About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art

A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Listening to Rachmaninoff

My first experience of a live performance of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto occurred in Los Angeles when I was fifteen. Van Cliburn was the soloist with the L.A. Philharmonic. His playing of the noble, plaintive initial theme still rings in my mind, so assured and expressive in its shape, and needless to say, his command of the work’s surging virtuosity was compelling to my adolescent ears. This was a year after Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, as he had a few years earlier won the Levintritt Competition in New York. His recording of the Rachmaninoff became a favorite of mine, to be partly supplanted first by Horowitz’s performance in the 70s and Argerich’s in the 80s. Here's a link to the Van Cliburn cd: https://www.amazon.com/Sergei-Rachmaninoff-Piano-Concerto-No-3/dp/B00AGU1S8M/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1547609140&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=rachmaninoff+piano+concerto+3+van+cliburn
- one to the Horowitz: Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 3; and one to the Argerich performance: Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 / Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23.

At eighteen I took a couple of piano lessons from the great pianist Egon Petri, who lived then a few miles south of U.C. Berkeley, where I attended college. His recording of the late Beethoven piano sonatas had been a great favorite of mine (here is a link to the cd Beethoven Sonatas: Egon Petri in Recital; see my earlier post on other great performances of those sonatas). In awe I visited his apartment and absorbed all I could. He already was suffering from his last illness, and he connected me to one of his best pupils, Julian White – a brilliant pianist and generous teacher like Petri, offering particularly keen insights into the structure of phrases, passages, and movements. I took lessons from White for three years.

At one of our lessons, he told me about his experiences as a student at Julliard and his friendship with Van Cliburn. When Cliburn was training” for the Levintritt competition, Julian told me to my amazement, their mutual teacher Rosina Lhevinne asked White to be a sort of all-day coach. I was nineteen when I heard this story, and I made an assumption about White’s help, which I now realize was false. I imagined that White had served to prompt musical passion and engagement in the great young pianist, as if he were a sort of blank tablet. Listening again to Cliburn’s recordings from the fifties through the seventies, I realize that can’t have been true, for what Van Cliburn possesses at his core is passion, even to the point of violence. What White probably provided was an auditor to help in pacing practice and a sense of occasion for the discipline involved – and perhaps also what he provided for me: insights into structure, shaping and controlling the beauty of phrases, the passion of passages.
I’m prompted to think about all this because I’ve searched for a recorded performance of Rachmaninoff’s second piano sonata which echoes the extraordinary poignancy of Alexander Ghindin’s Master Class performance of the slow second theme of the first movement, a few weeks ago. Only Cliburn’s recording comes close (a link to that performance on cd: Great Pianists 19).

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