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Archive for the ‘Franz Liszt’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: KIRILL GERSTEIN-Tiny Desk Concert #958 (March 11, 2020).

I can’t really keep track of classical pianists. There are so many who are truly amazing.  But I love hearing them.  I also like it when they have a good sense of humor, which most of them seem to have.

The last time pianist Kirill Gerstein was at NPR we gave him a full-size, grand piano to play in a big recording studio. But for this Tiny Desk performance, we scaled him down to our trusty upright. “What will you ask me to play the next time,” he quipped, “a toy piano?”

Even if we had handed him a pint-sized instrument, I’m sure Gerstein could make it sing. Just listen to how Chopin’s lyrical melodies, built from rippling notes and flamboyant runs, flow like a song without words in Gerstein’s agile hands.

What sets Gerstein apart?  Perhaps its his connection to jazz.

The 40-year-old pianist, born in Voronezh, Russia, taught himself to play jazz by listening to his parents’ record collection. A chance meeting with vibraphonist Gary Burton landed him a scholarship to study jazz at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. At age 14, Gerstein was the youngest to enroll at the institution.

He opens the set with Chopin: “Waltz in A-flat, Op. 42.”  It is fast and amazing with some slow, jaunty parts.  Near the end, wow, doe he pound out those bass chords.

Before the second piece he says that it hasn’t been heard on a recording yet–it’s a newly written piece by Thomas Adès.  Two lovers want to hide in the closet and … sleep with each other.  They emerge dead in the morning, so its lascivious and morbid and a very beautiful piece.

The Berceuse for solo piano was written for Gerstein by Thomas Adès, adapted from his 2016 opera The Exterminating Angel. The work, both brooding and beautiful, receives its premiere recording at the Tiny Desk.

It is slow and beautiful, full of sadness and longing.  Until the end when the bass comes pounding and rumbling, full of ominous threat and dread.  And listen to how long he lets those last bass notes ring out!

Up next is a piece by Liszt who I am particularity fond of (even if I only know a few of his pieces).  Gerstein says that Liszt is perhaps the greatest composer that ever touched the instrument.  There are several hundred not famous pieces.  This is a late piece called “A quick Hungarian march.”  Technically it’s called “Ungarischer Geschwindsmarsch”

Gerstein follows by dusting off a truly neglected – and quirky – Hungarian March by Franz Liszt. To my knowledge it’s been recorded only once.

It is jaunty and spirited until the middle where it goes back and forth between fast runs and bouncy melodies.

Since I hadn’t read about his jazz background the first time I listened to this concert I was really surprised when he said he’d be playing the Gershwin-Earl Wild standard “Embraceable You” which he says is for dessert at this lunchtime concert.

Gerstein’s jazz background is still close to his heart. Which brings us to his lovely-rendered closer: Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” arranged by the American pianist Earl Wild.

Like all master performers, Gerstein gives you the illusion that he’s making it all up as he goes along, even though the virtuosic transcription is intricately mapped out. And somehow, he makes that upright piano sound nine feet long.

It really does sound like he is working on the fly–playing beautiful runs. It’s hard to imagine transcribing and learning all of those notes instead of just improvising them, but that’s what make a great pianist, I guess.

[READ: November 2019] The Abyss

I saw this book at work and thought, a turn of the 20th century Russian author writing about the Abyss?  What’s not to like?

I had not heard of Leonid Andreyev, perhaps because much of his work has not been translated into English.  He died in 1919 and is considered “the leading exponent of the Silver Age of Russian literature.”

This book was translated by Hugh Aplin and it is remarkable how contemporary these stories sound (aside from obviously nineteenth and twentieth century details).

Bargamot and Garaska (1898)
Bargamot was a policeman–a big, thick-headed policeman.  His superiors called him numskull.  But the people on the streets he looked after were quite fond of him because he knew the area and what he knew he knew very well.  This story is set on Easter Saturday night.  People would soon be going to church.  But he was on duty until three o’ clock and he wouldn’t be able to eat until then. The day was going smoothly and he would soon be home until he saw Garaksa, clearly drunk, heading his way: “Where he had managed to get sozzled before daylight constituted his secret, but that he had got sozzled was beyond all doubt.”  Bargamot threatened to send Garaska to the station, but Garaska talked to him about the festivities of the day and was about to present to him an egg (a Russian custom).  But Bargamot’s rough handling smashed the egg.  This story turns surprisingly tender and sad, with a rather touching final line.

A Grand Slam (1899)
This has nothing to do with baseball.  It is about a card game called Vint, which is similar to bridge.  For six years these four people have been playing it: fat hot-tempered Maslennikov (whose name is Nikolai Dmitriyevich, we find out about five pages in) paired with old man Yakov Ivanovich and Yevpraksia Vasilyevna paired with her gloomy brother Prokopy Vailyevich.  Dmitriyevich desperately wanted a grand slam but he had been paired with Yakov Ivanovich who never took risks. Ivanovich was very conservative and never bet more than four–even when he ran an entire trick, he never bet more than four–you never know what might happen. They speak of news and local happenings (like the Dreyfus Affair), but Dmitriyevich stays focused on the game because his cards are lining up for a Grand Slam.  As he goes for that last card, he falls out of his chair, presumably dead.

Silence (1900)
This story is divided into sections.  Fr. Ignaty and his wife need to speak with their daughter Vera. They have a fight and Fr. Ignaty refuses to speak to her any more.  Soon enough she goes out and throws herself under a train [I would hate to be a train conductor in Russia].  In Part II silence has fallen over the house.  In Part III he tries to talk to his wife about his feelings and his sadness over their daughter, but she remains silent.  In the final part, Fr Ignaty finally breaks down.  But is it the silence that has gotten to him?

Once Upon a Time There Lived (1901)
Laventy Petrovich was a large man. He went to Moscow for someone in the city to look at his unusual illness.  He was a silent and morose man and he specifically asked for no visitors.  The hospital assigned Fr. Deacon to him.  Fr. Deacon was another patient, unfailingly positive.  He and Petrovich were at opposite sides of the spectrum.  But even as it became clear that Fr. Deacon was deathly ill, he remained positive.  Until Petrovich told him that the doctors said that Fr. Deacon has a week to live.  There was also a young student who was daily visited by the girl he loved.  They liked Fr deacon and did not like Petrovich. I’m not sure if the ending is a surprise, but it is certainly sudden with happiness doled out in very specific ways.

A Robbery in the Offing (1902)
That night there was to be a robbery and maybe a murder.  A man, alone with his thought is scared by nearly everything–he is very jumpy because he is the one about to do the robbery.  The man was frightened by a noise until he saw it was a little puppy.  The puppy was shivering and the man tried to frighten him to get him to go home. But the puppy seemed too ignore him.  So began the battle of wits between a big strong man and a tiny freezing puppy.  Imagine a man with a robbery in the offing worrying about a little puppy.

The Abyss (1902)
Two young lovers went for a walk.  Zinochka was 17 and very much in love.  Nemovetsky was 21 and similarly in love.  They wandered into an area they didn’t recognize and happened upon three men.  The men punched Nemovetsky and knocked him out then they chased Zinochka . When he came to, he found her body, naked but still alive.  This was a hard story to read.

Ben Tobit (1903)
This was one of the first stories in the book that I really really liked.  It is set on the day of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.  On that day, Jerusalem merchant Ben Tobit had a terrible toothache.  Ben was a kind man and did not like injustice, but it was hard to be kind with this much pain.  His wife tried to help by giving him various medicines (like purified rat droppings). She then tried to distract him when the thieves came trudging past on their way to the crucifixion site.  It distracted him somewhat but mostly didn’t interest him.  She said, “They say he healed the blind.”  He replied, “If only he’d cure this toothache of mine!.”  The next day he felt better and they walked to the site to see what they missed.

Phantoms (1904)
Yegor Timofeyevich had gone mad so his relatives collected money to send him to a clinic.  He knew he was in a madhouse but also knew that he could make himself incorporeal and walk wherever he wanted.  He was exceedingly happy. There was a patient who would continually knock on any locked door.  He would walk through all the unlocked doors but when he got to a locked one he would knock and knock and knock.

There was a doctor’s assistant the hospital named Maria Astafeevna, whom Yegor was certain liked him.  He thought very highly of her.  But another man Petrov could say nothing nice about her.  He felt that she was like all women: debauched deceitful and mocking. This attitude upset Yegor tremendously.  Maria was actually in love with Dr Shevyrov. But she hated that he went to Babylon–where he drank three bottles of champagne each night until 5 AM.  She imagined that one day she would ask to be his wife bit only if he stopped going there.

The man Petrov was also terrified of his mother, believing that she had bribed officials to lock him up. He would become hysterical when she would visit.  It was only Yegor’s assurances to her that her son was a decent man that made her feel okay.

Most days things went on exactly the same, the same faces, the same conversation and the same knocking.

The Thief (1904)
Fyodor Yurasov was a thrice-convicted thief.  While on the train, even though he had plenty of money, he stole a gentleman;s purse.  As he tried to blend in, he imagined everyone thought he was an honest, young German (he came up with the name Heinrich Walter).  But when he tried to be civil, everyone ignored him.  Some were downright rude to him.  Later when he hears that the gendarme are looking for someone, he assumed it is he.

Lazarus (1906)
This story looks at what Lazarus’ life was like after he came back–appearing a few days dead and with a shorter temper.  People understood and forgave him, but still.  Soon, however, people began to avoid him and claimed that all of the madmen in the village were people whom Lazarus had looked upon.   It’s such an interesting (if exceeding dark) tale that no one bothered to investigate before.

A Son of Man (1909)
As Fr. Ivan Bogoyavlensky grew older he grew more disatisfied with his role in life.  He wanted to remove his surname and replace it with a five-digit number (The church elders assumed he’d gone mad).  He then bought a gramophone and listened only to stories of Jewish and Armenian life.  His wife hated it and it drove their puppy mad (?!).  Indeed he kept trying to get the puppies to listen to the gramophone and they consistently went crazy and eventually died.  The church sent a deacon to help Fr Ivan through this but he the deacon and Fr Ivan butted heads immediately.  Fr Ivan began mocked everything about their religion.

Incaution (1910)
A priest arrived at a railway station and saw a steam engine for the first time. There was no one around, so he climbed aboard.  It wouldn’t be dangerous to flick some switches and pull some levers.  Would it?

Peace (1911)
A dignitary was dying and an devil–an ordinary devil–came to his bedside offering him eternal life in hell.  The man didn’t want to suffer but the devil said that suffering was terrible until you got used to it and then it was nothing.  The devil makes a stronger and stronger case if only the man would take this pen and sign.

Ipatov (1911)
Nikolai Ipatov was a rich merchant who went bankrupt. Soon he became silent and despondent.  The local priest chastised him saying that the house of god was a house of joy.  He refused to let the merchant back in until he grew happy again.  Which he didn’t.  Eventually his children took over the situation and and put his house up for sale.  But when someone came to look at the house, they heard Ipatov’s moaning and grew existential realizing that a man without guilt could still be afflicted this way.

The Return (1913)
The narrator had been in a cell n St Peterburg for three years because of a political incident.  His wife, who was supposed to be waiting for him in a hotel room had stepped out with another man.  He hired a cab to follow them.  They kept driving around and around, some streets seeming to stretch on endlessly.  Then the cab driver told him that they had been at the same intersection many times.  He finally arrived at the gate and when he banged on it, who should open the gate but his prison guard.

The Flight (1914)
Yury Mikhailovich was an experienced pilot.  Twenty eight flights and no troubles.   He always felt, “If I crash, I crash, nothing to be done about it.”  Despite everything he had on earth, he longed to be up ion the sky…possibly forever.  It’s incredible that Andreyev wrote a story like this in 1914!

 

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SOUNDTRACK: KIAN SOLTANI-Tiny Desk Concert #880 (August 16, 2019).

I feel like listeners are more familiar with a violin than a cello.  Violins are everywhere (they’re so portable), but cellos only seem to come out when you need a bigger string section.  I have come to realize that I much prefer the sound of a cello to a violin  The cello can reach some impressive high notes (check out about three minutes into the Hungarian Rhapsody) but its the richness of the low notes that really impresses me,  Or maybe it’s just the historical value of Kian Soltani’s cello

It’s not every day someone walks into our NPR Music offices and unpacks an instrument made in 1680. And yet Kian Soltani, the 27-year-old cellist who plays with the authority and poetry of someone twice his age, isn’t exactly fazed by his rare Giovanni Grancino cello, which produces large, luminous tones. (He also plays a Stradivarius.)

I love Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and I love this one as well. What is it about Hungary that inspires such wild songs?

The Hungarian Rhapsody, by the late 19th century cellist and composer David Popper, traces its inspiration to similarly titled pieces by Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms, but showcases a number of hot-dogging tricks for the cello, including stratospheric high notes, flamboyant slides and a specific high-velocity bouncing of the bow called sautillé. Soltani nails all of them with nonchalant elegance, backed with companionable accompaniment by pianist Christopher Schmitt.

He says that that piece was a very extrovert, out-there piece and so from this mode we take it more inward.

To prove he can make his instrument truly sing, Soltani worked up his own arrangement of “Nacht und Träume” (Night and Dreams) by Franz Schubert, replacing the human voice with his cello’s warm, intimate vocalizing.

It’s fascinating to think that this song was musically written for the piano and voice.  But he has taken the vocal track and turned it into a moving (possibly better?) version on the cello.

His parents emigrated to Austria from Iran in the mid-1970s.  He grew up in Austria and loved it as a locus of great classical music.  But he also hold on to his Persian roots.

And in the Persian Fire Dance, Soltani’s own composition, flavors from his Iranian roots – drones and spiky dance rhythms – commingle with percussive ornaments.

This is a wonderful Concert and Soltani’s playing is really breathtaking.

[READ: September 1, 2019] Middlewest

I had heard of Skottie Young as the author of I Hate Fairyland (which sounds like a children’s book but is definitely not).

This book is also definitely not for children (although I see some people think it could be for YA readers).

Abel is a young boy who lives with his abusive father.  His father, Dale, is a real piece of work. Abel’s mother left, so Dale blames Abel and is on him all the time.

As the first chapter opens, Abel has overslept his paper route (the second time in five years).  His father is very angry even if Abel has been getting up at 4:30 every day for five years. As Abel is running late delivering the papers, his friends tell him to blow it off–it’s too late anyway, just go with them to play video games. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: GEORGE LI-Tiny Desk Concert #782 (August 31, 2018).

Is it a showstopper if it is your first song of the Concert?  That’s the question I asked while I marveled at George Li playing every single note on the piano at the same time (it seemed) during the opening piece by Horowitz.  The show did not stop, and he played two more beautiful pieces.

George Li is a 23-year-old American pianist.  He began lessons at age 4, and at 10 gave his first public concert. Five years later, he snagged the silver medal at the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Last fall, he released his debut album on a major label and these days he’s playing with many of the world’s major orchestras while touring the globe. He just graduated from Harvard where he studied English literature and piano, in a hybrid program with the New England Conservatory.

That first piece was by Li’s idol Vladimir Horowitz: Horowitz: Variations on a Theme from Bizet’s Opera Carmen.  

To honor Horowitz, Li begins his Tiny Desk recital with the master pianist’s electrifying reboot of a theme from Bizet’s opera Carmen. Li describes it as an “insane knuckle-buster.” Just watch his hands blur during the fiendish interlocking octaves at the explosive climax.

The camera zooms in on his hands and it’s still impossible to see what chords or notes he is playing.  But it is very impressive to see how high he lifts his hands between notes.  Wow, what a piece.

He then moves onto Liszt.  Liszt is also a composer who makes pianists tremble.  Although the first piece by Liszt is quiet and beautiful, the second one shows off more of Li’s amazing chops.

Then it’s two pieces by the ultimate monster pianist, Franz Liszt. The Consolation No. 3, with its gently flowing, long-lined melody and diaphanous ornaments, reveals the poetic side of the composer….

Liszt: Consolation No. 3 is just lovely the way it floats and soars through the melody.  Although even a fairly “simple” opening does involve using his right hand to play the bass notes.  I love that his left hand is playing this soothing melody while his right hand is constantly seeking out new variations on that melody.

But that’s nothing compared to Liszt: La Campanella in which from the angle of the camera it’s impossible to see what his right hand is doing the way it moves so quickly.  He borrowed themes from the Caprices of Paganini, “they’re all extremely difficult, of course.”  La Campanella means the bells and you can hear the high notes that keep repeating.

the rip-roaring La campanella begins with a single tinkling bell that multiplies into a wild cacophony of trills and scales, ending in what Li calls “a big bang.”

He talks about the bells building and building, adding new notes and octaves over the course of the four minutes.  And you can hear those high notes (I imagine it sounds amazing on a grand piano).  And just as you get 12:38 he starts doing this trills up at the higher register of the piano.  He gets both hands involved and it’s nearly 30 seconds of massive finger workout.

It’s exhausting just watching him.

Li is no doubt used to playing grand pianos, and the blurb wonders…

when Li revealed his Tiny Desk setlist, one thought came to mind: How will these powerhouse showstoppers sound on an upright piano? The music he intended to play, by Franz Liszt and Vladimir Horowitz, was designed for a real, 7-foot concert grand piano – the kind they used to call “a symphony orchestra in a box.”

Turns out, there was nothing to worry about. Li’s technique is so comprehensive, so agile, so solid, that instead of making our trusty Yamaha U1 quake in fear, he made the instrument sound several sizes larger, producing glorious, full-bodied colors and textures.

While I love seeing musicians shine while playing impossible pieces, technical virtuosity is nothing without feeling.  And Li’s music is full of feeling as well.

[READ: January 3, 2016] “A Gentleman’s Game”

I always think that I like Jonathan Lethem’s stories, but I’m not really sure that I do (I’ll have to read back and see what I thought of previous stories).  But he always writes about things that I don’t expect.

Like this story.  It is set in Singapore and is about an American who has settled there and becomes a very good backgammon player.

The exotic setting is enticing, I suppose, but the story is really about two men who knew each other who engage in a contest to see who can win.

Bruno grew up in Berkeley, CA.   But when he was old enough he left and has never been back to the States.  He has been in Singapore for a long time and he is shocked one day to see Keith Stolarsky, a former schoolmate, walking up to The Smoker’s Club, a typically underground and unknown-to-tourists-club. (more…)

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