Sunday, September 29, 2013

Karajan 1970s - a retrospective

Amazon has just published my review of Herbert von Karajan's 1970s recordings.  Click here to read my review.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

It's a Done Deal

NOTE: I’ve received several comments to previous posts on the Telling Mansion – all anonymous. As stated on the frontispiece of my blog, I do not publish anonymous comments. If you wish for your comment to appear on the site, please include your name. Thanks.

 Last night, the Cuyahoga County Public Library board unanimously voted to sell the historic Telling Mansion to Richard Barone, a Cleveland investor who wants to use the building to house the American Porcelain Art Museum and Cultural Arts Center. Some of us foresaw this fate months ago, which is why we came together to form the Telling Mansion Preservation Organization: TeMPO.

I will defend neither the Library board’s decision nor the manner in which they arrived at it. It was contrary to the principles of open governance, and did not take the feelings of the affected citizens into account. However, per Ohio regulations the Library board is an independent entity – city and country officials are forbidden from blocking CCPL’s plans, just as they are not allowed to specify which books and other media the library may carry. So that begs the question: why did members of the Save the Mansion Library group take members of the Cuyahoga and South Euclid governments to task over the situation? Was it due to a lack of understanding of separation of powers on their part, simple desperation, or were certain members of that group using the library issue as a wedge against public servants they didn’t like?

While some members of the SML group may continue to shout “THIS IS NOT A DONE DEAL”, in reality – it is. Whatever one thinks of the library move, it’s now a certainty – no matter how many people picket, sign online petitions, hold “read-ins” or try to shout down speakers at local meetings. The question now is: should citizens continue to push the CCPL into remaining at a site it has neglected for the past decade and has decided to leave, or should we embrace a better guardian? Look for yourself at the deplorable condition of the floor tiles near the entry way or the stone wall running along the driveway. Observe for yourself how the gate house isn’t even open to the public. (I’ve been in the latter – the only possible use right now is as a haunted house.)

Wouldn’t it be more productive if citizens worked with Richard Barone, who wants to make good use of the Mansion, the grounds, and the gate house – which has been closed for years?

In June, members of TeMPO met with Mr. Barone and voiced several concerns: that the site be properly maintained and renovated with historical sensitivity; that the South Euclid-Lyndhurst Historical Society remains on site; that the site remain open for public use in addition to his proposed use as a museum; and that the site – including green space and watershed – be protected in perpetuity via the creation of a foundation with an endowment. Mr. Barone is interested in working with us to accomplish these goals. He reiterated such at a fundraiser TeMPO held in August.

It is doubly important that Mr. Barone is stepping in at this time, because his purchase does more to safeguard the Telling Mansion than the other options: selling to one of the other interested parties (both commercial) or keeping the Library there. At a recent meeting of the citizens’ steering committee for South Euclid’s new Master Plan, I learned that South Euclid’s other Mansion (in a secluded lot off Dorsh Road) may be for sale in the near future. The two mansions sit on adjoining parcels of land, and anyone who’s seen the properties could well envision a nightmare scenario in which both mansions are demolished and a new housing development put in their place.

What I find most objectionable are the accusations, made without any evidence, that TeMPO was secretly cobbled together by the CCPL, Mayor Welo, and Sunny Simon to clear the path for the library move. On the contrary, TeMPO is driven and run by local citizens from all walks of life and political persuasions, who work without compensation, who are solely concerned with the preservation of the Telling Mansion and grounds. Indeed, Mayor Welo’s opponent in the 2011 election, Robert Schoenewald, is a member of our board.

People can continue to scream “the Telling Mansion should be a library” until they’re blue in the face. Fact is, the library is going to move. We believe Mr. Barone’s proposal represents the best way forward for the Telling Mansion – South Euclid’s architectural gem.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Vladimir Horowitz never peeled potatoes

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” goes the old riddle. “Practice, practice, practice”, is the answer.

Vladimir Horowitz was fond of stating he only practiced a few hours a day, and cautioned students about over-practicing a musical work to the point that it became stale.  While he was usually coy about how he developed his technique, saying he learned it the same way he learned to speak four languages, he once confessed that in post-Revolutionary Russia “It was very cold, I was very hungry, and there was nothing to do but practice piano”.  There was no television, nor even any radio – and 78rpm discs were in very short supply at a time when the family subsisted on “rabbit ragout” – which was a euphemism used at a time when the stray cats and dogs in Kiev suddenly vanished.  To take his mind off the misery that surrounded him, young Volodya worked tirelessly and attentively at the piano – not merely at scales and etudes, but any music he could get his hands on: the standard piano repertoire, operas, orchestra scores (Horowitz was a fantastic site reader), and even the popular music of the day. 

Horowitz developed a technique so comprehensive that the standard repertoire became inadequate for fully displaying his skills, and he was – as he often pointed out – a frustrated composer.  He composed original works, but most famously offered arrangements, or transcriptions, of other composers’ music.  He almost never committed these transcriptions to paper, and many have tried, with varying success, to decipher the notes by listening to recordings and watching videos of his concerts.  Some of his arrangements changed over time, particularly his variations on the Gypsy Dance from Act II of Bizet’s Carmen.  Listening to the plethora of recordings, both officially published and “pirate” recordings of concerts, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only was Horowitz altering his work over the decades,  this most spontaneous of pianists often made changes “on the fly”.  

This kind of freedom, today heard only from jazz musicians, was common in the Classical and Romantic period.  Mozart and Beethoven were both spectacular improvisers, as was Liszt.  Being able to improvise leads to greater freedom in interpretation.  This freedom is part of what endeared Horowitz to the public, and drove anally retentive critics to distraction.  It also upset more than a few pianists, and I can only conclude that their sniping comments at Horowitz’s transcriptions were the result of enraged jealousy.  Particularly galling was Arthur Rubinstein’s hypo-criticism of Horowitz playing “all those Carmens, all those Danse Macabres” because Rubinstein himself played his own arrangements of Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance and the March from Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges.  The piano transcription has a respectable lineage going all the way back to Liszt and Busoni. 

Truth be told, most pianists prepare a work to within an inch of its life, then bring it to the stage with all the spontaneity of peeling potatoes.  This was never the case with Horowitz.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Horowitz's seamless transmission

Poulenc’s Toccata is hardly anyone’s definition of an easy piece – although it’s well laid out for the keyboard.  Parallel passages become repeated notes, then right handed filigree accompanied by left hand chords & jumps, then right hand chords accompanied by left hand chromatic runs – there are gear shifts, sometimes radical, every few bars.  I’ve heard about 15 recordings of the Toccata, by pianists major and minor – at corresponding tempos.  They all have something in common – whenever the pianist has to shift gears, there is a pause, a hesitation - however infinitesimal -  to allow the pianist time to regroup for the next sequence.

All except one: Vladimir Horowitz.  There are at least three recordings of Horowitz playing Poulenc’s Toccata: a studio recording from 1932, a live recording from Carnegie Hall from the 1940s and available for listening at the Yale University music library, and a 1966 performance from a Carnegie Hall concert made when the pianist was 63 (the last has circulated as a pirate recording for years, but Sony has recently released their copy as part of a boxed set).  Despite differences in interpretation, all three recordings feature breathtaking tempos, minimal use of the sustaining pedal, a broad dynamic range – and the most seamless, imperceptible shifting of gears.  It’s the equivalent of driving a manual transmission without having to use the clutch – although in this case there’s no grinding and no damage.

I believe this is what Michael Steinberg was referring to when he complained that Horowitz was at times apt to “steamroll the line into perfect flatness” in his very wrongheaded – and now deleted – appraisal of the pianist in the Groves Encyclopedia.  In fact, Horowitz merely was able to mask the gear changes that lesser pianists (and that’s just about everybody) were forced to make audibly.  His transmission was infinitely variable.

But make no mistake: Horowitz infallible transmission was not merely the result of some accident of birth.  He worked his ass off.  More on that in a later post.