Sviatoslav Richter & Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso (from Miroirs)

“I am not a complete idiot, but whether from weakness or laziness have no talent for thinking. I know only how to reflect: I am a mirror . . . Logic does not exist for me. I float on the waves of art and life and never really know how to distinguish what belongs to the one or the other or what is common to both. Life unfolds for me like a theatre presenting a sequence of somewhat unreal sentiments; while the things of art are real to me and go straight to my heart.”
–Sviatoslav Richter

Richter was a famous Soviet pianist of the 20th century, born in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. I had a chance to read and watch his biography, “Richter: The Enigma”, a while ago (done by Bruno Monsaingeon). He seemed like quite a character: intensely private, he never discussed his personal life until Monsaingeon convinced him to relent during his later years (in fact, the last year of his life); he had some unconventional views concerning performances; he disliked airplanes and traveled to his venues by train or ship whenever possible; disliked the studio recording process (in fact, according to his biography, even disliked being recorded talking); and did not maintain students (or perhaps had very few, I don’t remember exactly) due to his being such a natural pianist that he felt if he had to analyze his own technique in order to explain it, he would surely lose it in Heisenberg fashion.

From reading his biography and watching the documentary… I think I would have found him a most sincere man; I wish I could have met him. If you get a chance, you should watch the documentary too.

Miroirs (translated as ‘Reflections’) is a solo piano suite (of five pieces) written by Maurice Ravel around 1905. Each piece is dedicated to a fellow member of an Impressionistic group ‘Les Apaches.’ Ravel had joined Les Apaches (‘Hooligans’) around 1900; the artistic group is comprised of artists, poets, critics, and musicians. Alborada del Gracioso (#4) translates as the morning love song (alborada) of a medieval jester (gracioso). Aubades (as they are called in English), are usually the material of medieval troubadours, usually where the lyrics revolved around unrequited love. As one can hear in the piece, there are the sprightly major sections that sandwich a mournful minor section. Spanish influence pervades the music.

Miroirs (Reflections)
1. Noctuelles (Night Moths)
2. Oiseaux Tristes (Sad Birds)
3. Une Barque sur l’Ocean (A Boat on the Ocean)
4. Alborada del Gracioso (The Spanish Court Jester’s Aubade)
5. La Vallée des Cloches (The Valley of Bells)


Glenn Gould & J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1981)

Of legendary status is the 1981 studio recording of Glenn Gould performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It is a piece for solo piano, consisting of an aria + 30 variations. In the musical world, variations is a compositional technique where the composer takes a musical idea/theme and alters it in some particular way in each variation. These can be changes to, or variations on melody, harmony, composition, counterpoint, and so on.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations revolves around the bass line and chord progression introduced in the Aria. One can refer to the skeleton of the structure of harmony here: [Form of BWV 988]
Along with the score of the variations (download here), one can see that the harmony from variation to variation follows true to this skeleton–even though the rhythmic and melodic material change each time.

Glenn Gould’s interpretation of the set is wonderfully light, refreshing, clear, and raw. The clarity with which one can follow all the melodic lines woven together is something to strive for, not only in this piece, but in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (Fugues, especially) and Inventions as well. Once again, I have linked a recording in which one can study Gould’s technique and way of achieving such tone. That being said, I would like to add this warning to the ambitious who may want to emulate Gould’s piano technique:

The height of one’s seat at the piano is determined by the position of the elbows, which should not be below the level of the keyboard to avoid introducing too much weight into the playing. Sitting much lower prevents the pianist from using the weight of his upper body. (I am convinced that Glenn Gould was able to play the way he did not because of his abnormally low sitting position but in spite of it. It certainly has not worked as well for some of his emulators.) People with a small build in particular may need every ounce of their upper body weight to produce a powerful and full sound. On the other hand, sitting too high may invite shallow playing, with fingers not reaching to the depth of the keys.
–Boris Berman, Notes from the Pianist’s Bench, pg.30

That being said, Watch and Listen on! Best done in a quiet room, in a quiet mood. For the uninitiated, a second warning: Glenn Gould is a character; among many of his odd habits, ‘humming’ and ‘hurring’ along while he plays is common.

J. S. Bach – Goldberg Variations
00:00 – 06:34 Interview with Glenn Gould
06:34 – 58:56 Goldberg Variations

Bedřich Smetana – Vltava, from Má vlast

Czechoslovakian composer Bedřich Smetana wrote a set of six symphonic poems entitled “Má vlast”–literally translated as “homeland”. Typically they are performed as a set, with the exception of this one, the Vltava, (number two of the set) which for whatever reason philharmonics may perform on its own.

The River Vltava is the longest river that runs through the Czech Republic. In the video, you can hear how Smetana evokes winding, rushing path the water takes–from its smooth, rippling beginning to its wild, splashing rapids and how the eddies swirl back down to a calmer state. I especially love the syncopated harp, violins’ pizzicato, and triangle in the beginning! It adds light and texture; one can practically hear the sun glinting off a random ripple here and there; perhaps it’s also the arched trail of water droplets from a random fish hopping out of the water. The other part I love is the gradual addition of pairs of instruments, like different branches of the river gradually coming all together to one main source. It creates a very intimate portrait in the beginning with sole focus on just a few instruments, and almost this IMAX, zoomed-out view when it all comes together.

Unfortunately, this video is cut off before the piece actually ends… however, it is the best recording on YouTube that has video of the orchestra. The next best recording is here: [full audio recording], however I feel it lacks some of the character of Kubelik’s recording. I wouldn’t waste my time on any of the other orchestra-view videos currently on YouTube–they drag, feel heavy, have ensemble issues.

Má vlast
1. Vyšehrad (The High Castle)
2. Vltava (also known as “Die Moldau” in German)
3. Šárka (name of a warrior maiden from ancient Czechslovakian legend of the Maidens’ War)
4. Z českých luhů a hájů (“From Bohemia’s woods and fields”)
5. Tábor (a city)
6. Blaník (a mountain which, legend has it, houses the armies of St. Wenceslas who will awaken and help the country in its most dire hour)

conductor, Rafael Kubelik
Czech Philharmonic, 1990

Feel free to follow along in the conductor’s score here: [Vltava score]

Leonard Bernstein & Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G

Leonard Bernstein playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G while conducting the orchestra from the keyboard. He was a renowned musician of the 20th century, known not only for his conducting, but also for his piano performances, lectures, and compositions.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G-Major is heavily influenced by the jazz music popular in the late 1920s-early 1930s.
mvmt I – Allegramente
mvmt II – Adagio assai
mvmt III – Presto

Martha Argerich & Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.3

Today I’ve chosen Martha Argerich’s 1982 performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3 in d-minor, Op. 30. Composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1909, it is considered among the most technically demanding pieces written for classical piano repertoire.

Like in the previous post, Argerich rose to fame when she also won the International Chopin Piano Competition, at age 24, in 1964.

For those who would like to follow along, a full conductor’s score may be downloaded here:
Full conductor’s score for Rach 3

Or, for ease of page turns, an orchestral reduction may be downloaded here:
Orhcestral Reduction score for Rach 3

Sergei Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No.3 in d-minor, Op.30
conductor, Riccardo Chailly; orchestra: Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
00:30 – movement I: Allegro ma non tanto; (Full: pg.1/ Red: pg. 2)
16:25 – movement II: Intermezzo: Adagio; (44/34)
27:29 – movement III: Finale: Alla breve (65/47)

Yundi Li’s famous winning performance at the 14th International Chopin Competition

This recording is epic enough to open up the first listening post for our blog! This is Yundi Li’s performance at the International Chopin Competition–a very high-stakes piano competition; one of the most prestigious competitions in the world of music. At 18 years of age, Yundi is the youngest person to win the competition as of now (he is now 29).

Listening to this is not only inspirational, but they also have video of him playing to go along with it too! It is breathtaking to see how his hands deftly dance over the key tops and how they seem to summon such lyrical, even-toned playing on what is–at the end of the day–a percussive instrument.

I have provided the timestamps for when each piece approximately begins, and a link to the score so you may print it out and follow along or try to play it yourself! ALSO: the second video that is linked is a fixed-camera view of Only Yundi’s hands. Great stuff if you’re intent on focusing on his hand technique!

2:06 – Frédéric Chopin; Scherzo No. 2 Op. 31, in B-flat minor [score]

Frédéric Chopin; Grande Polonaise Brillante in E-flat major, Op. 22 [score]
11:56 – mvmt 1: Andante Spianato;
16:28 – mvmt 2: Polonaise

Frédéric Chopin; Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 [score]:
28:47 – movement I: Allegro maestoso;
49:15 – movement II: Romance, Larghetto;
59:07 – movement III: Rondo, Vivace