Bach: Chaconne in D minor – Jascha Heifetz, Violin and Hélène Grimaud, Piano

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach’s Chaconne in D minor occupies a place of honor as the fifth and final movement of his Partita No. 2 for solo violin.  It also has a life of its own as a stand-alone composition, both in its original scoring and in numerous transcriptions for other instruments and ensembles.

The great Yehudi Menuhin called the Chaconne “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists”, and Johannes Brahms, who wrote his own transcription of it for piano left-hand, said of it:

On one stave, for a small instrument, Bach writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings.  If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

In this video from 1970, we hear the original version of the Chaconne, as performed by the legendary Jascha Heifetz.

In 1892, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), the prolific Italian composer, pianist, and conductor, wrote what has become the most famous transcription of the Chaconne.  His arrangement for solo piano was described by Anthony Tommasini, music critic for the N.Y. Times, as follows:

Ferruccio Busoni

Ferruccio Busoni

“This 15-minute score, composed in 1892, is no mere transcription, but Mr. Busoni’s visionary re-conception of the music.  He reveals the implications of Bach’s keenly dramatic piece, a set of variations on the stern theme in the manner of a chaconne (an early Baroque dance in triple meter).  The piano writing is thick with counterpoint, outbursts of octaves, long stretches of chromatically unstable chords and elaborate figurations that spin Bach’s notes into keyboard-spanning passagework.”

John Mortensen, professor of piano at Cedarville University, had this to say about Busoni’s transcription:

Busoni’s arrangement draws upon the power, resonance, and polyphonic capabilities of the piano to elucidate ideas which Bach outlined on the violin.  Bach’s violin piece is the book; Busoni’s transcription is the movie.  The compositional integrity of the original is strong enough that it transcends musical style, working just as well as Busoni’s extroverted, demonstrative Romantic work.

In the video that follows, Busoni’s transcription is performed by the wonderful Hélène Grimaud, whom I have featured twice before on this blog in concertos by Beethoven and Brahms.


Published in: on February 28, 2016 at 1:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Wanda Landowska Plays Bach

I first learned of Wanda Landowska (1879-1959) when I was in high school, and read Harold Schonberg’s landmark book, “The Great Pianists”, which I recommend heartily to all students of music, especially those who love the piano, for whom it should be required reading.  I first heard her play on the Angel “Great Recordings of the Century” LP devoted to her interpretations of Bach.  I was totally unfamiliar with the harpsichord at the time, but to put it simply, I fell in love with her playing.  I never imagined that the harpsichord could express the power, majesty, and passion that, under her fingers, it never fails to convey.

In The Great Pianists, Harold Schonberg writes of Landowska,

…Her playing was on an equally romantic level, and who is to say that it was not closer to Bach than the dry munchings of some later harpsichordists?  As an executant she had a miraculous equality of touch, with a left hand that seemed to have a brain of its own.  Her registrations were, to say the least, colorful.  But no artist in this generation (and, one is confident, in any generation) could with equal deftness clarify the polyphonic writing of the baroque masters.  And none could make the music so spring to life…

Her secret was a lifetime of scholarship, plus perfect technical equipment and resilient rhythm, all combined with a knowledge of just when not to hold the printed note sacrosanct.

Concerning the first piece of music presented below, the Toccata in D Major, Landowska herself writes as follows:

There are seven different manuscripts of this composition in existence, all of which bear the title “Toccata”; only one – a more recent copy – is entitled “Fantasia con Fuga”.  The Toccata in D Major contains within itself all the elements of Bach’s genius: the spontaneity and force of his improvisation, the logic of his contrapuntal elaboration, his unique sense of architecture.  Bach’s masterly hand unites these varied elements into a magnificent triptych; flanked on each side by a brilliant D Major, a tragic but tranquil F-sharp minor forms its centerpiece, which is a fugue of supreme beauty.

This performance was recorded in September 1936.  I would like to call your attention particularly to the fugue that begins at 9:42.  The “resilient rhythm” in Landowska’s playing was never more strikingly evident.  I know of no other music, composed by anyone, that is more compelling and powerful – or that conveys a greater sense of joy – than this fugue.

The next piece was recorded by Landowska in July 1935.  Concerning it, she writes:

The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (BVW 903) belongs to the Cöthen period.  1720 is a reasonable date for a first draft, but the definitive version, elaborated in Leipzig, has come down to us in a number of copies, although the original manuscript is missing.  The oldest of these copies is dated 6th December 1730.  This work seems to be unique among Bach’s compositions, not only because it was widely distributed during his lifetime (the number of copies bears witness to this), but in particular by its exceptional intensity.  An improviser of inexhaustible imagination, an incomparable virtuoso – such is the impression of Bach which this “fantasia” gives, a work related to the composer’s most brilliant toccatas.  A youthful work, it shows traces of his first heroes: Kuhnau, Froberger, Pachelbel, Buxtehude…

After the Fantasia the Fugue, despite its chromatic theme, expresses a contrasting ardour which ends in serene joy…  It is perhaps pure accident that the first notes of the subject reproduce in German musical notation an anagram on the name Bach… It forms one of the most striking examples of the mastery of composition, architectural balance and creative power in Bach’s works.

A well-known story about Landowska concerns a tête-à-tête she had with the eminent cellist and Bach authority, Pablo Casals.  After the two of them had defended different points of view concerning certain aspects of interpretation, Landowska got in the undisputed last word when she said, “My dear Pau, (as she called him), let us not fight anymore.  Continue to play Bach your way, and I, his way.”

Published in: on October 31, 2011 at 7:23 pm  Comments (5)  
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Johann Sebastian Bach: Italian Concerto Pianist – Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould at age 13 with his dog Nick.

Last month, as I was returning home from a quick trip to Bellingham, I heard Glenn Gould’s extraordinary recording of Bach’s Italian Concerto on my favorite radio station: KING-FM in Seattle.  I had first heard this record when I was in high school, but it had been many years since I last heard it.  I had forgotten how jaunty the first movement sounds under his fingers, how brooding and introspective the second, how uninhibitedly joyful the third.  But it all came back in a moment, and I knew right away that I wanted to feature it on this blog.

To my great delight, I found that not only was there a video on YouTube of Gould playing the Italian Concerto, but this video was part of a lengthy documentary that chronicles the recording of the very performance I knew and loved, and offers some fascinating glimpses of Gould the man.

Born in Toronto in 1932, Gould’s musical gifts were manifest at a young age.  He enjoyed a brilliant – though unusually short – concert career, before forsaking the concert stage at the age of 31 to focus on making records.  He recorded extensively, and by the time of his untimely death at age 50, enjoyed world-wide popularity and critical acclaim.

What set Gould apart from other pianists was his exceptional individuality.  I suspect that he had something of the provocateur in his nature, and have often wondered if as a young man he didn’t make a pact with himself never to play a piece if he couldn’t bring something new and unexpected to the performance.  His repertoire, though it included much standard fare, also included a great deal that had been neglected.  His tempi were often much slower or faster than other pianists’, and his interpretations were regularly characterized as eccentric.

Nevertheless, his playing always displayed absolute conviction, and his interpretations stand up very well to the test of time.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the Italian Concerto by Bach, which I consider definitive.

Published in: on August 31, 2010 at 9:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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 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.