed to leave when his father arrived. The occupants of the Subaru were shaken but unhurt. Fortunately, the minivan was not occupied – as there could have easily been serious injuries or worse.  


I helped my neighbor empty her belongings from her minivan before the tow truck came to haul it away. 


Now there is a lot to learn about responsibility from this accident. But one thing struck me, and I saw it often in my four years as a call center representative for Progressive. What kinds of parents buy their kids sports cars? This was no ordinary Civic, this was the high end, tuned up, sporty version. (You’d be amazed at the number of teenagers driving 8-cylinder Mustangs or Camaros, by the way.) Is it any surprise that insurance rates for young drivers (particularly young male drivers) are so high? 


Not to sound like Grumpy Old Man, but when I was a teen, most of my peers didn’t even have their own cars – they used their parents’ cars. If they were lucky, they’d have an old used beater – which they’d worked a part time job to buy.


I don’t know who this kid is, but I’d wager his parents bought the car when he passed his classes. In a way, he’s also a victim because his parents haven’t taught him responsibility.


But he’s going to learn about it now.