Beethoven: Piano Trio Op. 97 “Archduke” The Istomin/Stern/Rose Trio

Ludwig van Beethoven

Of the seven trios that Beethoven wrote for piano, violin, and cello, it is the seventh, the “Archduke”, that is the best known.  Composer and author Kathy Henkel, who writes regularly for the LA Philharmonic web­site, wrote a short article about the “Archduke”, which you can read here in its entirely.  Here is a brief excerpt:

It was in the summertime of 1810 that Beethoven began sketching what would become his final and finest piano trio.  Earlier that year, he had harbored serious thoughts of marrying his doctor’s lovely 18-year-old niece, Therese Malfatti.  When his hopes were dashed, the composer slunk off to Baden for a few months, where he nursed his wounds and distracted himself by jotting down plans for a string quartet and a piano trio.  On his return to Vienna in October, he completed the quartet – his striking Op. 95, “Serioso.”  The piano trio itself was written in a flurry of inspiration from March 3 to 26 the following year.  It completed a decade of awesome creativity which had begun with the “Eroica” Symphony.  Coming at the end of this so-called “heroic” decade, the “Archduke” Trio represented the full bloom and the crowning achievement of the composer’s Middle Period.  It is music of sweeping grandeur for a trio of virtuosos.

Indeed, it was just such a trio of virtuosos – Eugene Istomin, Isaac Stern, and Leonard Rose – who joined forces in 1961 to form the Istomin/Stern/Rose Trio, featured in the video below.  All three enjoyed long and distinguished careers as solo artists.  Their collaboration would continue for 23 years – until the death of Leonard Rose in 1984 – and they received a Grammy Award in 1971 for their recording of the complete Beethoven piano trios.

The noted Beethoven authority John Suchet has written movingly about the premiere of the “Archduke” trio:

The most beautiful of all Beethoven’s Piano Trios, and one that holds a poignant place in his life.  At its first public performance Beethoven insisted on playing the piano part, although his hearing was now (1814) seriously defective.  The composer and violinist Louis Spohr reported:

It was not a good performance.  In the first place the piano was badly out of tune, which was of little concern to Beethoven because he could not hear it.  Secondly, on account of his deafness, there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired.  In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys till the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so that the music was unintelligible.  I was deeply saddened at so harsh a fate.  It is a great misfor­tune for anyone to be deaf, but how can a musician endure it without giving way to despair?  From now on Beethoven’s continual melancholy was no longer a riddle to me.

Beethoven knew it too.  Apart from one more performance a few weeks later, he never performed in public again.  Listen to the glorious slow movement [at 21:15 in the video below] of the Archduke Trio knowing that, and it will carry a whole new meaning.

The tempo indications of the four movements, and their start times in the video below, are as follows:

1. Allegro moderato – 0:00
2. Scherzo (Allegro) – 13:52
3. Andante cantabile ma però con moto – 21:15
4. Allegro moderato – 34:26

Published in: on August 31, 2017 at 7:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Beethoven: “Waldstein” Sonata in C Major Pianist – Emil Gilels

“The older I get, I realize that this is not just one of the greatest sonatas of Beethoven, but it’s one of the greatest pieces of music there is.”                                     Andras Schiff

beethovenBeethoven composed the Waldstein Sonata, Op. 53 in 1804, the same year he wrote the Eroica Symphony.  It takes its name from its dedication to Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, Beethoven’s friend and sponsor early in his creative life.

I came to know this piece many years ago, early in my enthusiasm for classical music.  One of my first records was the Angel “Great Recordings of the Century” LP featuring Artur Schnabel playing this sonata, as well as Op. 54 and Op. 57 (the “Appassionata”).

From 2004 to 2006, the renowned pianist Andras Shiff, whose comment about this sonata appears at the top of this post, gave a series of lecture-recitals devoted to all 32 of Beethoven’s sonatas at London’s Wigmore Hall.  The entire series is available on YouTube, and should be an invaluable resource for pianists.  If you would like to hear Schiff’s thoughts about the Waldstein, you can hear that particular lecture here.

Several years ago, while listening to a performance of this sonata late one night on Seattle’s KING-FM, I was struck by the thought that the main theme of the third movement (which makes its first appearance in this video at 15:48) sounded amazingly like Schubert.  I even looked up the date of composition to see if Beethoven might possibly have been influenced by Schubert when he wrote it.  (He wasn’t; Schubert was only seven when this sonata was written.  The influence, if any, was in the opposite direction.)  Does this theme remind anyone else of Schubert?  Please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.

This video features the legendary Russian pianist Emil Gilels (1916 – 1985), whom I have featured twice before on this blog in short works by Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev.  Although best known for his interpretations of large-scale works like the “Waldstein”, Gilels had a wonderful gift for the more intimate repertory as well, one which is especially evident in his recordings of Grieg’s “Lyric Pieces”, another favorite of mine and also available on YouTube.

Published in: on March 31, 2014 at 7:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58 Pianist – Hélène Grimaud

One of the great things about the internet, it seems to me, is the way it can lead you to discoveries that you might otherwise never have made.  Much of the music and many of the musicians I have featured on this blog were just such discoveries.  This video of Beethoven’s 4th concerto is another, and therein lies a story…

A little over a week ago, I was listening to Marc-Andre Hamelin’s performance of the Berg Sonata that I featured last month.  When the video ended, there appeared on my screen a link to a performance of the same sonata by French pianist Hélène Grimaud.  I clicked on it, and while listening, happened to see another link, this one to a documentary about Ms. Grimaud entitled “Living with Wolves”.  Who could resist that?  I clicked again, and watched the entire video, all 55 minutes of it.  (That documentary, which is fascinating, can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O23tQPJ9ZbY.)

A short segment of “Living with Wolves” made an especially strong impression on me.  At 28:16 there is an excerpt from the second movement of Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto.  I was struck immediately by the intimacy of Ms. Grimaud’s conception.  I have heard many pianists perform this movement, but I have never heard the dialog between piano and orchestra rendered so movingly.  The pleading of the piano, set against the stern remonstrations of the orchestra, is particularly memorable.  I knew right away that I had made a great discovery, one that I wanted to share with readers of this blog.

In “Living with Wolves”, Ms. Grimaud comments about this concerto as follows:

The Beethoven 4th Concerto for me is just one of the most beautiful things ever written for piano and orchestra, and I really believe to this day is still one of the most original ones.  I mean, if you think about how the concerto starts, which for the time was a revolution, with the piano beginning the piece, and then of course the format of the second movement, and this dialog, it really remains one of the most incredible things ever written.  And it has a special place in my heart amongst the five concerti.  It’s for me the most – this is going to sound bizarre – the most different.  They’re all different, of course, but this one really stands aside in the quality of expression and the sort of philosophical quality to the concerto.  For me, it’s a concerto that takes place already beyond the basic human emotions, unlike the other four.

I can add only that Ms. Grimaud’s feelings about this concerto are captured beautifully in this video.  And to think I might never have heard it, or of Hélène Grimaud for that matter, if not for YouTube and the internet.  Truly, these are great days we live in!

In this performance, Christoph Eschenbach conducts the Orchestre de Paris in 2001 at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Published in: on February 29, 2012 at 6:50 pm  Comments (2)  
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Beethoven:Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” Pianist: Manlio Giordano

The young Beethoven, by Maxine Frost

In honor of Beethoven’s 240th birthday, I have chosen a piece that occupies a special place in my heart.  The “Emperor” concerto was one of the very first pieces of classical music that I came to know and love.  In 1963, when my passion for classical music was just beginning to bloom, my parents happened to own the RCA Victor recording of Van Cliburn playing this concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Fritz Reiner.  One of the few classical albums in the house, this one got played a lot!

The soloist in this video is the Italian-Swedish pianist Manlio Giordano.  This concert marked a proud moment in Manlio’s career: it was his first solo performance with orchestra.  Given that circumstance, he plays with remarkable self-possession and maturity.  Unlike many soloists, he never distracts the audience’s attention from the music.  His tone is never harsh or forced; in fact, he plays this most joyful concerto with an extraordinary – almost Mozartean – delicacy.  Most important, his interpretation owes nothing to other pianists; on the contrary, he plays with astonishing individuality.  Although artists tend to be notoriously self-critical, I would hope that on this occasion at least, Manlio was well-satisfied with his playing.

This performance took place on October 28, 2001 in Luleå, Sweden, where the Luleå Orchestra was conducted by Hans Ek.

Maxine Frost, whose portrait of the young Beethoven I have reproduced above, is one of the many fine announcers at KING FM in Seattle.  You can find more wonderful examples of her artwork at her blog “Crazy for the Composers” at http://www.maxinefrost.com/blogengine.net/

Published in: on December 16, 2010 at 11:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Concert Review: Pianist Valentina Lisitsa Returns to George Fox University

Valentina Lisitsa

The internationally acclaimed Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa returned to George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon on Friday, September 30 to give her second recital at Bauman Auditorium this year.  She opened her program with five pieces by Rachmaninoff: the Etude Tableaux, Op. 39 No. 6 (“Little Red Riding Hood”) and four preludes.  In all of these pieces, Miss Lisitsa demonstrated an astonishing assurance and technical command, together with a gorgeous singing line and exceptional delicacy.  She has an unmistakable affinity for Rachmaninoff, and is the ideal interpreter of his music.

This was followed by Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, the justly famous “Appassionata”.  One of Beethoven’s best-known sonatas, the Appassionata is a work of sharply contrasting moods.  Full of Sturm und Drang, it also has its light-hearted and noble moments.  Throughout the shifting moods, Valentina put every musical idea into proper perspective, and overlooked nothing.  She succeeded beautifully in unifying the disparate elements of this work into a coherent and compelling whole.

Following the intermission, in honor of the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, Miss Lisitsa played no fewer than 16 of the Polish master’s works: three waltzes, six etudes, and seven nocturnes.  The “Black Key” etude never sounded more effervescent, while Op. 10 No. 12 sounded more revolutionary than ever.  Her renditions of the “Winter Wind” etude and Op. 25 No. 12 were perhaps the best performances of those two pieces I’ve ever heard.

For me, however, the high point of Miss Lisitsa’s Chopin lay in the seven nocturnes.  The uniqueness of Chopin’s voice is nowhere more striking than in his nocturnes.  From one to the next, as well as within a given nocturne, they are full of changing moods.  Op. 27 No. 1 at one point sounded unmistakably like a polonaise, while Op. 9 No. 2 was distinctly waltz-like.  Miss Lisitsa’s performance of this nocturne so completely captivated the audience that, at its conclusion, no one wanted to break the spell of the music by applauding.  Miss Lisitsa let the final chord fade away into utter silence, but not until she was about to begin the Liszt rhapsody that followed did anyone dare to clap.

The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 with which Miss Lisitsa concluded her program has been sending audiences home in a state of happy excitement for more than a century and a half, and it didn’t fail in its purpose this night.  Valentina certainly made that piano thunder!  My only hope is that the memory of the Liszt rhapsody didn’t make people forget the Chopin nocturnes.

If you love the piano, and have the chance to hear Valentina Lisitsa, you must not let the opportunity pass you by.  Everything she does has been carefully considered; there are no careless passages.  In everything she plays, she keeps in mind the big picture.  “Her keyboard technique is preposterously complete,” wrote a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle.  This is certainly true, but what is more important is that Valentina always searches out how to put her technique at the service of the music she plays.  It is this quality that makes her such an important and unforgettable artist.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on October 2, 2010 at 10:48 pm  Comments (5)  
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Beethoven: Moonlight Sonata, Op. 27 No. 2 Pianist – Valentina Lisitsa

Valentina Lisitsa

The Sonata Op. 27 No. 2, known universally as the Moonlight Sonata, is one of Beethoven’s most famous piano works.  Recorded countless times, it has been a staple of the recital hall since its debut in 1801.  Indeed, its popularity is said to have annoyed Beethoven, who once remarked to Carl Czerny, “Surely I’ve written better things.”

The first movement is marked Adagio sostenuto, and it has been suggested that the Romantic period in music dates from this very piece.  Hector Berlioz remarked insightfully that this movement was “one of those poems that human language does not know how to qualify.”  Indeed, how would you describe it?  Is it sad, tragic even?  Or is it merely solemn?  Readers are invited to leave a comment with their thoughts about this familiar, yet mysterious piece.

The second movement, marked Allegretto, is very different in character from the first, yet seems to flow from it as naturally as spring follows winter.  Stately yet graceful, it reminds me of a courtly dance, and gives us no hint at all of the of the approaching storm.

The final movement, Presto agitato, calls to mind Olin Downes’ characterization of Vladimir Horowitz: “a tornado unleashed from the steppes.”  It is headstrong, impetuous, and unbridled.  With each recurrence of the main theme, I get the sense that the music threatens to run away with the pianist.

But it never does.  Valentina keeps everything under exquisite control.  Her performance of this sonata is one for the ages, and we can all be grateful that it has been immortalized in a video of such outstanding quality.  It was recorded in December 2009 in the Beethovensaal in Hannover, Germany.

Published in: on September 30, 2010 at 3:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Valentina Lisitsa: Four Encores

After thrilling to her brilliant performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, the audience in Seoul was in no mood to let Valentina Lisitsa leave the stage.  They called her back for no less than four encores, each of which reveals a different aspect of her artistry.  Her first encore was by Franz Liszt, who was himself an admirer of Grieg’s concerto.

“La Campanella”                        by Franz Liszt

“La Campanella” (“The Little Bell”) is the third of six “Grandes Etudes de Paganini” by Liszt, all of which are based on compositions by the great 19th-century Italian violinist and composer Nicolo Paganini, and all of which are notoriously hard to play.  This kind of knuckle-busting difficulty is Valentina Lisitsa’s bread and butter, but as we will see in a moment, she can also play with exquisite sweetness.

“Traumerei” by Robert Schumann

“Traumerei” means “Dreaming”, and this piece is as different as possible from the virtuoso showpieces that Valentina Lisitsa is known for.  She plays it beautifully, and it was this performance more than any other that convinced me of her artistry.

Vladimir Horowitz, for whom “Traumerei” was a signature piece, once related the following incident as a gentle reminder to anyone who might think that slow, lyrical music is easy to play.  A young virtuoso once came to the famous piano class of Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna, and upon being asked to play, stunned everyone with a phenomenal display of virtuosity.  The most difficult music seemed to flow effortlessly from his fingers.  He kept this up for quite some time without as much as a drop of perspiration on his brow.  When he had finished this astonishing performance, someone wistfully asked that he play a simple piece by Schumann, such as “Traumerei”.  Obligingly, the young virtuoso complied, and after four bars he was perspiring profusely!

Prelude in G minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff

The attentive reader may recall that this prelude was featured on this blog in September in a memorable performance by Emil Gilels.  It is unmistakably Russian in character, and very majestic.

“Fur Elise” by Ludwig van Beethoven

Valentina’s fourth and final encore was Beethoven’s well-known “Fur Elise”.  You will hear some surprised laughter as she begins to play, as the audience was undoubtedly expecting one of her trademark virtuoso encores, not a student recital piece.  What they got instead was a thoughtful, poignant rendering of this hackneyed Bagatelle, one that demonstrates just how beautiful it can be when played by a true artist.

You can learn more about Valentina at her website: valentinalisitsa.com, and will find many more examples of her playing at her YouTube channel: youtube.com/valentinalisitsa.