Don Shirley: Three Historic Recordings

During the 1960s, African-American jazz pianist and composer Don Shirley (1927-2013) left the comfort of his spacious, eclectically-appointed apartment above New York’s Carnegie Hall and undertook a series of concert tours which included the segregated, Jim Crow-era south. He hoped to break down the barriers of prejudice through music. Following the hostile treatment of Nat King Cole in Alabama a few years earlier, Shirley hired New York nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga as his …

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Change Ringing: St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol

Queen Elizabeth I described it as “the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England.”  This Christmas Eve we go to the over 900-year-old St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, UK to hear a spectacular example of English change ringing. The church’s fifteen bells are ordered in a series of seemingly-endless mathematical permutations, known as “changes.” This clip will give you an idea of the precision required in this type of bell ringing. With today’s …

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Messiaen the Mystic: “The kiss of the Infant Jesus”

Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of the French composer, organist, and ornithologist, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). A deep religious mysticism inhabits the music of Messiaen, a devout Roman Catholic who described himself as a “rhythmician, ornithologist and theologian.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (“Twenty contemplations on the infant Jesus”), a collection of short solo piano pieces written in 1944 during the final months of the German occupation …

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Philip Glass’ “Études”: Víkingur Ólafsson

Philip has often said to me: ‘I don’t agree with the way you play this piece, but it’s compelling, so I don’t want you to change it…’ – Víkingur Ólafsson, Breaking Glass: The Musical Journey of Víkingur Ólafsson Philip Glass’ twenty Études for solo piano, written between 1992 and 2012, continue in the footsteps of composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Rachmaninov, and Ligeti. On one level these Études (or “studies”) function as technical and compositional exercises. Glass has …

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Five Examples of Bartók’s “Night Music”

Strange, haunting, nocturnal sounds emerge throughout the music of twentieth century Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. These passages, which are known as “Night music,” evoke the hum of insects and other distant murmurs we might hear in a lonely field on a summer night. Bartók held a spiritual reverence for “Nature, Art, and Science.” But the “Night music” doesn’t offer the kind of poetic tone painting we hear in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Instead, these moments contain something more vague and terrifying. They surround …

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Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5: Horowitz at the Met, 1981

Let’s finish the week where we began, with a powerful live-concert recording of the legendary Russian-born American pianist, Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989). This performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5 concluded Horowitz’ November 1, 1981 recital at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Completed in 1901, the Prelude in G minor opens with the same kind of spirited march we hear in the opening movement of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Moments of soaring, heroic bravura are a reminder of …

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Happy Birthday, Vladimir Horowitz

Vladimir Horowitz, one of the twentieth century’s greatest pianists, was born on this date in 1903 in Kiev. Here is Horowitz’ performance of Schubert’s Impromptu for Piano in G-flat Major, D 899 at the Vienna Musikverein in 1987. (The city’s distant church bells can be heard briefly in the background). In contrast to Horowitz’ 1963 studio recording, this performance from the pianist’s final years seems deeply reflective and even lamenting. Schubert’s serenely beautiful melody is filled …

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