Thursday, December 30, 2010

Today, I said goodbye to my mother

Joyce Helen French Robertson Moring
May 26, 1930 - December 29, 2010

She wasn't famous, but she did play the piano.  By ear.  And pretty good at that.  She also sang, with a clear, pleasant voice, on key, but in a baritone range.  She always said it was because of a tonsillectomy she had relatively late in life, but I suspect it really was the years of smoking.

My mother ended her battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) yesterday.  The past year had been especially tough, as dementia took hold of her brain in late 2009, with a brief but not complete respite during the summer months of 2010.  Although her memory was not reliable, she never "forgot who we were" - well, she did call me by my late father's name once, but just once - and just this past Monday morning I took my laptop computer to the hospital to show her the video I had shot of our family Christmas Eve get-together.  She watched the video, pointing out her great-grandchildren and commenting on how pretty the decorations were.  She was unable to come home for Christmas, and my brother, his son's family, and I had worked until the morning of Christmas Eve to decorate the house for the gathering.

Mama loved Christmas.  She loved the music.  She loved the decorations.  Oh, how she loved the decorations.  Candles in the windows, wreaths on the shutters and on the big front door, at least two hand-painted ceramic manger scenes displayed throughout the house, all the knick-knacks packed up and replaced with special Christmas knick-knacks, and two Christmas trees.  One "real", and one aluminum tree.  When aluminum trees fell out of fashion, We just had a "real" one, which was eventually replaced with a tasteful artificial green tree.

Christmas 1962.  I'm the cute one..

The console stereo in the living room would be fitted with a stack of Christmas LPs: Floyd Cramer, the Lennon Sisters, Ferrante and Teicher, Andy Williams, Roger Williams, and the Organ and Chimes of Robert Rheims.  We wore out at least three copies of that organ and chimes record through the years.

Mama loved Christmas.  1976 or 1977.  She had not remarried, and there was only one grandchild.
I think my childhood love of music came from the Christmas season, from the lush harmonies and orchestrations of the records she played during that time of the year.  As I grew older, I found these lush sounds in the music of my piano lessons - Chopin, Debussy, Beethoven, Bartok.  Mama never really cared much for most of the classical music I played, but she supported me just the same.

After a few years of spiritual wandering, I returned to church music in August of 2006, taking a post as pianist in a small United Methodist Church in Franklin, Georgia.  My affiliation with this church went back a long way, as many of their members' children had studied with me.  I left that church in October 2016 and now serve as pianist at Loyd Presbyterian Church in LaGrange, Georgia.

Anytime I played for family gatherings, Mama would say, "Now, play my piece".  In three recitals that I performed in churches, she asked me to play "her" piece as an encore, and I did.  When she became ill, I dropped it from my repertoire.  An incident happened at my church recently, and I felt led to play the piece as a special music offering, without having practiced or played it in over ten months.  After church, I made the video below.

Mama, can you hear me? 

(Andrae Crouch's My Tribute (To God Be the Glory) - modeled after Dino Kartsonakis' arrangement)

JULY 2011 UPDATE:  I wrote an arrangement of a song Mama made up as a young girl and often played for me.  That story, and a link to a video performance, may be found here.

*** *** ***

Joyce Helen French Robertson Moring

(ROANOKE, ALABAMA) The funeral for Joyce Helen French Robertson Moring, 80, of Roanoke was held at 1 p.m., Friday, Dec. 31, 2010, at First United Methodist Church with the Rev. Steve Baccus officiating.  Burial followed in Randolph Memory Gardens.  Mrs. Moring died Wednesday, Dec. 29, at Randolph Medical Center, after a long battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.

Mrs. Moring was born May 26, 1930, the daughter of James Monroe and Mary Ella Sikes French. She was a member of Roanoke First United Methodist Church, had been a homemaker, and managed a family business, Bob's Grocery.

Mrs. Moring is survived by one daughter, Deborah Ann (husband Paul) McMurray of Roanoke; two sons, H.G. "Robbie" Robertson and Richard Earl "Rick" Robertson of Roanoke; two sisters, LaVelle Langley of Roanoke and Frances Johnson of McDonough, Ga.; seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Moring was preceded in death by her husband of 24 years (1947-1971), Hansard "Bob" Robertson; her husband of 30 years (1977-2007), Douglas Grice Moring; her parents; and nine other brothers and sisters.

Pallbearers were Harry Botsford, Bobby Robertson, Steven Robertson, Gus McMurray, Will McMurray, Gilbert L. Huey Jr., David Cummings, and Steve Cummings.

Quattlebaum Funeral Home, Roanoke.

A picture from 1947, the year she married my father.  The picture is inscribed to him on the back.

Mama loved her cars.  Here she is with her beloved 1970 Cadillac Sedan de Ville, the last car my father

September 19, 2009. The day Robbie and I brought Cookie home to her new Mama. In a month the decline began and Mama was in the hospital. But hey, you're looking at a 79-year-old woman in this picture, and that's her real hair color.  I still have Cookie, and she is a comfort to a lonely old piano teacher.

Mama's 80th birthday.  May 2010.  She was lucid.  She was beautiful.  She so enjoyed spending time with her family, and her visit with friends Mary Reeves, Mary Agnes Messer, and Frankie Neighbors.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Florence Foster Jenkins - the Carnegie Hall Program!

A little sleuthing on the Internet can give us some of the most interesting things.

All I can say is - oh, to have been there.

Lady Florence (as she preferred to be called) in her younger years.
Us record collectors lovingly call her Flofojen.

Pictured below is what I believe to be the first commercial issue of the Florence Foster Jenkins recordings, a 10-inch LP containing only the Jenkins tracks.  It was later released on a 12-inch LP, deleting "Serenata mexicana" and including the "Jenny Williams and Thomas Burns" Faust recordings on the reverse.  There is also a two-45 rpm record set of the same material, which I own, but can't get my hands on at the moment.  She made her recordings at Melotone Studios in New York City, which was a label that made "vanity" recordings.  In other words, you paid, you recorded, you got boxes of records.  At least one of these (the Magic Flute aria) was sold commercially (and actually reviewed in record magazines!), but these were mostly made available to friends and admirers.

And even though I have shown it elsewhere, here is a copy of one of the Melotone 78 rpm records.  I am proud to own a complete set of the known extant recordings, and this one is by far the most scarce.

This DVD pictured on the left, produced by Donald Collup, is a highly recommended documentary of the life and times of Lady Florence.  It is beautifully and sensitively done, and gives the viewer a great deal of insight as to what drove her to perform.  The old BMG  (formerly RCA Victor) CD "The Glory (???) Of the Human Voice" is the standard old collection of Flofojen chestnuts, it is readily available, but does not include the "Valse caressante" featured on the Lennick "Murder on the High C's" on Naxos, or Gregor Benko's "The Muse Surmounted" on Homophone/VAI.  "The Muse Surmounted" is reviewed in depth on this blog, and that post may be read here.  I am probably not exaggerating when I say that my sense of humor, and my love of music, has been influenced by Florence Foster Jenkins, as I had a vinyl LP copy of her Victor album since my teenage years, and modeled a stage persona from my college years, "Tessie Tura", after her.  It's hard to deny that through the cacophony, the lack of rhythm, and frankly the lack of much else that marks even mediocre singing ability, that there was no lack of joy in her singing,

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The highest compliment...

...that one can give me is not to compliment my writing, my compositions, my artwork, or even my are-they-blue-or-green eyes. 

The highest compliment one can give me is to actually learn one of my compositions, interpret it, and preserve that performance for posterity.

I received a pleasant "surprise" in my mail Thursday afternoon.   Chase Kimball, a talented amateur pianist (in the best sense of the word - meaning an adult who is trained as a musician but makes his or her living in another field; Chase is an attorney) has been "threatening" to make a private CD for some time.  In fact I knew that he had recorded my piece (actually twice, with differing ideas as to tempo) and we had discussed another of my pieces, currently in a state of perpetual rewrite.  (I'll finish it soon, Chase.  I promise.)

Chase and I e-met through the many and varied piano discussion groups that inhabit the Internet.  He is a member of the board of directors of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation in Utah.

Why did he do this?  He can sum it up better than I can.  (Click to "embiggen".)

Sometimes, it's the little things that make me happy, and remind me that all those years of scribbling notes on music paper may not have been in vain.  Thank you, Chase.  A little validation can go a long way.

He's not the first, however.  David De Lucia recorded my Romance in D Flat waaaaay back in 2005 on his CD "Show Some Emotion".  That recording is the first commercial recording of one of my compositions.  Don Satz gave the CD a positive review at, although he got some of my biographical information wrong.  (Evidently no one has ever heard of Roanoke, Alabama, and I have to admit that I find that understandable.  I know that De Lucia knew of my home state, so I'm guessing that there were some assumptions on the part of the reviewer....)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

FLASHBACK - Teaching Tiffany

(The first part of this post was written in 1996.)

Working with special-needs children can be a rewarding experience, and one that private music teachers seldom enjoy. In our endeavors we often seek out the most talented and work with them to achieve their highest potential, eliminating the ones we may consider the less gifted in the interview process. I learned this through personal experience, and feel compelled to share my story of how I met one special child, and how we have touched each other's lives.

When I interviewed for a teaching position at First School of Music in LaGrange, Georgia, the director asked me the usual questions about my background, degrees, and teaching experience. One question stood out in my mind during the interview, and I saw the relevance of the question later.

What is one goal that you have set for yourself as a teacher? What one thing would you like to say that you have accomplished?"

I had two answers in my mind to that question - one is to see my name in print as a composer, and the other is to take a young student with only a left hand, and teach them from the beginning to play piano. Realizing that this man would rather hear the less self-centered answer, I voiced the latter.

I remember his surprise at this statement. In fact, I elaborated on my answer somewhat defensively, reminding him that there was, in fact, a large body of music for the left hand alone that is rarely performed these days. At any rate, and more important to me at the time, I was hired in January of 1990.

Sometime in May of that year, I was called back into the office by his secretary. Would I consider taking a girl, from a musical family, who had no fingers on her right hand?

Without hesitation I said yes.

Tiffany was ten years old. She was a bright and intelligent girl, with a very positive outlook on life and a very mature attitude about her handicap. In fact, she has never considered herself handicapped. Being born without fingers on her right hand had never stopped her from doing other things little girls do - one does not need fingers to dance, or to sing. And she learned to tie her own shoes, to jump rope, to cheer, and to march in her high school drill team, spinning a flag mounted on a specially-fitted pole.

When I first assessed her musical situation, I found that there was quite a lot to work with. Her mother had studied piano throughout high school and could have majored in piano, but chose elementary education. Her older sister Maria had studied piano and voice for a few years, and the two sisters had studied tap and ballet. She had read through her sister's beginning piano books, and from this had already acquired a basic knowledge of what the keyboard is and how it is laid out. The church that hosts our music school, First Baptist of LaGrange, has an excellent music pre-choir program, "Young Musicians". Here the children learn basics such as note names, clefs, and how to direct and clap rhythms. The years of dance lessons had paid off with an excellent sense of internal rhythm, and gave her the self-confidence to move gracefully around the keyboard.

In the very first lesson I learned that this girl could already reach a tenth in her left hand. Years of making one hand do the work of two had given her a large, strong hand that is very flexible. She does have a nub approximately one-half inch in length, where her thumb would be, and a smaller one for an index finger. Although there is bone or cartilage here, these "fingers" are not moveable.

I was unable to find and purchase one of the "standard" one-hand method books such as the Olson or the Riccardi/Vela due to the short time period between the interview and the time we began lessons. So we started with the Alfred's Basic Piano Library, progressing rapidly, playing as much as possible with the left hand alone. As much of this book consists of pieces where the left imitates the right, or vice versa, she would merely play both halves with the left hand, moving up or down the requisite octave. This worked all right for a while until we hit that little milestone, "Rockets" and "Sea Divers", where the hands played together. I showed her how to read both clefs and play the whole thing with the left hand, she showed me how she had already figured it out at home with both hands.

"But it will sound choppy", I said. I already had it in my mind that she would drop her "thumb" on each note, rendering a sound like a xylophone, with no concept of legato.

"Not if I do it this way". She then played the piece with both hands, dropping arm weight into each right hand note, and connecting each note with "quarter-note" dabs of pedal. Syncopated pedal, the kind we struggle to teach to ten-fingered children.

Balance between hands? No problem. Arm weight in the right hand coupled with finger strokes in the left produced an ideal balance for pieces at this level. Left hand melody? As a last resort, she would cross hands, right over left. All the shifting and moving she was doing from the very first lesson gave her an excellent sense of "keyboard geography" and she was never tied down to one hand position or that tyrannical middle C.

After a month or so of lessons, I could see where this was heading. Although I still wanted her to concentrate on her left-hand-alone pieces, she stubbornly worked on whatever she could find with single-note right hand parts. We found much rewarding music out there with this texture, or that could easily be adapted. For example, a four-note chord for two hands such as C,G in the left hand and E,C in the right could be easily and consistently played C,G,E in the left and C in the right. The tenth posed no problem; she could already reach a white-key tenth at this early age.

By the age of 14, Tiffany had performed on a regular basis for her church, had some success in local high-school level competitions, and in November of 1994 performed a full-length solo recital, receiving some newspaper coverage for her efforts.

Practicing the Scriabin Nocturne, 1997

Obviously, there are pieces in the repertoire she will never play, but as I have told her several times, "you will never be able to play the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, but neither will I!"

A favorite high-school war-horse was the Mendelssohn Song Without Words, op. 102 no. 4 ("The Sighing Wind"). Surprisingly few modifications were necessary; she could play the sixteenth-note accompaniment up to tempo with the left hand. The stretto-like section near the coda is played with a very active left hand, omitting only a few right-hand double notes (most of which are duplicated at the octave in the left hand) and playing the black-black augmented seconds in the right hand with the fleshy part of her hand.

Our teacher-student relationship hasn't always been rosy; she could go through of mood swings like any other teenager. But she was constantly an inspiration to my other students, who understand that she is "special". (Of course, all of my students are "special", and I make an effort to express that.)

Those Ravel and Prokofiev concertos never became a reality for her. But she did learn the Scriabin Prelude and Nocturne, and performed the Nocturne in many recitals and competitions.

Yours truly with Miss Troup Teen, January 1996. 
Yes, she played the piano for her talent presentation.
Yes, it was the Mendelssohn.

In fact, one competition was a "high point" in my teaching career.  In the fall of 1997 she entered a piano competition held in conjunction with a "literary-meet"-type academic competition at Gordon College in Morrow, Georgia.  The repertoire requirements were rather simple: the contestant had to play two classical pieces, and one had to be memorized.  Tiffany played her warhorse (Mendelssohn "The Sighing Wind") and a piece I wrote for her, "Seaside".  My piece was what I would describe as a twentieth-century barcarolle, with a little syncopation, but certainly not on the level of what one would find in a Gershwin, or even Ginastera, composition.  (Not to mention Nikolai Kapustin.) Not that I compare my oeuvre favorably with any of these, but I do consider my work to be "classical" in style.

The judges disqualified Tiffany, claiming that "Seaside" was not classical.  I guess I was not dead enough or European enough.  I was certainly white enough, but one out of three was not sufficient for them.  Comments on the score sheets ran the gamut from "this is not classical" to "you should play something like Bach or Mozart".  Seriously.  In other words, the judges did not even take the time to look at her hands (to see her fingering, perhaps?  Or to see if there were what they might perceive as flaws in her technique?) because if they had, they would have noticed she was quite a few digits short of a full hand - something which certainly did make performing Bach or Mozart a problem.  (Actually, two years prior she did perform the second movement of the Mozart Concerto in C, K.467 in another competition - alas, without success.)

This incident set us both back.  She lost interest in performing for around six months, and I stopped writing for about the same length of time.  But she was determined to try again the next year - her senior year, the fall of 1998.

In the brochure describing the rules, there was some sort of ADA paragraph stating that "physically challenged students with special needs may contact the organization if there are certain circumstances", or something like that.  At my urging she wrote them a letter stating that she was a "one-handed" pianist entering the piano competition, that she was aware of the repertoire requirements, but due to an unfortunate incident the prior year she wanted the judges to be aware of her situation.

She had prepared the Scriabin Nocturne for the Left Hand, op. 9 no. 2, and the Mendelssohn.  (That piece did us lots of good over the years.)

First came the Scriabin, which she performed with score, open only to the page containing the cadenza.  It was memorized, but she needed a little "crutch".  No mishaps whatsoever; it was arguably her best public performance of the piece. 

Then came the Mendelssohn.  There were two judges.  As soon as she started playing, one judge kept her face buried in the score (perhaps to see if she left anything out?), and the other judge rose up out of her chair, evidently to see how Tiffany was doing what she was doing!  Tiffany played beautifully - the best she had ever played in a competition.  When she stood up and bowed, she held up her right hand before she left the stage.  Perhaps the casual observer thought she was making a fist, but I didn't care.  She knew, I knew - and the judges knew.  She got first place.

Playing one of the Moszkowski "Teacher and Pupil, op. 97" duets
on her high-school senior recital, May 1999.

(Now we move ahead to 2010)

Many years have passed since the first draft of this article (intended to be submitted to Clavier Magazine) was written. Tiffany is now a young woman living just outside of Baltimore, Maryland.  In June of 2008 she married David Cole, a multi-talented musician who serves a church there as organist-choirmaster. She is now a radiographer, but obviously music is still very much a part of her life.  "As far as my music, I currently sing in a community chorus, "Masterworks" and in our church choir and play in the handbell choir (I play the higher, lighter bells by placing my entire hand in the loop of the bell handle)"

Working with Tiffany unleashed a creativity that had lain dormant for ten years. In fact, she became my muse, as I worked to come up with pieces that she could play, given her physical limitations. The challenge of “slow single-note right hand with a more complex left hand” inspired me, and then other pieces came to mind, to bring out the strengths or improve the weaknesses of other students. Since I wrote my first piece for her, "A First Nocturne", to date 79 more have followed.  Tiffany credits me with "giving her music" - taking her on as a student when no other teacher would take the challenge.  I credit Tiffany with singlehandedly unlocking the creativity that had lain dormant in me for ten years, and enables me to continue to write pieces for my students - many of which have been performed by students, and even some professional pianists.

Tiffany and me at her niece's christening, June 2006.

And one of those pieces I wrote for her DID get published – the very first one. If one opens a copy of “Learning Piano: Piece by Piece” by Elyse Mach (Oxford University Press) and turns to the "Repertoire" section in the back, one sees “A First Nocturne” by Rick Robertson – and at the upper left corner of the page above the title, it says…

“For Tiffany Oliver”.

The beautiful bride, June 2007

Monday, October 4, 2010

Another side of yours truly

Some of you know that I "dabble" in composition.

In my college years  (Jacksonville State University in Alabama), I actually entered the MTNA College Solo Composition Contest and won at the state level (Alabama) and at the regional level (Southeastern).  With no composition lessons.  My piece was a piano sonatina, my "opus 9" at the time.  I played this sonatina at the 1980 Alabama Music Teachers Association Convention, held on the Auburn University campus.  This work was dedicated to Susie Francis Dempsey, my piano teacher during my undergraduate years at JSU.

After that, I took a few composition lessons, which did not work well for me, and partly as a result I wrote nothing for ten years.  (More on that later.)

When I returned to piano teaching in 1990, I began to shift my focus from avant-garde works that leaned heavily on serial techniques and/or shifting rhythm (or what I thought were serial techniques) I realized that what I really needed to write was music for the developing piano student.  (More on that later, as well.)

Here is a video of yours truly in a performance of "Nuit d'etoiles", a wisp of French Impressionism that I wrote in 2009, during the week of my 49th birthday.  It is dedicated to pianist and teacher George Mann, who has performed one of my compositions, "Arietta", in many recitals.

I promise not to trouble you with too much of "my" work, but I am more than a little proud of this particular one of my "children".

Whatever happened to that sonatina?  It was a four-movement work.  I scrapped two of the movements, and the first and second movements were kept and compiled with the third movement of my high-school work "Mirror Images, op. 1" to become my "new" Opus 1, "Three Moods for Piano".  These three short pieces are the earliest things that I wrote that I feel still stand up pretty well.

Friday, October 1, 2010

"A Century of Romantic Chopin" is now available at the Marston site

The must-have CD set for piano lovers everywhere is now available.

First, I will place here the announcement that Gregor Benko posted to Internet piano groups, because he can describe this historic set far better than I can:

*** *** ***

The web site gives the complete track listings and liner notes, including mini-biographies of the 65 pianists appearing in the compilation.  All of Chopin's etudes are represented, as well as a selection of preludes, mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, ballades, and scherzi, each performance conveying a personal approach to the music.

Some of the recordings will be familiar to piano lovers because of their legendary status, while many others are delightful (or infuriating, depending on your attitude) surprises, taken from concert performances and out-of-print recordings.

There are some incredibly great and almost unknown recordings, such as the "live" broadcast performance of Moriz Rosenthal in an (almost-complete) Largo from the B minor Sonata, the double-thirds Etude in a "live" broadcast performance by Josef Lhevinne, a previously unissued A minor Valse from a 1979 concert by Horowitz, an Op. 42 A flat Waltz by Arthur Loesser (one of the earliest electrically recorded discs ever made), and Zadora's transcription of the Minute Waltz from a "live" recording by Cecille Staub Genhart, one of the great but unknown pianists whose work is rescued by this set.

Some of the formerly unknown great recordings include two Etudes each by Sidney Foster and Arthur Rubinstein and the F minor Nouvelle Etude from a concert by Robert Goldsand, unearthly beautiful performances of Nocturnes by Raymond Lewenthal and Francesco Libetta, red hot live performances of Ballades 1 and 4 respectively by Earl Wild and Jorge Bolet, an astonishing group of Preludes from a 1966 concert by Guiomar Novaes, and a haunting Mazurka played at the last public performance by Joseph Villa.

"Live" recordings that will raise eyebrows include the B minor Scherzo by Natan Brand and the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne played by Thomas Manshardt in very free style, as well as the Tarantelle from a concert by Shura Cherkassky.

Perhaps few have heard of Antonietta Rudge, another of the great pianists of the last century whose work is little known, nor have many known of Karl Ulrich Schnabel's fascination with the third
Scherzo. Included in the set are commercial recordings that had never been issued before by Simon Barer and Lubka Kolessa, as well as formerly issued but obscure recordings by Geza Anda, Alexander Brailowsky, Marcel Ciampi, Arthur de Greef, Samuel Feinberg, Grigory Ginzburg, Youra Guller, William Kapell, Nikolai Orloff, Antonietta Rudge, Walter Rummel, David Saperton, Irene Scharrer, Ann Schein, Karl Ulrich Schnabel, Jan Smeterlin, Vladimir Sofronitsky, Evgeny Svetlanov, Magda Tagliaferro and Michael von Zadora.

We have all heard early music specialists etiolate music on "authentic" pianos, but few have heard an actually beautiful romantic performance coaxed from those intractable boxes of strings under low tension; so be prepared for a very pleasant surprise in hearing Fania Chapiro play the Op. 62 B major Nocturne on an 1820 Broadwood pianoforte.

Not to be missed is Alicia de Larrocha's performance of the Op. 32 B major Nocturne, a recording made when she was nine years old, proving that great musical talent is inborn, at least in her.

Well known recordings by Arrau, Backhaus, Cortot, Friedman, Gieseking, Godowsky, Hofmann, Koczalski, Levitzki, Lipatti, Ohlsson, Pachmann, Plante, Renard, Rosenthal, Solomon, and von Sauer are also included.

At the end of the fourth CD are found eight "Historic" recordings by Busoni, Grunfeld, Michalowski, Paderewski and Rachmaninoff, as well as Paul Pabst's two 1895 cylinders (the earliest surviving recordings of Chopin) and the incomplete Op. 27 C sharp minor Nocturne performed in the freest possible style by Bela Bartok, recorded in 1939 on a piece of recycled Xray film.

The liner notes by Harold C. Schonberg and Frank Cooper are fascinating and controversial.  As co-producer I have heard from several people who purchased the set, and as expected, each and every one of them disagrees with a few of our choices, but all (so far) have loved the compilation and found it to be immediately an essential cornerstone of their recordings library.  Everyone has
complimented us on the handsome appearance of the set, on the superior transfers, and for having the idea in the first place.

Gregor Benko

*** *** ***

I will add a few personal remarks. 

First, let's review (and paraphrase slightly) a statement that Benko made at the very beginning of his announcement - that in this set "each performance [would convey] a personal approach to the music". 

A vast majority of these performances do not convey what we might consider to be "proper Chopin style" today.  But these performers lived closer to Chopin's time than we do, so who is to judge?  In fact, three pianists represented in this set (Aleksander Michalowski, Moriz Rosenthal, and Raoul von Koczalski) studied with Carl Mikuli, one of the best-known pupils of Chopin, and it is not too unreasonable to hope that perhaps they have some of Chopin's musical DNA.  (Mikuli also edited the "complete" Chopin works, still available in the US from G. Schirmer and some volumes reprinted by Dover.)

There are a few more pianists with some Chopin lineage.  Another Chopin pupil, Georges Mathias, taught such notables as Isidor Philipp and Raoul Pugno, both of whom unfortunately left us only a few scarce recordings. Alfred Cortot studied with Emile Descombes, who is alleged to have been a pupil of Chopin.

There has already been an onslaught of quips amongst pianophiles about "what should have been included".  The title of this set is NOT "A Century of The Greatest Chopin Performances".  Certainly many pianists (and possibly a few trained seals) have given better performances of the Chopin Etude in C Major, op. 10 no. 7.  But Francis Plante was pushing ninety when he recorded it, and he was born ten years before Chopin died, and possibly could have heard him play live.  Several benchmark performances were not included because they are so easily found elsewhere, and one that arguably "should have been included" was bettered here - by the same pianist!

The Josef Lhevinne recording of the "Thirds" etude, op. 25 no. 6, has long been the unassailable standard by which any performance of this piece was judged.  But Benko and Marston chose NOT to include that Victor recording, opting instead for a LIVE performance by Lhevinne from a 1933 radio broadcast. 

My personal favorite historical Chopin recording is the Ignaz Friedman recording of the Revolutionary Etude, op. 10 no. 12 - however it too is not included.  Instead, we have a live performance by Arthur Rubinstein from a 1974 recital.  Since Rubinstein gave us precious few recordings of the Etudes, I can be consoled with this - besides, I have a copy of the original Friedman 78, coupled with an equally transcendent recording of the Etude in C, op. 10 no. 7.  Same side, one take.  Correspondence with one "in the know" informed me that the the current owners of the American Victor and Columbia labels - I won't name names, but their initials are BMG/Sony - would not license material to Marston for this release.  This explains the omission of the Friedman Revolutionary Etude as well as the Lhevinne studio recording of the etude in thirds, any Rachmaninoff recordings for Victor, and many others such as Percy Grainger.

Another pleasant surprise for me was the recording chosen for the Etude in C sharp Minor, op. 25 no. 7 - the beloved "Cello" etude, and one I often perform myself.  I heard it "blind" - in the car while driving, and was amazed at the poetry, the rubato, but yet the underlying pulse.  This piece can fall into a pile of steaming emotion (and probably does often in my performances) but this recording is arguably the most beautiful recording of this etude that I have ever heard.  When I later checked the track listing, I was surprised to learn the pianist was Evgeny Svetlanov, who is now better known as a conductor.

The 1932 recording of the young Alicia de Larrocha of the Chopin B major Nocturne (op. 32 no. 1) is a high point for me, as it documents her immense talent at a very early age - nine years old.  While visiting family friend and mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia in the Odeon recording studio, little Alicia was persuaded to make a recording or two.

The playing of Natan Brand and Joseph Villa remind us that so many great talents are taken away too early, and we are fortunate to have some of their performances documented through recordings.

Sidney Foster, we hardly knew ye!  I only knew of his playing through an old Musical Heritage Society LP recording of Clementi Sonatinas (!), but his live recordings of the fourth and fifth etudes from op. 10 verge on the surreal.  I could swear I saw lightning bolts come out of my speakers.  Simply amazing, electric, pianism.  Perhaps nuclear-fission pianism.

Through the selected preludes by Mischa Levitzki we get an object lesson on how pianists "used to" perform these.  He repeats the shorter ones and varies the touch somewhat.  I confess that I have found Levitzki to be without charm in the past, these recordings cause me to consider a re-evaluation.

A few unknown names remain in my memory - Thomas Manshardt (1927-2009) for one.  This is one I will file in my "quirky historical pianists" file.  Known as "the last pupil of Alfred Cortot" (although Idil Biret is still alive, performing, and recording), he is represented here in a live 1980 performance of the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne.  The playing sounds to me like that of a meandering, doddering old relic of the past, but he would have been 53 years old when this was recorded - a mere three years older than I am at the time of writing this article.  It is enlightening to hear, but it not playing that I would want to hear on a regular basis.

Few "current names" are represented, but Francesco Libetta seduces us with the D flat Nocturne, op. 27 no. 2.  This nocturne's sister, no. 1 in C sharp minor, is given an illuminating (if one CAN "illuminate" a Nocturne) performance by - of all people - Bela Bartok - an incomplete, but priceless as is, performance, captured on X-ray film.

And last, but not least, for those who have been unable to snatch up a copy of Marston's release of The Julius Block Cylinders, there are two tracks here played by Paul Pabst - recorded in 1895.  These are considered the earliest extant recordings of Chopin's piano music, and the performances hold up rather well.

Carefully researched, expertly transferred from often difficult sources, this set is a must-have for Chopin enthusiasts.  If you love the piano - if you love Chopin, buy it.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

...And did you know that RICHARD NIXON played the piano?

Let us set aside all political opinions and rake "Richard Nixon, pianist" over the coals instead.

Here, performing (presumably on "The Tonight Show" with Jack Paar) is pianist Richard Nixon - from 1963, before he became President, performing an original composition - let us call it "I Know the G Major Arpeggio" - Paar took the trouble to have an orchestral accompaniment added to this lovely number.  (G Major is a great key for string players, by the way.)

This will never be a political blog (follow me on Twitter for that - robertsonrick) - but there is a famous old one-liner that Nixon said about pianists - and it's here.

Now, there's gotta be a clip of Harry Truman out there somewhere - I recall reading that his favorite Chopin waltz was op. 42 in A flat...

Monday, September 13, 2010

RACHMANINOFF PLAYS RACHMANINOFF - Prelude in C Sharp Minor, op. 3 no. 2

This EXCELLENT video by record collector and music historian Carsten Fischer is worth watching.

In it he plays all three phonograph recordings by Sergei Rachmaninoff of his famous Prelude in C Sharp Minor. - the PHONOGRAPH RECORDINGS as opposed to the more frequently-heard recordings of the Ampico player-piano roll.  Certain subtleties in his style are lost in the translation with the piano-roll process, and those who can hear through the surface noise will discover this as well.

Not only that, he discusses the differences and provides links to related videos and topics about Rachmaninoff's playing.

Pictured is my copy of the first recording (1919) of the piece by the composer.  It was predated by Wilhelm Backhaus, who recorded this perennial old favorite around 1909 for the Gramophone Company, released in the US by Victor (believed to be the first recording of it) and Josef Hofmann for Columbia in 1912, as well as Julius P. Schendel for Victor around 1918.

The 1923 Victor better shows the way he voiced the opening chords. 

And I should add that these three recordings, and the Ampico piano roll, lay to rest the HORRENDOUS misprint that exists in many editions, perpetrated (I believe) by the old Oesterle/Schirmer edition.  A copy of an old Russian edition of ths prelude may be found here.  In Measure 5 (not counting the pickup), the chord in the left hand on beat 2 has a D SHARP.  Someone along the way edited this to D natural, here, and at the repeat at the climax.  Many renowned pianists, including one who studied with Rachmaninoff, play this misprint.  I plan to do an article on the origin (and evolution) of this egregious mistake later.

I have nothing else to add to the discussion on these three recordings, as I feel that Carsten does an excellent job of compare-and-contrast. 

UPDATE - December 2010:  I have included Carsten's video descriptions and links below.  In the first incarnation of this article, the video was not imbedded, and the reader would have seen those links there.

All three recordings of Rachmaninoff playing the C# Minor Prelude, from his first 1919 Edison record, the 1923 acoustic, and the 1928 Victor electric remake.

Recorded on the HMV 31b Orthophonic Gramophone.
I have equalized the sound recordings (with a RIAA curve) to help with bass response. Otherwise the recordings are not manipulated. The few distortions are digital artifacts due to the recording level.

The identical movie below is a straight recording from the Gramophone without equalization added.

The Prelude in C Sharp Minor, The Bells of Moscow, is arguably Rachmaninoffs most (in)famous work. It had been recorded as early as 1917 by Mark Hambourg and Josef Hofmann.

When Rachmaninoff arrived in New York shortly after armistice in 1918, he had a difficult start like many Russian émigrés. To make his first recordings, he signed up with the Edison company, who claimed for themselves to have a superior recording process.
Rachmaninoff nervous and insecure with the unknown recording experience recorded a few pieces in many takes in April 1919 at the Edison New York studio.

Unfortunately, the Edison company had no track record dealing with celebrity pianists: Rachmaninoff was forced to play on an upright piano, and despite his wishes to publish only certain good takes, the Edison company also published takes containing slips or embarrassing mistakes. Thomas A. Edison himself very hard of hearing called Rachmaninoff dismissively just a pounder. Matters were not helped by the fact that Edison records of 1920 had many defects, and the high noise level drowned out much musical subtlety.

Disappointed with this first experience, Rachmaninoff signed on with Victor on April 21, 1920. After a period of rather undistinguished recording quality, Victor had improved their acoustic recording process substantially in the 1920s. Victor was happy to grant Rachmaninoff artistic control over record releases, and offered him a substantial contract.
In the beginning, Victor avoided duplicating the Edison recordings, and it was not until 1923 that the C# Minor prelude was recorded again. In 1925, the famous Wester Electric system of electric recording was introduced, and Rachmaninoff was one of the first artists to make electric piano records. Again, the Prelude was low priority, and an electric re-take was not made until 1928.

The three recordings, despite some technical shortcomings, are a fascinating document of technology and artistic interpretation: Rachmaninoff makes each recording unique with subtle changes in accents, tempo and rubato. Also, with the electric recording, he is free to employ a much greater dynamic range.
One interesting point of speculation is how the recording technology affected the sound and perhaps interpretation of the pieces.

While both acoustic recordings have somewhat wooden bass notes, they very nicely accentuate the treble lines. The electric recording, while full and dramatic, seems to be somewhat less focused, perhaps even plodding, compared to the acoustic Victor. In my mind, the acoustic Victor is the best recording, as a focused interpretation, and an even tonal range.
The Edison recording, even when ignoring the technical defects, does not seem to be quite as balanced, the treble is not quite as integrated, and there seems to be a curious tonal dip in the upper midrange. A curious fact is that much of the treble line disappears on the electric.

Lets check the bell effects in the treble line:

On the Edison, the treble line at 2:32 and 2:55 is nice and clear, but seems to be somewhat too sharp, and not integrated with the midrange.
On the Victor acoustic, at 5:55 6:06 6:25, the sparkling treble line is perfectly blended and gives the great bell sound.
On the electric at 9:34 and 9:46, the treble line all but disappears, and the bell sound is mostly lost.

Please read my notes on the other video for more information on the physical records and the gramophone used.

Some links:

a really clean transfer of the Edison -
RACHMANINOFF plays Prelude in C# Minor: 1919 Edison,

The 1928 Victor (somewhat overfiltered)

A 1942 documentary about how they made Victor records:

Check out more great tunes and amazing vintage phonographs at My YouTube Videos:

More about this and other machines
on my Changer Website

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Anderson and Roe take on the Moonlight Sonata

This video "gets me" every time I see it.  Talented piano duo Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe do a "dramatic" performance of the all-too-familiar first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.  The skits are dramatic presentations of actual comments posted on YouTube videos of this piece by noted artists such as Kissin, Kempff, Horowitz, and Argerich.

Their website  (thanks, Chase!) is at - guess I was typing .com, but thought I was trying to access it from a search result.  Oh well, it's fixed now.  They have a CD out as well; I have it and it is fantastic.  It is available as a download from iTunes.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ravel's Jeux d'eau: a "newer" look at an old favorite

Anyone here considering playing Ravel’s Jeux d’eau in the near future? This piece has been an obsession for me, staying in the back of my mind for some time. I have played the Sonatine many times, and still have it under my fingers to a degree. I actually got Jeux d’eau to the point about ten years ago where I could "cover the notes" at a slow speed – then dropped it and moved on.  (The reader will soon learn that I have something I call "musical ADHD".)

On my last trip to Atlanta (and Hutchins and Rea Music) I decided to pick up a new copy and think about taking the piece back up. Even though I have the Alfred, Schirmer (edited by Rafael Joseffy), and a reprint of the original Demets edition at home (and probably a few others), I wanted to see if the new Peters Urtext (ed. Roger Nichols) had anything new to offer in the way of fingerings, etc. The Alfred edition is edited and fingered by Maurice Hinson, NOT Nancy Bricard who worked sheer miracles with Gaspard, Miroirs, and Le Tombeau de Couperin. Alfred ought to commission her to edit the entire Ravel oeuvre.

Alas, the Peters/Nichols Jeux d’eau was NOT fingered. Which to me was odd because my Sonatine in the same edition is.

They had a Masters Music Publications edition in the files, and I was curious to see which edition they bootlegged this time – Schirmer? Demets? I presume you all are familiar with their editions – usually reprints of public-domain editions of the standards, similar to what Kalmus (later handled by Belwin-Mills) sold for years. Actually, the piano-score division of Edwin Kalmus evolved into Masters.  I have a Masters edition of Le Tombeau de Couperin, and it is a reprint of the original Durand.

No reprint here. This is a new edition, edited and fingered by Richard Dowling. There are two pages of "program notes" and the music is NEWLY ENGRAVED, (appears to be done with a computer music-notation program) with generous fingering and some of the most ingenious hand redistributions that one can imagine! Page turns are convenient, the score is clear and easy to read, and his suggestions make the piece so much easier to play.

I am considering committing myself to finally finish what I started with this piece, and encourage anyone out there who wants to add this to their repertoire to check out this edition, no matter how many other ones you own.  This edition, as it stands, is a master lesson on the piece.

Maurice Ravel: Jeux d’eau
Edited by Richard Dowling
Masters Music Publications M3783

Although this was originally posted to the Yahoo! group ThePiano in 2006, I had the urge to share it here, as I feel that this edition is useful for teacher and performer alike, and merits attention.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pre-Beginning Beginnings

I never claimed to be a prodigy at the piano, or any other instrument I played. But here is the photographic evidence that I at least mastered ONE thing at a very early age. Yes, I had a record collection that early. And by three and a half I could read at a functional level, having learned from my mother. She taught me to read by using the titles and artists on record labels. Seriously.

      We believe that both of these pictures were taken around 1962, with the top picture being earlier. The picture is not very clear, but my portable record player is on the couch. As I got bigger, I could reach over and into the larger "console model" in the living room.


Because a blog has to start SOMEWHERE, and I will introduce myself slowly over time, I take you, dear reader, to the very beginning, when I first placed my then-skinny self upon a piano bench.

     In the fifth grade or so, my mother decided that I needed something to occupy my time. It was decided that I would take piano lessons. I don't think that I ever asked for lessons, it just seemed the thing to do.

     My first piano teacher was a colorful woman by the name of Myra French (pictured above, circa 1974, with yours truly - sardine shoulders and all.) Her husband Ray was my third cousin. She could talk the ears off of Prince Charles. I loved her. I think Mama paid $2.50 for a 30-minute lesson.

     For some odd reason Myra dispensed with the modern, up-to-date (at the time) David Carr Glover method she was using with the other students, and put me in a little oblong-shaped red book entitled "Teaching Little Fingers to Play". It was a letdown for a ten-year-old, and a mentally gifted ten-year-old at that. But Myra had her reasons. That was my first contact with the John Thompson Piano Course.

     I guess I progressed rapidly, but not at at an alarming rate. I have taught students who seemed to have progressed faster than I did. I never really thought of myself as musically gifted; I was just doing something I enjoyed.

     In my first recital in spring of 1971 I played two pieces - "Our School Band" by David Carr Glover, and an original composition - my first - "The Happy Homework Hum". It was in an A major five-finger position and used only two chords - I and V7.

     Over the years I remember a few other recital performances, nothing out of the ordinary. The Frenches had moved from Roanoke to Fayette, Alabama in 1972, and I did not study piano during my seventh-grade year.

     I had continued working on my own in those John Thompson Second and Third Grade Books, reveling in such fine literature as the Burgmueller Ballade (my first big classical warhorse; I thought I was something when I could play that) and the Barcarolle from Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann". I played the Barcarolle in a school talent show; I think it was a success. It was the first time that my teachers knew that I "could play".

     The French family returned to Roanoke the following year and I resumed study with Myra. By then I was playing a little Bach - the ubiquitous Prelude in C from the Well-Tempered Clavier, and some of the pieces from the Anna Magdalena Notebook.

     I recall playing that Bach prelude at a recital in a local nursing home, along with - get this - "Tubular Bells - Theme from 'The Exorcist'"! (hey, it was a cool piece for a fourteen-year-old). In my last recital with Myra (the above photo is from that recital) I played the John Thompson arrangement of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2, and the John Schaum arrangement of the Grieg Piano Concerto. I have a cassette recording of this performance somewhere, and it's really embarrassing. Instead of using printed programs, we announced our pieces before we played. From the sound of the tape recording, I think my voice changed sometime during that evening.

     Myra Keeble French Williamson died early in the morning of June 20, 2010, of an apparent heart attack. I had the honor of giving a brief eulogy at her funeral, and her former students Sanford Watson and myself performed. I played the Chopin Etude in C sharp minor, op. 25 no. 7. Myra gave so much to our community, in ways that reached beyond music. For I am white, and Sanford is black. Myra was the first piano teacher in our town to accept black students. Sanford went on to study with me, then attended Jacksonville (Alabama) State University on a piano scholarship, where he received a bachelor of education degree with a major in music. He is now the band director at Handley Middle School in Roanoke, Alabama, still a close friend, and a role model to the children he teaches.
      To the memory of Myra, and to small-town piano teachers everywhere, I dedicate this blog, and welcome your comments and suggestions.