Jeffrey Kahane’s Improvisation on “American the Beautiful”

Jeffrey Kahane’s improvisation on Samuel A. Ward’s “American the Beautiful” moves beyond fervent, flag-waving patriotism into something more sombre, introspective, and quietly majestic. As a solo pianist, Kahane turns to this soulful impromptu as a frequent encore. You may also know Jeffrey Kahane as a conductor. He served as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for twenty years and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra from 2005 to 2010. His son, Gabriel Kahane is a …

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Bach’s Fantasia in G Major, BWV 572: The Power of the Pedal Tone

In his discussion of the extraordinary and haunting pedal tone at the end of the first movement of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the composer and commentator Richard Atkinson goes back to J.S. Bach’s mighty Fantasia in G Major for Organ, BWV 572. (Atkinson’s YouTube channel is filled with insightful videos which take a fascinating look “under the hood” at a variety of music). Bach’s Fantasia, or Pièce d’Orgue as it is sometimes called, offers a …

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Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” Krystian Zimerman

La fille aux cheveux de lin (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”) is the eighth piece in Book I of Claude Debussy’s solo piano Préludes, written around 1910. The title was inspired by an 1852 poem by Leconte de Lisle. A single, meandering line pulls us into the ephemeral, dreamlike world this music inhabits. Listen to the way the harmony, built largely on the floating, static pentatonic scale, shifts around this melody in unexpected ways. Listening …

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Beth Levin Plays Beethoven’s Last Three Piano Sonatas

Beethoven said that his final three piano sonatas, written between 1820 and 1822, were conceived “in a single breath.”  In April, 2012, pianist Beth Levin gave what has been described as a “revelatory” performance of these three Sonatas (Op. 109, 110, and 111) in the intimate setting of New York’s Faust Harrison Pianos. Luckily, this special concert, performed on an 1887 Steinway, was recorded and released a year later on the Navona label (“A Single Breath: …

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Musical Cryptograms: Five Scores that Contain Hidden Messages

Imagine transmitting a secret message by using the pitches (from A to G) that are embedded in a musical score. It’s been the subject of mystery novels and television shows as well as Philip Thicknesse’s 1772 book, A Treatise on the Art of Deciphering, and of Writing in Cypher: with an Harmonic Alphabet. During the Second World War, codebreakers considered the possibility that German and Japanese spies might use musical notes as a …

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New Release: András Schiff Plays Schubert Sonatas and Impromptus

Sir András Schiff’s new album takes us back to the sounds Schubert would have heard. The Hungarian-born British pianist performs on a fortepiano made around 1820 by Franz Brodmann. The instrument, once owned by Karl I, the last emperor of Austria-Hungary, is an early version of the piano. In the liner notes, Schiff writes, It is to me ideally suited to Schubert’s keyboard works. There is something quintessentially Viennese in its timbre, its …

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The Organ of Notre-Dame: Music of Messiaen, Vierne, and Duruflé

Yesterday, it was reported that the historic organ of Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral was not damaged in Monday’s devastating fire. The news inspired me to return to The Listeners’ Club archive in search of recordings featuring the mighty instrument. One of the most notable is Olivier Latry’s performance of the famous Toccata from Charles-Marie Widor’s organ Symphony No. 5 in F minor.  Olivier Latry has been one of Notre-Dame’s head organists since 1985. The proceeds from a …

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