“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Chopin's Sixth Prelude: Dream Cello

     Yesterday I found myself demonstrating for a student Chopin's dreamy "cello" prelude, number 6 from opus 28. The challenge here for pianists lies in the disparity between the two hands, coordinating a vertical, gently throbbing right hand with the long horizontal lines in the left, perfectly encompassing the cello range. 
      "Show me why it's a cello prelude," he demanded.
Man Claudiu cello from Stringworks
"I just did," I responded glancing up from the piano in time to see him pointing toward my cello in its cradle at the foot of the piano.

      "No, show me on your Strad."
      "Shhh," I responded. "Don't say that out loud."  I often referred to my Man Claudiu cello from Stringworks as a Stradivarius, sent to me by mistake, and I didn't want them to take it back. This cello has become such an integral part of my daily routine that I couldn't bear to part with it. Claudiu carved my cello himself in Italy from elderly spruce and maple, to which he added a light antiqued oil varnish. I'm sure he harvested his materials from the same Italian Alps as did the great Cremonese master.
      My student had a point. Why not show him what we as pianists try to imitate. My Claudiu has a very complex, rich sound, but as I began to play I saw on my student's face an expression very near a scowl. I couldn't have been that bad.
      "I can't even come close," he said. "It's such a singing sound, and when you change registers, well it's all of the same fabric. And legato!"
      Ah, yes. There's the rub. On the piano we can only create the illusion of legato by carefully placing each note in dynamic relation to the preceding one. I told him not to despair. We make up for our deficiencies in the legato department by getting to be the complete orchestra. 
     This was a lesson well-learned; there's something to be said for imitation. When he finished playing he looked longingly at the Claudiu. "Do you think Stringworks would send me a Strad by mistake, too?"

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Looking Back: Jakob Gimpel

     If you have been following this blog, you will know that I hold in high regard artists of the past. It is on their shoulders we all stand. If nothing else, we can sometimes amuse ourselves by making connections, discovering stylistic trends or just enjoying remarkable playing—marveling at great facility captured before modern recording techniques began to homogenize taste. 
Jakob Gimpel
Polish pianist Jakob Gimpel studied with Eduard Steuermann, who was a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni, and Alban Berg. Berg! He made his debut at the age of 17 performing Rachmaninoff's second concerto in Vienna with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Monteux. In the 1930s he emigrated to America for the usual reasons, settling in Los Angeles. In addition to concertizing and teaching, he  recorded tracks for classic films such as "Gaslight," "Possessed," "Letter from an Unknown Woman," "Strange Fascination," "Three Stories of Love," and, in his later years, "Mephisto Waltz." There were also two classic cartoons: "Rhapsody Rabbit," in which he played a comically disrupted version of Liszt´s Second Hungarian Rhapsody, and the Academy-Award-winning "Johann Mouse," in which a virtuoso Tom played Gimpel's paraphrase of the "Blue Danube" while Jerry danced. 

Franz Liszt
     In the link below Gimpel plays Liszt's "Waldesrauschen" and "Un Sospiro." Oh, did I say? He was one of my teachers at USC, and an inspiring one at that. His performance of Brahms' D Minor Concerto with the University Symphony was definitive. He took over Muriel Kerr's class after her sudden death the night before registration for the fall semester of 1963. One of my lessons occurred on the day JFK was shot, at the time news had just made it to campus. I found Gimpel in tears, beside himself with anguish. Needless to say, our lesson fell to the side, and  Gimpel began to relate his personal experiences of extreme politics, which included a hair-raising account of how he and his brother, the noted violinist Brontislaw (student of Carl Flesch and one-time concert master of the Los Angeles Philharmonic), escaped from Europe at the start WW II. 
    I find these Liszt performances notable for their directly expressive, no-nonsense approach. Notice how his hands move with fluidity and flexibility, a practice I now refer to as shaping. Notice, too, that with such large hands he could get away with fingering octaves, a practice I don't recommend—ever, for any reason. Period. I never heard him complain of discomfort, although in those days performers didn't speak of such things. His technical advice to me was to play honestly, which I now realize was his way of telling me to work for technical ease, in addition to precision. He had about him a certain warmth of expression, and in his manner what I would describe as old world charm. One doesn't find that much these days.

Gimpel Plays Liszt