Samuel Barber: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Pianist – Albert Tiu

Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981)

Barber began writing his lone piano concerto in March of 1960.  By the end of the year, he had completed the first two movements, but he didn’t finish the third movement until just two weeks before the premiere, in September 1962.  Whatever his struggles with procrastination may have been, Barber wrote a magnificent concerto.  He received his second Pulitzer Prize for it in 1963.  The first was in 1958 for his opera Vanessa.

The soloist at the premiere was the late John Browning, who ultimately made two recordings of this concerto.  The first was in 1964 with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, and it was that record that served as my introduction to this piece.  The liner notes to that album, which I still have, include the following description that Barber wrote for the premiere:

“The Concerto begins with a solo for piano in recitative style in which three themes or figures are announced, the first declamatory, the second and third rhythmic.  The orchestra interrupts, piu mosso, to sing the impassioned main theme, not before stated.  All this material is now embroidered more quietly and occasionally whimsically by piano and orchestra until the tempo slackens (doppio meno mosso) and the oboe introduces a second lyric section.  A development along symphonic lines leads to a cadenza for soloist, and a recapitulation with fortissimo ending.

“The second movement (Canzona) is song-like in character, the flute being the principal soloist.  The piano enters with the same material which is subsequently sung by muted strings, to the accompaniment of piano figurations.

“The last movement (Allegro molto in 5/8), after several fortissimo repeated chords by the orchestra, plunges headlong into an ostinato bass figure for piano, over which several themes are tossed.  There are two contrasting sections (one ‘un pochettino meno’ for clarinet solo, and one for three flutes, muted trombones and harp, ‘con grazia’) where the fast tempo relents, but the ostinato figure keeps insistently reappearing, mostly by the piano protagonist, and the 5/8 meter is never changed.

I would particularly like to draw your attention to the beautiful second movement, which to me is the embodiment of the word ‘wistful’.

This video was recorded in 2002 during the final round of the first Helsinki International Maj Lind Piano Competition.  The Finnish Radio Orchestra is conducted by Hannu Lintu.  The pianist, Albert Tiu, a native of the Philippines, finished in fifth place in that competition, and considering the all-around brilliance of his performance, I can’t help but wonder about the top four finishers.  They must all be phenomenal.  For the record, they were Alberto Nosè (Italy), Kotaro Fukuma (Japan), Pierre Mancinelli (France), and Juho Pohjonen (Finland).

First Movement

Second and Third Movements

Published in: on July 31, 2015 at 4:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Samuel Barber: Sonata for Piano, Op. 26 Pianist – Vladimir Horowitz

Samuel Barber and Vladimir Horowitz

In my post of January 22, I introduced the idea of a beneficent genie who grants me the ability to play any three piano sonatas of my choosing.  One would be the Prokofiev sonata – the 6th – that I featured on that post, and another would have to be today’s selection, the Sonata Op. 26 by Samuel Barber.  This sonata was composed in 1949, and was premiered by Vladimir Horowitz early in 1950.  I was introduced to it in 1964 in a recital by Van Cliburn, and later purchased the extraordinary recording by Horowitz presented here.

In his notes to the Horowitz recording, the noted pianist, critic, and author Samuel Chotzinoff writes as follows:

Samuel Barber is an acknowledged master craftsman.  The classical sonata form is sympathetic to him and he knows how to put it to modern use.  Yet, notwithstanding his knowledge, his proficiency and his modernism, he remains an unabashed romantic.  And it is his romanticism which, I believe, attracted Horowitz and made the great pianist the ideal interpreter of the Sonata, Op. 26. Apart from its romantic subject matter, the composition as piano music seems tailor-made for Horowitz.  It bristles with splendid difficulties; and the final fugue, so instrumentally conceived, so bold and outspoken, invites the pianist to storm the heavens.  Any fugue today may be looked upon with suspicion as an outmoded form, quite inappropriate for the expression of the modern scene.  But the fugue in this sonata, though it dazzles the listener as a brilliant and intricate tour-de-force, is more than a sensational essay.  It comes as a logical climax to the emotions generated and exploited in the preceding movements.  And it is optimistic music, brightly affirmative, a kind of healthy credo.  It is music that in Goethe’s time would be called “yea-saying.”

It is a great pity that there is no video of Horowitz playing this sonata.  There is no question that video enhances a great performance, and there are other recordings of this sonata on YouTube that include video that I could have chosen.  None, however, can match the power, technical command, and expressiveness that Horowitz brought to this sonata, and I am tempted to say that none ever will.  Horowitz played this piece as if he wrote it, and when I listen to his performance, it is with an awe that approaches reverence.

Published in: on March 30, 2010 at 11:27 am  Leave a Comment  
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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, lolaastanova.com.  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.