Two Who Died Too Young – Part II: William Kapell

William Kapell died on October 29, 1953 when the DC-6 on which he was returning from a concert tour of Australia flew into King’s Mountain, just 16 miles south of San Francisco Airport.  On this – the 56th – anniversary of his death, I am pleased to honor his memory and share his artistry with readers of these pages.

kapellWilliam Kapell was born in New York City on September 20, 1922.  He began taking piano lessons at age 7, and his early teachers included Dorothea Anderson La Follette and Olga Samaroff, with whom he studied first in Philadelphia and later at Juilliard.  In 1941, he won both the Philadelphia Orchestra’s youth competition and the prestigious Naumburg Award, and at 20 he embarked on his concert career.

Initially, he was best known for his performances of the crowd-pleasing concertos by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and especially Khachaturian.  As Virgil Thompson wrote after his death, “It was only in the last two years that he had gained real access to the grand repertory of the piano, to the concertos of Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms and Chopin and to the suites of Bach and Debussy, and that he had been genuinely successful with that repertory.”

The deepening of his art in these last few years was recognized,” writes Michael Kimmelman in the New York Review Of Books.  “Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatagorsky became anxious to record with him.  When Jack Pfeiffer, the RCA producer, called him in California one afternoon to ask whether he knew the Brahms D Minor Violin Sonata because Heifetz wanted to record it the next day, Kapell said yes, then stayed up all night to learn it.  [The italics are mine.]  The recording, exultant and showing great feeling, was made in Hollywood in 1950; it explains why Heifetz said he could never forgive Kapell for dying young.”

I have that record, and it is glorious.  But what kind of talent is it that can learn overnight – and to Kapell’s exacting standards – a piece as profound and demanding as Brahms’ third violin sonata?  For a recording with Heifetz, no less!

Harold Schonberg wrote in The Great Pianists, published in 1963, that “Many American pianists of the postwar generation have the potentialities to develop into major artists, but as yet it is a little early to make any predictions.  The most promising of all, William Kapell, died in an airplane crash in 1953.  Kapell had won a Naumburg Competition award, and he went on to impress an international public with a spectacularly honest technique (never any bluff or cover-up), a forthright musical approach and a fierce integrity.  His playing had that indefinable thing known as command, and he was well on his way to being one of the century’s important pianists when his plane from Australia went down shortly before arriving in San Francisco.”

I was introduced to Kapell’s playing in 1964 through an RCA Victor album entitled “The Unforgettable William Kapell”.  This record includes the Khachaturian Piano Concerto, a lovely interpretation of Evocación by Albéniz, the 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and a performance of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz that is sheer wizardry.  In my opinion, this performance comes as close to pianistic perfection as it is possible to do.  Never has the indefinable “command” referred to by Schonberg been more in evidence.  Regarding this performance, Tim Page of the Washington Post writes that it had “all the energy and the manic wildness of Horowitz, but it also [had] a sort of cool intelligence and a formal understanding which… wasn’t always in the Horowitz recordings.”  He goes on to say, “I would very, very quickly name it one of the most extraordinary piano recordings I have ever heard.”

The following clip is the only known video of Kapell.  It is from Alistair Cooke’s TV program “Omnibus”, and includes a sonata by Scarlatti, the Nocturne in E Flat by Chopin, and an arrangement for piano by Emilio Napolitano of an Argentine folk song, “Gato”.

Claudia Cassidy, the famously acerbic critic for the Chicago Tribune, wrote in her tribute to Kapell, “He was, this smoldering, passionate young pianist, generous, lovable, deeply gentle of heart.  I loved his playing above all other playing, and this can scarcely be a secret to anyone who has read this column.  So not for myself, but to tell you what he was like, now that he is gone, here is a part of one of his last letters:

Why do you think playing in Chicago always is some sort of test for me? … Music isn’t enough.  Performers aren’t enough.  There must be someone who loves music as much as life.  For you, and remember this always, those of us with something urgent to say, we give everything.

“Kapell gave, and I am eternally grateful that I was here to listen.”

Two Who Died Too Young – Part I: Dinu Lipatti

Dinu Lipatti

Dinu Lipatti

In the early 1950’s, classical music suffered the loss of two of its brightest stars, Dinu Lipatti and William Kapell.  In a cruel coincidence, they died at almost the same age, and within three years of each other: Lipatti was 33 when he died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1950, and Kapell was 31 when a plane crash took his life in 1953.  The loss to 20th-century pianism was incalculable.  Both of them had entered the period of full artistic maturity, and had received critical recognition commensurate with their enormous gifts.  We will look more closely at Lipatti today, and at Kapell in our next post.

Dinu Lipatti was born into a musical family on March 19, 1917 in Bucharest, Romania.  Piano lessons with his mother began at age 4; other early teachers included Mihail Jora and Florica Musicescu.  To mention just one of his early accomplishments, at age 13, Lipatti performed Grieg’s Piano Concerto at the Bucharest Opera.

In 1934, Lipatti moved to Paris to study with Alfred Cortot, and began to concertize there in 1935.  At the outbreak of World War II, he returned to Romania and continued his concert career until 1943, when he moved to Switzerland and accepted a professorship at the Geneva Conservatory.  Shortly after his arrival, he began to experience health problems that would plague him for the rest of his life, and which would finally be diagnosed in 1947 as Hodgkin’s disease.

Lipatti’s last public performance, which was recorded, took place on September 16, 1950 at the annual music festival in Besançon, France.  His doctors had advised against the recital, but Lipatti’s program made no concession to his illness.  It included Bach’s first Partita, Mozart’s Sonata No. 8 in A minor, two Impromptus by Schubert, and Chopin’s 14 Waltzes.  Regarding the recording of this recital, Peter Gutmann writes, “Perhaps the greatest tribute to Lipatti is that listeners can easily forget the poignant circumstances of this concert.  The playing is nearly note-perfect, each piece is brilliantly conceived, and every phrase is alive with inflection, deeply expressive but under perfect emotional control.  The only hint of trouble, and a very subtle one at that, is that Lipatti played only thirteen of Chopin’s set of fourteen waltzes; realizing that he lacked the strength, he did not even attempt the last one but instead ended the concert and his artistic life with a short and soft Bach chorale, the final prayer of a consummate musician.”

No less an authority than Artur Schnabel declared that Lipatti’s playing was “an entirely new way of playing the piano.”  Schnabel was devastated by his death, and spoke of “a very real and personal loss. I admired and liked that boy immensely.  He was one of the most attractive personalities I have known in my life.”

Fortunately, Lipatti left a significant recorded legacy.  This recording of Bach’s Partita No. 1 was made at that final recital in Besançon.  No video of that performance exists, but the audio quality is excellent, and we must all be grateful that this final expression of Lipatti’s genius was preserved for the ages.

Finally, here is the “short and soft Bach chorale” with which Lipatti concluded his artistic life.  This is Myra Hess’ transcription of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.  Lipatti died less than three months later, in Geneva.

My Interview with Szuyu “Rachel” Su

rachelIt has twice been my privilege and pleasure to present videos of the young Chinese pianist Szuyu “Rachel” Su, in remarkable performances of Prokofiev and Liszt.  At the time, all I knew about Rachel was what I could glean from her YouTube profile,  Not content with this, I contacted Rachel’s father, Mr. Yuwen Su, who readily agreed to an interview with Rachel, and provided much welcome information about her life and accomplishments to date.

Rachel was born on March 14, 1998, and lives in Tainan City, Taiwan.  She began taking piano lessons at age four, and is currently studying with Ms. Chaoyin Chen, Dean of the Music Department at National Kaohsiung Normal University.  Her first recital took place in May 2008, where in addition to Schumann’s “Arabesque” and Liszt’s “Un Sospiro”, she played this lovely transcription by Balakirev of Glinka’s song, “The Lark”.

Two weeks ago, Rachel took part in a competition in Hong Kong, where among other works, she played the “Tempest” sonata by Beethoven and the Ballade Op. 23 by Chopin.  In the Open Section for pianists 32 years old and younger, (where 1st and 2nd prizes were not awarded) Rachel received the Fifth Prize.  This was a great triumph for an eleven-year-old!  She is looking forward to another competition next June, where she hopes to play Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

I asked Rachel what piece of music is on her piano right now.  It turns out that she is practicing Liszt’s formidable “La Campanella” and the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise by Chopin.  Because of the amount of homework she is required to do, she is able to practice piano and violin (a second instrument is required by her school) for only around one hour on school days.  Mr. Su stated that Taiwan’s education system doesn’t nourish musical talent, and that Rachel would do better if she had a special course designed for her.

As Rachel speaks limited English, Mr. Su served as translator for this short interview.

DERRICK:  Hello, Rachel!  Please accept my compliments on the many beautiful videos of your playing that are available on YouTube.  Your repertoire includes composers from Bach to Kevin Kern.  Do you have a favorite composer, or composers?

RACHEL:  I like to listen to Liszt’s compositions, and to play Chopin’s compositions.

DERRICK:  I know you have very little time to spend on YouTube, but do you have any favorite pianists?

RACHEL:  Yes, although I know very few pianists, Lang Lang, Kissin, and Horowitz are my favorites.

DERRICK:  Other than music, what are your favorite subjects in school?

RACHEL:  I like mathematics the best.

DERRICK:  What are your hobbies?  Do you play soccer?

RACHEL:  No, I have never played soccer, but I like to swim.

DERRICK:  May I ask, what is your dream or ambition for your life?

RACHEL:  I dream of being a great pianist, touring worldwide, and sharing my music with people.

DERRICK:  Rachel, it has been a pleasure getting to know you.  I look forward to more examples of your playing, and will follow your career with great interest.

I would like to conclude this short look at a remarkable talent with a beautiful performance of Kevin Kern’s “The Enchanted Garden”.  This was recorded in competition in September 2007 when Rachel was just nine years old.  Although it is a delight to watch someone so young play so well, I encourage you at least once to close your eyes while listening to this piece.  When I close mine, I would never guess that I am listening to a nine-year-old girl.  I just hear an artist.

Thank you, Rachel.

Published in: on October 20, 2009 at 11:50 pm  Comments (6)  
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Franz Liszt: Etude No. 39 “Un Sospiro” Pianist – Marc-Andre Hamelin

hamelinFor many of you, this video will serve as an introduction to the pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who was born in Montreal in 1961.  Hamelin is an extraordinary virtuoso who has performed and recorded much of the less well-known repertoire, including many works that less technically gifted pianists would not even attempt.  Yet, as this video demonstrates, he plays with a musical feeling no less exceptional than his technique.

“Un Sospiro” translates as “The Sigh”.  We read on Wikipedia that this etude by Liszt “is a study in crossing hands, playing a simple melody with alternating hands, and arpeggios.”  It is also exceptionally beautiful, and though the image quality in this video is not especially good, the sound is excellent.

Though no one should be placed in the position of following Marc-Andre Hamelin, I am happy to present a second performance of “Un Sospiro”, this one featuring my favorite young pianist, Szuyu Su, whom I introduced last month playing Prokofiev’s “Harp” prelude.  Rachel, as she likes to be called, is a little older in this video, perhaps 9 years old, and I don’t feel like I’m going out on a limb at all in predicting a brilliant concert career for her in the years ahead.

If you would like to see more of Rachel, you can see all of her YouTube uploads (54 at latest count) here:

Published in: on October 17, 2009 at 1:02 am  Comments (1)  
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Movie Review: “Strictly Ballroom”

“A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.”

strictly ballroom“Strictly Ballroom” is a 1992 film by Australian director Baz Luhrmann.  It begins at the conclusion of a local dance competition in which young Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) effectively dances himself out of contention by trying out his own new dance moves, a pathway to certain defeat in the hidebound world of ballroom dance.  The competition lost, his partner Liz (Liz Holt) refuses to continue to dance with him and takes up with veteran Ken Railings (John Hannan) instead, leaving Scott without a partner for the upcoming Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Championship.

The characters in these early scenes have a frightening, cartoonish aspect.  The men all have florid, sweaty faces and bad toupees, and the women wear their hair in impossible spikes.  Into this surreal arena enters the simple, unadorned Fran, winningly acted by Tara Morice, who reminded me of both Andie McDowell and Nia Vardalos.  Fran is a novice dancer and a textbook ugly duckling, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and a space between her front teeth.  She tells a dubious Scott, “I want to dance with you, your way”, and persuades him to give her an hour to show what she can do.

That first hour together is magical.  Fran has far more talent and aptitude than Scott anticipated, and she brings out a sensitive, caring side in him that we hadn’t seen before.  They dance beautifully together, yet Scott insists that the tryouts being conducted by his mother (Pat Thompson) to find a new partner for him will go forward as planned.

“Strictly Ballroom” tells the story of how these two are forced to confront his dysfunctional family, as well as the seamy underbelly of competitive dance, and how they grow both as individuals and as a couple in the process.  While the basic storyline is unassuming, the costuming is a feast for the eye, and the soundtrack is delightful from beginning to end, and includes “Time After Time”, “Love is in the Air”, and “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” as sung by the inimitable Doris Day.

The sum total of all these parts is that rarest, most elusive of all cinematic achievements: romance.  Not since Zhang Yimou’s “The Road Home” have I seen a more romantic movie, and I think it is significant that both of them were made outside the U.S., far removed from Hollywood’s pernicious influence.

I recommend “Strictly Ballroom” for everyone, whether you’re looking for a movie for your family, a date with your main squeeze, or a night out with friends.  Even if you feel doubtful going in, you’ll feel happy on your way out.

Derrick Robinson

My Interview with Lola Astanova

“Everything (Horowitz) did had his own individual and unmistakable stamp, which is not only desirable, but is an absolute must for an artist.”

lola astanovaThis interview had its beginnings in an email that I received last month from Lola Astanova, as one of many who registered at her website,  The email introduced a video of Lola playing Chopin’s magnificent étude Op. 25 No. 12, together with a short message from Lola about supporting the arts during difficult economic times.  I was crazy about her Chopin, and shared her conviction about the arts, and wrote back to tell her so.

A few days later I received another email, thanking me for introducing Lola to readers of this blog through her videos of Rachmaninoff’s second sonata, and pointing out that the year of her birth as given in my comments (1981) made her a little older than she really is.  I did a little more research and found a different source that listed her year of birth as 1982, and updated my blog accordingly.  I also wrote back to suggest an interview with Lola that would address this and other questions that I thought would be of interest to her growing number of fans and admirers.  I was happily surprised to receive – just two days later – an invitation to submit my questions via email for Lola to answer in writing.

What follows are my questions and Lola’s responses.  My thanks to Natalie, Lola’s personal assistant, for facilitating this interview, and especially to Lola herself, not only for her candid, illuminating answers, but for sharing so generously of her work and talent through her many YouTube videos.  Lola, you have opened wide the treasure chest of great music for many who might otherwise never have known the riches that lie within.

All right, let’s begin!

DERRICK:  I apologize for having misstated the year of your birth on my blog.  In my desire to make you better known to my readers, I had to choose among unreliable sources for some information.  Would you like to tell us your correct birthday?

LOLA:  I never intended to hide my correct date of birth…I think it was, probably, accidentally left out from my original online bio.  But by now it’s become such a huge deal that I feel like having some fun with it and keeping everyone guessing. (Smiles)

DERRICK:  Would you mind filling in a few more biographical details?  I know that you were born in Tashkent.  Would you like to share any information about your family and early life?  Did your musical education begin at home?

LOLA:  Sure.  My mother is a music teacher.  We had an old upright at home so she used to play it from time to time, and I used to stare at her and think: “It would be so nice to play that thing!”  But it was actually my dad who convinced her to get me started with piano lessons.  He really wanted me to learn “Fur Elise” and a few other tunes to play for him after work.  I’m sure he never imagined that music would become my career.

DERRICK:  Do you remember how you were introduced to classical music, and the first piece of classical music that you were excited about?

LOLA:   I guess the first piece that I was consciously truly excited about learning was Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu”.  I was about ten years old, but I had heard and loved that piece from the early childhood.  The score looked very busy with lots of notes so in my mind playing it well somehow symbolized being a good pianist.

DERRICK:  We know that you began to study piano at the age of six with Professor Tamara Popovich.  When and where was your first solo recital?  Do you remember the details of your program?

LOLA:  My first recital was in my school.  I think I was about seven and played most of the pieces from Schumann’s album for the young Op. 68.

DERRICK:  When and where was your first performance with orchestra?  What piece did you play?

LOLA:  It was Bach’s Concerto No. 5 in F Minor.  I was 8 years old and played in the big and beautiful concert hall called “Bakhor” in Tashkent.   I had seen Ashkenazy play on that stage only a few months earlier so being on that same stage for the first time as a soloist made me very nervous.

DERRICK:  What is your personal situation?  Are you married or single?  If single, do you hope to marry someday, or are you in an exclusive, long-term relationship with your Steinway?

LOLA:   I am not married and don’t see it in my immediate future.  My relationship with my Steinway, albeit a passionate one, is strictly professional. (Smiles)  It would have been more than a little sad otherwise.  I think it’s important to have other interests besides piano, and I, certainly, do.

DERRICK:  Would you care to comment on the passing last month of Alicia de Larrocha?  Did you ever meet her, or hear her play in person?  Have you been influenced at all by Miss de Larrocha?

LOLA:  I never had a chance to hear her in concert, alas.  She was one of the very few women who had a stellar career as a concert pianist and left a wonderful legacy.  That is always inspiring and empowering to me personally.  But, I can’t say that my own pianistic style or musical preferences were influenced by her in any way.

DERRICK:  You have described what an emotional experience it was for you to play on Vladimir Horowitz’ piano.  How would you describe Horowitz’ influence on you?

LOLA:   His influence was colossal.  I think he redefined what it means to be a pianist.  Everything he did had his own individual and unmistakable stamp, which is not only desirable, but is an absolute must for an artist.  I can’t say that I like everything that he did musically, in fact, I find some of his interpretations perfectly awful, but that doesn’t matter.  He always played his Chopin, his Mozart, and his Rachmaninoff.  He had a distinct musical personality and a style like no other, and that is what I find most valuable.

Now, obviously, Horowitz’s presence is still very much felt in the piano world and, as a result, many pianists try to imitate him and critics always itch to dub someone “the new Horowitz”.  I must say that I find both rather amusing.  There may be truly astonishing pianists that share certain qualities or attributes with Horowitz, but there will never be another Horowitz, just like there will never be another Pavarotti.  So there is no point in trying.  Actually, a little anecdote comes to mind: Gershwin once asked Ravel to teach him composition, to which Ravel supposedly responded: “Why would you want to be second rate Ravel when you can be first rate Gershwin?”  I second Ravel’s opinion, and though comparisons to the immortals are flattering, I’d never want to be “the new” anybody but myself.

DERRICK:  Have you ever played any of his transcriptions?

LOLA:  No, not in public.

DERRICK:  Who among the pianists of today do you especially admire?

LOLA:  YouTube’s Nora the Cat!  She has a special touch. (Laughs)  But if you want a serious answer…well, “admire” is a very special word for me.  Talent and skills alone do not impress me at this point as I’ve been fortunate to be among talented and capable musicians all my life.  What does impress me, however, are the people behind the talents – their human qualities, their aspirations and their integrity.  I know those don’t sound like musical terms, but they are no less important in music than in life.  And from that standpoint, so far I’ve seen more disappointments than inspirations in the classical field.  You know, Rachmaninoff almost never gave interviews on this subject because as he put it: “I was brought up never to lie…and I cannot tell the truth.”  I think I understand what he meant and I’m going to leave it at that.

DERRICK:  How would you describe the current state of music composition?  Do you see anyone writing music today whom you would place on the same level as the great composers of the past?  If yes, who?  If not, why not?

LOLA:  I presume you are asking about classical composition and if that’s the case – I am not aware of any composer today that I would compare with the greats of the past.  You see, to me a great composer is synonymous with original harmonic language.  In other words, creating something that sounds good and does not sound like somebody else. And in that sense, every composer today faces two huge challenges:  Number one – a lot has already been done in terms of harmony so it is really not easy to create something that is both valuable and original.  Number two – developing and refining one’s own harmonic language and style is a very slow and painstaking process which seems in total opposition of the super fast pace of the modern life.  And don’t forget that in addition to the tremendous technical skills and knowledge, composition requires a certain creative environment or atmosphere that simply does not exist anymore in the same way as it did in the days of Mozart or Chopin.

Of course, there is an entire group of composers that do the so-called “modern classical music”.  Those are the people who chose to experiment with atonal concepts, but I refuse to call that music.  I imagine that the original creators of that style genuinely searched for something new or “modern” and that a lot of their harsh sounds stemmed from the painful history of the 20th century.  But I also think that many of the subsequent works have simply been an attempt to shock the audience and generate publicity by inviting the press to endless “world premiers” of some god-awful pieces.  In my opinion the empty concert halls are in part the result of the industry’s long infatuation with those atonal concepts.

DERRICK:  How has the internet changed life for the concert artist today?  More specifically, how has YouTube, with its extraordinary library of music and musicians, changed the concert artist’s life today?

LOLA:  I think it’s fair to say that the Internet has changed not only the lives of individual artists, but the entire entertainment and media landscapes.  It’s even a bit overwhelming to think of all the opportunities that the Internet tools have opened for the arts, education, entertainment, and cultural exchange.  You are right, of course, about YouTube being a singular library of material, but there is much more to it than that.  It’s an amazing way to communicate with the audience directly, without intermediaries and outside the sometimes intimidating atmosphere of a concert hall.  It allows for an entirely different relationship between the artist and the listener and for a much closer, much more personal experience.

Another “YouTube revelation” actually relates to the “Holy Grail” of the classical music industry – the young audience.  For years classical presenters have been trying to lure the younger crowd into concert halls and evidently without much success.  Yet, over half of my online viewers are people in their teens, twenties and thirties.  I receive daily emails from teenagers who say that they are inspired, and who subscribe to my channel along with Taylor Swift’s or Kanye’s.  These are guys and girls of very diverse backgrounds, but they all seem to have a sort of innate appreciation for this music.  And many grasp the significance of the arts much more than the classical establishment knows.  For example, my video about the arts in this economy has been passionately supported by countless young YouTubers, including such Internet stars as Ryan Higa and Iman Crosson, while traditional classical organizations have remained completely indifferent if not hostile.

DERRICK:  Have the advantages of the internet and YouTube, such as increased exposure, made up for the fact that there is less need now for people to buy records?

LOLA:  From the artistic and audience interaction standpoint – absolutely.  From the strictly commercial standpoint – not yet, but classical music is, probably, less affected by that than pop because classical record sales have been essentially non-existent for years.

DERRICK:  What do you think of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony having been arranged as a concerto for piano and orchestra?  Have you seen the score?

LOLA:  I haven’t seen the score.  I’d have to see it before I can tell you what I think.

DERRICK:  You mentioned that you hoped to play in Seattle next year.  Are you anticipating a solo recital, or an appearance with orchestra?  Has anything been confirmed yet?

LOLA:  I have a confirmed private event performance in Washington next year, but I don’t believe I’ve been invited by any classical presenters in Seattle.  Once I’m invited, sure, I’d love to come and perform.

DERRICK:  If I were to select a few pieces that I would most like to hear you play, I would choose Scriabin’s Etude Op. 42, No. 5, Prokofiev’s 6th and 8th sonatas, and the sonata by Samuel Barber.  Is there any hope for me?

LOLA:  Yes, let’s start with Scriabin’s Etude.  I haven’t played it in a long time so thanks for reminding me.

DERRICK:  Lola, thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this interview.

John Rutter: Requiem

John Rutter

John Rutter

John Rutter (born September 24, 1945) is is an English composer and choral director who is well-known both for his original compositions and for his arrangements of familiar hymns and carols.

He composed this Requiem in 1985, the year after his father’s death.  Rutter stated that it is not strictly a setting of the Requiem Mass in the Catholic liturgy, but is comprised of a personal selection of texts, some taken from the Requiem Mass and some from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Rutter’s Requiem has a lot in common with the Requiem of Fauré, which was featured on this blog last month.  Among their similarities, perhaps none is more noteworthy than the peaceful mood that permeates both works.

This recording features the Monteverdi Choir of Würzburg, Germany, conducted by Matthias Beckert at a memorial concert on March 16, 2008.  The concert took place on the 63rd anniversary of the bombing of Würzburg in March 1945, in which nearly 90% of the city was destroyed in a British air raid – surely a fitting occasion for a requiem.

Published in: on October 4, 2009 at 6:47 am  Leave a Comment  
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Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Pianist – Yefim Bronfman

Prokofiev in 1915

I first became familiar with Prokofiev’s second piano concerto in the late ’60s, in a marvelous recording by John Browning that pairs the 1st and 2nd concertos.  In the liner notes to that album, American conductor Igor Buketoff introduces the 2nd Concerto this way:  “In the latter part of 1912, Prokofiev began work on his Second Piano Concerto, Op. 16.  In his typical fashion, Prokofiev begrudgingly accepted the criticisms of his First Piano Concerto and then proceeded to turn them to his own advantage.  ‘The charges of superficial bravura and acrobatic tendencies in the First Concerto led me to strive for greater depth in the Second’ the composer later remarked.

“But with greater depth there also crept in a suggestion of nervousness and even morbidity (Prokofiev dedicated the Concerto to the memory of a very close friend, the pianist Max Schmidthof, who had committed suicide earlier that year).  The enormously long, taxing and magnificent cadenza in the first movement is one of the highlights of the Concerto, as are the brilliance of the Scherzo, the harshness of the Intermezzo and the savagery of the Finale, with its superbly beautiful Russian second theme.”

In this performance, pianist Yefim Bronfman is joined by Vassily Sinaisky conducting the Rai National Symphony Orchestra in a 1997 performance at Turin, Italy.  For those looking for a something specific in the concerto, the magnificent cadenza in the first movement begins at 4:58, the second movement at 10:30, the third movement at 13:00, and the fourth movement at 19:20.