Two Views of Couperin

The music of François Couperin (1668-1733) takes centerstage in this month’s release from the Four Nations Ensemble. This is the fourth installment of the early music group’s new educational initiative, the Concise Dictionary of Music. Harpsichordist Andrew Appel performs Couperin’s Septieme Ordre from Book II of Pieces de Clavecin (1717). In the program notes Appel writes, The Septieme Ordre presents itself as an exhibit of rococo drawings, a suite of Watteau-like images set before us. The grand Baroque gestures of Book …

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An 18th Century Novelty: Music for Mechanical Organ Clock

On Wednesday, I pointed out the persistent “tick-tock” rhythm of the second movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 101- a detail which earned the piece the nickname, The “Clock” Symphony. That got me thinking about the small collection of music, written by Haydn and other composers, for the mechanical organ clock, a popular eighteenth century luxury item which combined a clock with a small, mechanized organ. It’s a device which epitomized the scientific rationality of …

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Five Great Lazar Berman Recordings

The legendary Russian pianist Lazar Berman was born in Saint Petersburg on this date in 1930. At first confined to the Soviet Union and its satellite countries (the 12-year travel ban may have been the result of his marriage to a French woman), Berman burst onto the international music scene in the mid-1970s, following American and European tours. His playing often exuded a stunning dramatic power. In a 2005 New York Times …

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Nahre Sol: “Good Night I Love You Bye”

Nahre Sol is a pianist and composer whose music blends elements of “improvisation, traditional Western form and harmony, jazz harmony, and minimalism.” Her online video series, “Practice Notes” provides an educational resource for piano students. I discovered her music during her recent conversation with Rick Beato. Good Night I Love You Bye opens with a warm, quietly-embracing melody, propelled forward with crystalline, Bach-like contrapuntal lines. A series of exuberant musical adventures follows this opening statement. The …

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The Ghost of Debussy’s “Des pas sur la neige” in Morton Feldman’s Final Work

Four ascending notes, repeated with hypnotic persistence amid a soundscape of restlessly shifting harmony and color…This is what we hear in the atmospheric Des pas sur la neige (“Footprints in the Snow”), the sixth piece from Book 1 of Claude Debussy’s solo piano Préludes. Written in 1909, this music seems to mirror the dreamy winter scenes of Impressionist painters like Claude Monet- paintings in which recognizable landscapes begin to blur into abstractions of color and light. …

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Christmas Liszt

When considering sacred Christmas music, Franz Liszt probably isn’t the first composer to come to mind. But Liszt, in fact, wrote a strange outlier of a Christmas Oratorio. It forms the first part of the sprawling Christus, composed between 1862 and 1866, which follows the example of Handel’s Messiah, dramatizing the life of Jesus Christ from birth, to passion, to resurrection. Liszt’s Christmas Oratorio unfolds over a long, Wagnerian arc. Its five movements feel as much like a …

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Ghoulish Prokofiev: “Suggestion Diabolique”

There’s nothing more exhilarating than raw terror. If you aren’t convinced, take a moment and listen to Sergei Prokofiev’s Suggestion Diabolique, the ghoulishly demonic final movement of the 1908 Four Pieces for Piano, Op. 4. It’s a thrilling ride, along the lines of Schubert’s Erlkönig. Opening in the growling lowest register of the piano, this music resides just on the edge of tonality. You can sense the young Prokofiev flexing his compositional muscles and rebelling against rigid rules and …

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