Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 83 Pianist – Glenn Gould

Sergei Prokofiev

In 1939, Prokofiev began work on his 6th, 7th, and 8th piano sonatas, which would come to be known as his “War Sonatas” and which would turn out to be three of his best known and most important works for solo piano. He worked on them simultane­ously, setting one aside when inspiration flagged and turning to one of the others. The Sixth was completed in 1940 and the Seventh in ’42, and both were given their premiere by Sviatoslav Richter. The Eighth was finished in 1944, and was premiered by Emil Gilels.

The following description of the Seventh was written by Robert Cummings for allmusic.com.

This is the middle panel in Prokofiev’s grand trilogy of works called War Sonatas. It is the most popular of the three and, at about 16 or 17 minutes, the shortest as well. The first movement, marked Allegro inquieto, opens with a dark, menacing theme whose militaristic vehemence seizes the expressive reins at times with insistent bass chords that hammer out a crushing rhythm. The listener immediately senses a connection to war and struggle in this lively but conflicted opening. A lyrical second theme introduces gentler music, but does not break the dark mood. In the development section, a tense buildup constructed mainly on the first theme leads to a powerful climax, after which the music gradually becomes more tranquil, the second theme being reprised in a gloomy ethereality. A brief, rhythmic coda follows, its lively springiness seeming to sputter and stagger as it reaches the finish line.

The second movement is marked Andante caloroso and features a consoling main theme whose gently rocking lilt and overripe textures convey an almost decadent sense, as if its beauty is beginning to decay. Some listeners hear it as a kind of dark salon-like creation in its perfume-drenched melancholy and quasi-pop catchiness. The middle section turns intense and climaxes in a tolling-bell passage that eventually gives way to a reprise of the main theme.

The Precipitato finale is the most famous and dramatic movement of the three. Cast in an ABCBA structure, it opens with a driving main theme whose rhythmic jazzy elements convey a frenetic, fight-for-dear-life sense. The second theme maintains the perpetual-motion drive, but now the feeling of desperation takes on an insistent, if less harried manner, before yielding to the ensuing idea, which rises from the bass regions to turn almost subdued in the upper ranges. After the second theme reappears the main theme returns for a crashing, dissonant but ultimately triumphant conclusion in a blaze of dazzling virtuosic writing.

Glenn Gould (1932-1982) occupies a unique place in the annals of 20th century pianism. His recorded legacy is enormous, and includes almost all of Bach’s solo keyboard works. His role in bringing them into the concert mainstream cannot be overstated.  His stage presence and mannerisms were off-putting, however, and his interpretations consistently outraged many listeners. Today, thirty-five years after his death, his name continues to spawn controversy. For many, Gould could do no wrong, while others – equally vocal – regularly castigate him for what they see as the unpardonable liberties he took with the printed score.

Gould himself articulated the philosophy behind his controversial interpretations as follows:

If there’s any excuse at all for making a record, it’s to do it differently, to approach the work from a totally re-creative point of view … to perform this particular work as it has never been heard before. And if one can’t do that, I would say, abandon it, forget about it, move on to something else.

It was not a philosophy that would endear him to everyone, but I think Gould makes a valid point. Why would you record Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, for example, which has been recorded more often, perhaps, than any other sonata in the piano literature, if you have nothing new to say in it?

The Seventh was the first of Prokofiev’s sonatas that I came to know, thanks to a recording by Vladimir Horowitz that was one of my first records. Perhaps because I had heard it so often and knew it so well, my passion for it cooled over the years. When I inaugu­rated this blog, it was the Sixth and Eighth sonatas that I was eager to share, not the Seventh. It wasn’t until I discovered Gould’s performance, which was like none I had ever heard before, that my enthusiasm for this sonata was rekindled.

I think Gould would be gratified.

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Published in: on April 30, 2018 at 4:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Sergei Prokofiev: “Peter and the Wolf” Narrated by Itzhak Perlman

Peter and the WolfAfter eighteen years of self-imposed exile in Europe and America, Prokofiev returned to his native Russia in 1936.  Shortly afterward, he was approached by Natalia Satz, director of the Moscow Musical Theater for Children, with a proposal to write a play that would introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra.  Prokofiev embraced the idea wholeheartedly.  He wrote the music to “Peter and the Wolf” in just one week, and orchestrated it the next.  He dedicated the work to Ms. Satz, and it was introduced to the public in May 1936.

I don’t remember my own introduction to “Peter and the Wolf”, but my brother Mort informs me that in 1952, when I was but four years old, he was given a set of 78 rpm records of “Peter” that quickly became one of his favorites.  That recording of “Peter and the Wolf” may well have been the first classical music I ever heard, and may have fostered not only my love of Prokofiev, but of classical music as a whole.

If so, then I owe a great debt to “Peter”, one I will attempt to repay here.  Through this post, I hope to continue to introduce young people to the instruments of the symphony orchestra, to Prokofiev, and the world of classical music.

This video has everything!  First, of course, there is Prokofiev’s magical score.  Who can forget the optimism of Peter’s theme, the menace of the Wolf, the grumpy Grandfather, cheery Bird, stealthy Cat, and plaintive Duck?  We also have Jörg Müller’s loving illustrations.  Children will learn not only the instruments’ distinctive voices, but also what they look like.  And for the music student, we even have the musical notation for each of the characters’ themes.

The narration in this video is by the great violinist Itzhak Perlman, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is led by Zubin Mehta.  Share it with your children, or grandchildren!

Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 8 Pianist – Evgeny Kissin

Sergei Prokofiev in 1936 by Hilda Wiener

Sergei Prokofiev in 1936 by Hilda Wiener

One of the most frequently read articles on this blog has been my interview with Lola Astanova, which I posted in October 2009.  At the end of that interview, I posed the following request: “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?”

It was not an idle request; all four of those pieces are special to me.  The only one I have not yet featured on this blog is Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8, which has been a favorite of mine ever since I heard Vladimir Ashkenazy perform it in Denver more than forty years ago.  I hadn’t found a performance of it online that I wanted to share until I discovered the video of Evgeny Kissin presented below.

The third of his three “War Sonatas”, Prokofiev began work on the 8th in 1939 but didn’t complete it until 1944, when it was given its premiere by Emil Gilels.  It is, in a word, a monumental work, impossible to appreciate fully after just one hearing.  Even the great Sviatoslav Richter needed to hear it twice before gaining a clear sense of its importance.  He said of it, “After a single hearing, it was clear that this was a remarkable work, but when I was asked whether I planned to play it myself, I was at a loss for an answer… After the second hearing, I was firmly resolved to learn the piece.”

Richter goes on to say, “Of all Prokofiev’s sonatas, this is the richest.  It has a complex inner life, profound and full of contrasts.  At times it seems to grow numb, as if abandoning itself to the relentless march of time.  If it is sometimes inaccessible, this is because of its richness, like a tree that is heavy with fruit.  It remains one of my three favorite works, alongside the Fourth and Ninth Sonatas…” – from Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations by Bruno Monsaingeon

The Eighth reminds me of a Russian novel.  Epic in its scope, it steadfastly refuses to be hurried.  The first movement, marked Andante dolce (sweetly), is contemplative – almost improvisational – and deeply affecting.  The second movement, marked Andante sognando (dreamily), is one of Prokofiev’s most lyrical creations, while the concluding Vivace – rhythmically compelling, fearsomely difficult – is music of great joy, marked by the playfulness that is so characteristic of Prokofiev.

This extraordinary performance by Evgeny Kissin was recorded at the Verbier Festival of 2009.  One has the feeling that Kissin approaches this work with great humility, even reverence.  At its conclusion we feel honored to have been present, even if only via video.

Published in: on August 31, 2015 at 6:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major Violinist – Hilary Hahn

Prokofiev in 1916

Prokofiev in 1916

Prokofiev wrote his first violin concerto during the years 1915-1917, before leaving Russia in 1918 to seek fame and fortune in America.  It would not receive its premiere for another five years, however, on October 18, 1923 in Paris.  Marcel Darrieux was the soloist on that occasion, and Serge Koussevitzky conducted the Paris Opera Orchestra.

We learn from Wikipedia that, “The premiere of the work in the Soviet Union is also worth noting since it was given just three days after the Paris premiere by two 19-year-olds, Nathan Milstein and Vladimir Horowitz.  Horowitz played the orchestral part on the piano.  Milstein later wrote in his memoirs, From Russia to the West, ‘I feel that if you have a great pianist like Horowitz playing with you, you don’t need an orchestra.'”

Now, that was a performance I would have paid good rubles to attend!

In their fascinating biography of the composer, Prokofiev: A Biography in Three Movements, Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson write about the D major concerto as follows:

When he wrote this First Violin Concerto in 1917 many things had tamed (Prokofiev’s) natural exuberance: his mother’s illness, Miaskovsky’s absence, the uncertainty of life in a time of revolution, the dim future for music in Russia.  In consequence, the work reveals a Prokofiev so often hidden in his foreign years, the Prokofiev of The Ugly Duckling, whom Gorky, that man of feeling, had spotted at once.  It owes nothing to Mendelssohn, it is lyrical in the composer’s own fashion, and very pleasing.  If one looks for extravagant novelty or a complicated score they will not be found; what the concerto contains is something better, feeling expressed in contemporary terms.  It is not passionate, it is tender, and the more it is heard the better it seems…

Prokofiev had this to say about the lyrical aspect of his music: “This direction of mine was not allowed any serious existence until very much later and developed slowly because I was set down everywhere as a modernist, pure and simple, who for some extraordinary reason is not permitted the luxury of expressing or indeed of possessing feelings.”

In March 2010, violinist Hilary Hahn was interviewed by Jon Garelick for the Portland Phoenix, during which this exchange took place:

You’d think the Prokofiev Violin Concerto would have become part of the standard repertoire by now, but it’s actually not performed that often. What appeals to you about it?

It’s got this mercurial quality.  It’s always changing – just as you think you’ve got it pinned down, it shifts off in some other direction.  In a good way, not a distracted way.  I think Prokofiev just knows when to leave you wanting a little bit more and when to introduce a new idea.  I love the lyricism.  The way he wrote for all the instruments is both transparent and complexly interwoven.  It’s really beautiful – the moments that are kind of dreamy and mysterious – and then it’s really hard-hitting when he decides to go into something rhythmic.

Indeed, it is the lyricism of this piece that leaves the strongest, most lasting impression.

I came to love this concerto through one of my earliest records, a 1964 Columbia LP featuring Isaac Stern and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.  In this video, Hilary Hahn is joined by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel.  The three movements and their start times are as follows:

I. Andantino (00:00)

II. Scherzo: Vivacissimo (09:51)

III. Moderato – Andante (13:44)

Published in: on February 28, 2014 at 10:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor David Oistrakh, violin; Sviatoslav Richter, piano

David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter

David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter

Prokofiev began to compose his Violin Sonata No. 1 in 1938, but didn’t complete it until 1946, an eight-year interval that spans all of World War II. Despite many personal vicissitudes, this was a fruitful period for Prokofiev, one that included his opera War and Peace, the monumental Piano Sonatas Nos. 6 – 8 (the so-called “War Sonatas”), and the fifth and sixth symphonies.  Regarding his 6th symphony, Prokofiev wrote, “Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds that cannot be healed.  One has lost those dear to him, another has lost his health. These must not be forgotten.”

Like so many other great works, I was introduced to this piece when I was a student at the University of Colorado, in a recording by Joseph Szigeti and Artur Balsam.  Although it is usually risky to ascribe programmatic intent to a piece of music unless the composer himself has indicated such intent, it is impossible for me to listen to this sonata without being reminded of the utter devastation and wholesale loss of life that surrounded its creation.  In short, it speaks to me of irretrievable loss.  Prokofiev himself described the haunting, muted violin scales played against the soft, bell-like chords of the piano at the end of the 1st and 4th movements as “wind passing through a graveyard”.

Jean R. Dane wrote perceptively about this sonata as follows:

The Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 80… is an uncharacteristically grim, somber, troubled piece – fraught, intense, and passionate.  The pervasive darkness carries with it many moments of great beauty, but, in general, the shadows are lightened only by passages that border on real savagery.  One senses perhaps more anguish in this piece than in anything else Prokofiev wrote – and it was, in fact, the most apt that could be found to play at his funeral.

Who better to feature in this masterpiece than David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter, two giants of twentieth-century music, both of whom knew Prokofiev personally and were intimately associated with his work.  In fact, Prokofiev dedicated the sonata to Oistrakh, who, together with Lev Oborin, gave it its premiere in 1946.  “Nothing written for the violin in many decades – anywhere in the world – ” said Oistrakh, “could equal this piece in beauty and depth. I can make that statement without the slightest exaggeration.”

This memorable performance took place in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1972.  The four movements are marked Andante assai, Allegro brusco, Andante, and Allegrissimo.

Published in: on May 31, 2013 at 11:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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Concert Review: Gerard Schwarz Conducts The Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Toradze – Pianist

Under the baton of Conductor Laureate Gerard Schwarz, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra gave a concert last night at Benaroya Hall that was a joy and a revelation from first note to last.

The music ranged from the brand new to the altogether familiar. First on the program was the world premiere of Five Sky Interludes by Daron Aric Hagen.  These five pieces are all orchestral interludes from Hagen’s opera Amelia which premiered in 2010, though they would not have sounded out of place a hundred years earlier.  An American composer previously unknown to me, Hagen’s Five Sky Interludes has a distinctly American sound.  It is a dramatic, imaginative piece of music, easily accessible, yet certain to reward repeated hearings.  Having heard these excerpts, I would eagerly seek out the complete opera, and look forward to hearing more of Hagen’s music.

The next piece on the program was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring the Georgian-American pianist Alexander Toradze.  The Third is the most often-played of Prokofiev’s concerti.  The brilliance of its piano writing and its lush melodic content have made it a favorite among pianists and audiences alike ever since Prokofiev himself gave its premiere in 1921.  I confess to feeling some apprehension prior to this performance: I’ve been listening to this piece, off and on, for forty-seven years.  Surely I’ve heard it all before, right?

My concerns were laid to rest by the opening notes, rising from the first clarinet to greet me like a old friend.  How could I have worried?  Prokofiev is endlessly inventive, and even his best-known melodies retain their originality.  In addition, Toradze has a refreshingly individual approach to this piece.  His performance was studded with unexpected emphases and retards.  Perhaps his most dramatic departure from the routine were the expansive tempi he employed to good effect during the second movement.  The climax to the lyrical central section of the third movement was especially moving.

Overall, Toradze emphasized the dramatic and lyrical as opposed to the virtuosic and percussive.  His approach clearly resonated with the Seattle audience, which gave him an enthusiastic and well-deserved standing ovation.

Following the intermission, Mr. Schwarz led the orchestra in a stunning performance of Shostakovich’s monumental Symphony No. 8.  This symphony was composed in 1943, in the middle of what in Russia is still called The Great Patriotic War.  While it is usually risky to ascribe programmatic intent to a piece of music, it is impossible to separate this symphony from the circumstance of its composition.  At the very least, it was conceived during that horrific time, and it is impossible not to see it as a reflection of that conflict.

Certainly, the scale of the symphony mirrors the scale of the war.  The Symphony No. 8 is a full-blown epic, encompassing many different spectrums of expression: from playful to tragic, lyric to martial, heavenly to hellish.  One must admire Shostakovich’s daring in writing such an ambitious work.  Did he not fear that the critics would scold him for its length?

Personally, I think its length is one of its best features.  Music this personal and profound must be allowed to go its own way and reach its own conclusion.  Throughout all five movements, Mr. Schwarz exhibited brilliant, precise conducting, and the orchestra responded in kind.  The greatest credit, however, must go to Shostakovich himself; I am in awe of what he achieved in this piece.  During the ineffable final bars of the last movement, one particular phrase suggested itself to me, “the peace which passeth understanding.”  The audience’s prolonged ovation was well-earned and certainly to be expected, but it would have felt more fitting just to depart in silence.

I cannot conclude this review without giving you, the reader, an opportunity to see and hear this extraordinary work for yourselves.  What follows is a video of another, earlier performance of this symphony by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.  This one took place in 2006, and was originally broadcast on PBS.  [Note: After this post was published, the featured video was deleted from YouTube, probably because of a copyright violation.  In the video below, I present a different performance of this symphony, equally compelling, with Valery Gergiev conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.]

Derrick Robinson

Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No. 2 in D major Violinist – Gidon Kremer; Pianist – Martha Argerich

David Oistrakh and Sergei Prokofiev

This post is a companion piece to my entry of September 30, 2009, in which I presented Prokofiev’s original version of this sonata, written for flute and piano.  One year following its composition, Prokofiev transcribed the flute part for violin at the urging of his friend David Oistrakh, and it is in this version that the sonata has gained its widest audience.

I came to know this piece during my freshman year at the University of Colorado, in a recording by Joseph Szigeti and Artur Balsam.  This video features Gidon Kremer, who was himself a student of Oistrakh, in a glorious collaboration with his long-time partner, Martha Argerich.

A personal note about Martha Argerich, and I am quoting here from Wikipedia:

In 1990, Argerich was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. After treatment, the cancer went into remission, but there was a re-occurrence in 1995, eventually metastasizing to her lungs and lymph nodes. Following aggressive treatment at the John Wayne Cancer Institute, which included the removal of part of her lung and use of an experimental vaccine, Argerich’s cancer went into remission again. In gratitude, Argerich performed a Carnegie Hall recital benefiting the Institute.  Once a heavy cigarette smoker, Argerich quit smoking following her treatment. As of 2010, Argerich remains cancer-free.

Let’s have a round of applause for medical science!

Sergei Prokofiev: Sonata No. 6 in A major Pianist – Boris Feiner

Sergei Prokofiev on the cover of Time Magazine, November 19, 1945

If some beneficent genie were to grant me the ability to play any three sonatas of my choosing, the sixth sonata by Prokofiev would have to be one of the three.  The first of Prokofiev’s three “War Sonatas”, the 6th was composed in 1939-1940, and given its first performance on April 8, 1940 with the composer at the piano.  I heard it for the first time in 1965, in a recital by Van Cliburn, who later released it – together with the sonata by Samuel Barber – on an RCA record appropriately titled “Two 20th-Century Masterpieces”.  In the liner notes to that album, Edward Jablonski writes, “One of his most majestic compositions, [the Sixth] is typically Prokofievian in the grandeur of the first movement, the wit of the second, the wistful beauty of the third and the propulsive drive of the finale.”

The pianist in this recording is Boris Feiner, whom we met earlier this month in a recording of Debussy’s “Pour le Piano”.  In an unusual co-mingling of performances, Mr. Feiner elected to upload video of the first two movements from a recital in Bad Bergzabern, Germany on September 29, 2006, and the third and fourth from a recital five days earlier, in Rheinsberg.

Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 8:27 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.

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.