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Pianos Are Like Girls… October 19, 2007

Posted by Jim Berkin in Music.
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… when they’re not upright, they’re grand.
Thank You, Benny Hill!

rachmaninoff.jpg

But I digress! The romantic piano concerto remains one of my favorite items in the classical music arena, something pretty obvious from examining my collection. The easiest way to analyze someone’s tastes in classical music is to take note of how many different recordings of the exact same piece they have & play frequently for different reasons. That must be why I have five different recordings of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #2, my favorite of ’em all, since it brings my inner tortured Russian soul to life. (Which reminds me how happy I am that my outer running-from-torture Russian ancestor’s bodies got the hell OUT of Russia 100 years ago) I have some of these recordings, like an old mono of Rachmaninoff playing the thing himself, strictly out of curiosity (How DID he want it played?), while others, like the exquisite 1963 Ashkenazy version, I would put on my desert island list of CDs.

It’s as good as a purring cat in my lap.

I stopped into a used CD store over in Silver Lake driving back from jury duty some years ago, and there it was in the used bin, with the “1963, ” the year I was born, in huge font on the label, AND I KNEW IT WAS THE HAND OF GOD AT WORK!!!

If you’re familiar with this piece, you know all too well how it combines keyboard wizardry with syrupy (or would that be borscht-y?) Russian romanticism. I’ve only heard it once in a live concert, by Lang Lang on the piano with the LA Philharmonic – and he didn’t miss a trick as far as capturing the feeling of the piece as well as hitting all the technical demands. Mark Swed, the highbrow music critic of the LA Times, gave him a lousy review because Swed doesn’t like Rachmaninoff to begin with. Ask me again how the reasons for me cancelling my Times subscription piled up over the years.

You could ski down that pile, come to think of it.

It’s inevitable when ranking symphonies and concertos that we begin by comparing our faves to the others in the same composer’s repertoire. The Rach 1 is pleasant and gives signs of the magic to come in future works, a promise fulfilled by #2. The third impresses with the usual keyboard magic, but somehow the melodies in the first two movements meander a bit for me, though I love the finish. The fourth seems quickly thrown together somehow, yet is certainly worthwhile.

Grieg & Schumann make it easier for us by only composing one piano concerto apiece. They’re often grouped together on CDs since the opening notes in each are so similar. Grieg combines notes designed to represent the playfulness of his new baby with a wealth of his genius for catchy melodies, similar to his Lyric Pieces. Schumann’s is a coded love note to his wife Clara, where piano notes spell out his special nickname for her. Awwwww! And what a sad sad story his life is. Oy! But he wrote some bitchin’ tunes!

Speaking of the sad life department, I’d also like to put in a word for my appreciation for the often overlooked Second piano concerto by Tchaikovsky. The first is played much more often, with its familiar opening chords (that give way to different themes and then are never heard again in the piece – I’ve always found that odd), but I like the way the second mixes moods as well as Tchaikovsky’s symphonies 4 and 6, giving you a real sense of the bi-polar-esque emotional highs and lows the poor schnook must have been capable of. They love to pair Tchikovsky 1 with Rachmaninoff 2 as well, sort of a “Russian Greatest Piano Hits” way of organizing things. Peter Donohoe does a wonderful job with the Second on this set. I think I’m partial to this Van Cliburn recording of the first, however.

Pianists like Peter Donohoe, Marc Andre-Hamelin, Howard Shelly, Stephen Hough and others are building quite a number of lesser-known and rarely-played piano concertos into their quiver. Hyperion Records has been issuing a monster set, The Romantic Piano Concerto, which is up to volume 42 now (you can check them out by clicking here, try not to spend ALL your money) featuring music from composers who have faded with time, but wrote wonderful stuff in the style of their era. The booklets are a wonderful edjucation as well, since you basically get to see who was tutoring who, who was influencing who, who was challenging and competing with who, and so on – giving you a much better sense of the 19th century music scene.

It managed to be upright and grand! Happy listening!

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