Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mama's Song

As my regular readers know, my mother passed away last December after an extended illness, and I still haven't really gotten out of that cloud yet.  You can read my December 2010 post about her, and our musical connection, here.

Late last night (July 6), I finally finished one of those projects that we had planned to do together. Mama wrote a song years ago, as a young girl.  It may be better to say that she "made it up", since she could not read or write music.  The name of the song was "In the Arms of Jesus", and to my knowledge there were never any words.  A phone conversation in August 2011 with my aunt LaVelle Langley affirmed my belief that there were no words to the song.  Also, Aunt LaVelle recalls hearing Mama play it often, which is something that my brother and sister do not recall - understandable since they did not spend as much time with Mama at the piano as I did.

I wanted to make videos of Mama's playing while she was still able, but she had "camera fright", and arthritis got to her before the COPD-related dementia did.  The touch of my Baldwin grand was too heavy for her to play comfortably.  I had promised her for years that I would write "her song" down.

That finally happened last night after a practice session with an old friend, the Liszt Sonetto 104 del Petrarca.  I tinkered with Mama's song for around an hour, and decided to give it a new voice.

After I wrote it out, I decided to make a "demo" video to share with friends and family on Facebook.  The original plan was to make another video for YouTube (and this blog) after church Sunday, on a better-regulated instrument.  This Baldwin grand, my pride and joy (and a college-graduation gift from Mama and Papa Doug), has not been tuned since nineteen-eighty-something - one of the few "downsides" of living in the country is finding a reliable tuner/technician. 

In the end I decided to post this "rough video" after all. This is where I had most recently heard her play her version, on this piano in this room, and this is a rare opportunity for me to let you in Mama's living room for possibly one last time as the estate is settled, as our family home may not stay in the family.   With five bedrooms, three bathrooms, and eleven ACRES of yard, it is far too large for me to maintain on my own.
Here it is.  I have left her tune as is and recast it in "my style", rather than in the hymn-like chordal way in which she played it.  I have retitled it "Mama's Song".  Why?

We all have different religious beliefs, but we all have, or have had, a Mama.

Why the link to this book?  Although it has nothing to do with music, it always reminded me of Mama - I loaned her my copy and she read it, and enjoyed it very much.  Also, author Rick Bragg grew up in Jacksonville, Alabama and studied at Jacksonville State University at the very same time as me, so I remember well the places he describes in this book.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A reader in Australia searches for a sad bird

Letters, I get letters...

Michael in Melbourne, Australia writes:

I heard "Sad Bird/Pajaro Triste" on the radio some time ago and later saw your video of one of your (very talented) students playing it. Anyway could you forward publication details for the piano sheet music as I have been unable to find it?

Anyone who compliments one of my students is a friend of mine.  

The piece "Pajaro triste" is by Federico Mompou (1893-1987) and comes from a collection entitled "Impresiones intimas".  (I have also seen it spelled "Impresiones intimes".)  The original Union Musical Espanola (imagine the tilde) edition of the complete set costs mucho, mucho dinero, but is available from your favorite music dealer.


People who wish to have this one piece are in luck.  It is included in the Alfred anthology Keys to Stylistic Mastery, Book 3 by Dennis Alexander and Ingrid Jacobson Clarfield.

It is beautifully edited, with performance suggestions, and of course the rest of the collection is very valuable for teaching and repertoire purposes.  This volume currently sells for $9.95.  I recommend this series highly, as well as another similar series by the same two writers/editors, Keys to Artistic Performance.

There are many complete surveys of Mompou's music available on CDs, including those by Martin Jones (full-price) and Jordi Maso (budget label, but thoroughly enjoyable).  Mompou himself recorded much of his music in the later "stereo LP" era so we can hear how he interpreted it.  But for an all-around "sample disc", no one has beaten Stephen Hough in this repertoire.  I have posted an Amazon link to this CD, and it is available on iTunes as well.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Let's go back in time - to 1899, and meet (and hear) Alfred Grünfeld

It's time we became reacquainted with this man.

Pianist Alfred Grünfeld (1852-1924) was born in Prague, studied at the Kullak Academy in Berlin and eventually moved to Vienna, where he became a popular teacher and performer. He was court pianist to Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany. He knew Brahms, Strauss and Leschetizky.

Based on extant concert programmes, Grünfeld was a pianist of intellect and virtuosic abilities. Famed Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick said of Grünfeld, "He is a musician beyond criticism; in public and in private one of the best known members of Vienna society, and the greatest favorite with all musical people.  By his brilliant playing as well as his sweet expression and gay humour, he understands to perfection the art of charming his listeners in Vienna."  That's high praise from a notoriously tough critic.

He performed many of the major works of Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Schumann, Schubert and Brahms, often including new works by composers of the day, such as Grieg’s Ballade, Op. 24. His brother, cellist Heinrich Grünfeld, was equally well known and made some recordings as well.

He was a prolific composer, mostly of shorter character pieces, and effective transcriptions. He toured extensively in Germany, Russia, Scandanavia, France, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and even the United States.  He recorded extensively, as early as 1899 (on acoustic Berliners).  So why is he forgotten today?

Actually, record collectors never forgot him.  But most pianists think of him as a "salon artist", whiling away the time playing salon paraphrases of this and that.  But he also recorded works by Brahms, Schubert, Grieg, and even something as "modern" as Debussy's "Golliwogg's Cakewalk"!  On these discs it is evident that his style was elegant and charming, just as Hanslick notes.  A pearly tone and tranlucent quality comes through on these recordings, even the earliest ones.

Here I present one of the rare 1899 Berliner recordings (alas, not mine) of the Grieg "Papillon", op. 43 no. 1.

His "Soiree de Vienne", op. 56 is still in the repertoire of pianists such as Evgeny Kissin, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and even Lang Lang has been known to pound insensitively through it.  There are videos of many of these on You Tube, but let us see how Der Meister played it.  If it sounds familiar, it's because it is a transcription of waltzes from Johann Strauss's "Die Fledermaus".

From my collection.  Recorded c. 1905.
Scores of Grünfeld's works may be found at IMSLP by clicking here.  The score for his best-known work, the above-performed Soiree de Vienne, is still under copyright in the United States and can be purchased through the link below.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A teenager's first inspiration

Ingrid Haebler.
Don't know her?  You should.

When I was a teenage piano student growing up in rural Alabama, I didn't have much access to recordings of the "great pianists".

I was transitioning from method-book pieces and "teaching favorites" to more standard repertoire, and among that repertoire was Chopin Waltzes. My teacher at the time, Jimmy New, used the Chopin Waltzes as core repertoire (along with Beethoven Sonatas and Bach Inventions), and I probably played five or six of them during the two years I worked with him.

The Chopin Waltz op. 69 no. 1 was the first "repertoire" piece I performed in a recital. Before that, it had been a steady stream of Burgmüller, Heller, Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook, and the various delights that the John Thompson Modern Course for the Piano had to offer.

So, there in a drugstore (of all places! in Village Mall at Auburn, Alabama, I came across a box set of Chopin, played by the finest pianists the Vox Box had to offer. I snatched that baby up.

The set contained a disc of the Waltzes played by Ingrid Haebler.  This was the first time I had ever actually heard a recording of a concert pianist playing a piece I was playing, and it was an epiphany.  (Students nowadays can hear CD recordings of even the most basic piano repertoire, and there are even Heller and Burgmüller cycles on CD these days, but back then, we only had the Educo records, with variable and often terrible sound quality.)

Later I bought discs by better-known Chopin pianists, including the usually-preferred Arthur Rubinstein.  But one never forgets their first love, and I found his waltz recordings cold compared to Ms.  Haebler.

When Ingrid Haebler was included in Tom Deacon's Philips "Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century" collection, it was one of the more controversial choices.  But not for me.  Her Mozart is her calling card, and it is admired to this day.  But I will always adore her Waltzes, because of the inspiration they gave to a teenage piano student.  And I want to share some of her Chopin with you.

And if you've followed the trail of pianists whose work was cribbed and presented as the work of Joyce Hatto, you will find that "Hatto's" Mozart Sonatas are actually the work of Haebler for the Denon label.

I have been a "fan" of Ms. Haebler's playing for years.  There are currently no Haebler recordings available on, but the diligent record collector can find copies of her recordings at other sources. 

Many years later I gave that old LP box set to a student.  I later regretted it, and searched eBay and used-record stores until I found an old Vox LP disc of her Waltzes - so I have her performances again. 

I remember my first kiss, my first date, my first love - and my first Chopin.  To this day.  So thank you, Ingrid Haebler, for the inspiration you gave to this gangly teenage boy.  And I know that I am just one of many who have been inspired by your playing.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

William Kapell plays - in only known video clip

William Kapell (1922-1953) was a brilliant American pianist whose life and career were cut short by the crash of an airplane on which he was returning from an overseas tour in October 1953. He was barely 31, but was already acknowledged as the leading American pianist of his generation; some have said he would have been the greatest pianist of the 20th century.
Born in 1922, Kapell studied piano with Dorothea Anderson LaFollette at the Yorkville Settlement School in New York and with Olga Samaroff at the Philadelphia Conservatory and, later, at the Juilliard School. In 1941, he won both a Naumburg Award and the Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Concert competition. This gave him opportunities for major debuts both as a recitalist and as a player of concerti. In 1942, he was given the Town Hall Endowment Series Award, providing him with yet another Town Hall recital during the 1942-43 season. He then signed a contract with RCA Victor and recorded a wide variety of repertoire for that company. (All of Kapell's RCA recordings have been reissued in compact disc format.)
He toured North America annually thereafter, performing both with major orchestras and as a recitalist. He became an advocate of contemporary American piano music, and seems to have been especially prized by American composers. In 1945, he played a series of concerts in Australia, beginning to build an international reputation. He toured South America three times (1946, 1948, and 1951). He seemed to have a particular affection for music of South America that is reflected in his personal collection of piano music. He first played in Europe in 1947. In mid-1953 he performed in Tel Aviv, played at Casals's Prades Festival, and gave his final series of performances during the course of a three-month Australian tour. Returning from Australia, his plane crashed into a mountain moments before its scheduled landing in San Francisco.   (This biographical sketch from the International Piano Archives website.)

This is the only known video footage of pianist William Kapell. He performs the Scarlatti Sonata in E major, K.380 (L.23), the Chopin Nocturne in E flat, op. 55 no. 2, and Gato, an Argentine dance by Emilio A. Napolitano.

And as an encore, here is his legendary performance of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz no. 1, recorded when he was only 22 and still considered among the best of this work.

William Kapell: A Documentary Life History of the American Pianist by Tim Page, available at, as well as the CD collection below:

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Myra Hess plays the "Appassionata" first movement - video

A treasure of a video - unfortunately she only made a motion picture of the first movement. Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965) in a lunchtime concert at the National Gallery during World War II, playing the opening movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in F minor, Op 57 ("Appassionata").

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The 2011 American Liszt Society conference, as described to a layman

[This is a little note I posted to Facebook this morning, as many of my hometown friends do not understand or appreciate things that every reader of this blog takes for granted.

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I cannot begin to share how yesterday's experience at the American Liszt Society conference went - I felt like Cinderella at the ball.  And as many of us classical music folks know, it is difficult to describe certain events to those of our friends who do not understand our fascination, or do not know the accomplishments of certain people we respect and idolize.  So I will put it in layman's terms for you all, and send a private message later for those who really want to know the what and who.

When I arrived an hour and a half early, Paula Deen took me my the hand, hugged me, and we had lunch together, an unexpected surprise.  Once that was over, she and I ran into Tyler Florence.  Tyler had the inside scoop as to where Rachael Ray was, and he whisked me through the crowd to meet her.  Rachael seemed happy to meet me face-to-face, as we have communicated for five years only by e-mail and one phone call, because of the time she used my recipe for Romantic  Chicken  Pasta Bake in her book "Cooking: Casserole By Casserole".  She immediately introduced me to her traveling companion, an editor at Deep-Fat Frying Magazine - who actually expressed an interest in seeing some of my recipes, and possibly bringing back the idea of publishing an article about me, my small-town cooking career and my recipes, written by Emily Moe.  (Emily is the only character in this narrative, other than me, who is identified by her real name.)

Paula proceeded to accompany me to all the other events.  During Martha Stewart's lecture, we were amazed at the new ideas she is still able to produce.  Betty Crocker bowled us over with a new recipe, proving to the crowd she still "had it" after all these years.  She got the loudest, longest, and most heartfelt ovation of the day. 

Several of us were surprised that Emeril Lagasse didn't show up, but you know, he's so last-decade.  Aunt Jemima did attend Friday, however; I missed her presentation.  Paula Deen was quite impressed with her, and told me that she even wore her trademark bandanna.  Retro is good.

I will be forever in debt to Paula for thinking of me and inviting me to attend this convention - it was great to see Rachael, and perhaps, some of my recipes will FINALLY see the light in a more mainstream, and more readily available, cookbook.

(This write-up is dedicated to Matt Woods, who although he is an amazing musician, would have been more impressed, and far more envious, if the above narrative was what actually happened.)

I will reveal the identity of only one person in this write-up to you readers.  "Paula Deen" is actually Gregor Benko, the co-founder of the International Piano Archives, and an idol of mine since my teen years.  There's also a pretty strong clue here as to who Rachael Ray is.