Paganini Meets Rossini: “I Palpiti”

If the Top 40 popular song charts had existed in the early nineteenth century, they would have been dominated by the melodies of opera composers such as Gioachino Rossini. Today, popular music is distributed through recordings. In the nineteenth century, music distribution came in the form of arrangements and adaptations. Rock star virtuosos such as Niccolò Paganini and Franz Liszt drew on these melodies in the form of paraphrases. Paganini’s Variations on I …

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Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto: An Intimate Colossus

I don’t mind telling you that I have written a tiny, tiny pianoforte concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo. This is how Johannes Brahms jokingly described the newly completed Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major in a letter to his friend and former student, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, dated July 7, 1881. In another letter, written around the same time, he referred flippantly to “some little piano pieces.” In fact, …

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Mario Lavista’s “Reflejos de la Noche”: Sonic Mirrors

Mario Lavista, one of the most acclaimed Mexican composers of his generation, passed away last Thursday at the age of 78. Born in Mexico City, Lavista studied with Carlos Chávez, Héctor Quintanar, and Rodolfo Halffter at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música. In the 1960s, he went on to study in Paris with Henri Pousseur, Nadia Boulanger, Christoph Caskel, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In 1970, he founded Quanta improvisation, an ensemble dedicated to spontaneous …

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Mussorgsky Songs: “Night” and “Where Art Thou, Little Star?”

Modest Mussorgsky’s 1864 art song, Noch (“Night) inhabits a hazy, sensuous nocturnal dreamscape. The text by Alexander Pushkin begins with the lines, “My voice is for you both tender and languid, it disturbs the late silence of night’s darkness.” Throughout the poem, the brightness of eyes illuminated by the light of a “sorrowful candle” is contrasted with the gloom of the night. The psychologically erratic Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was a member of “The Mighty Five,” a …

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Remembering Nelson Freire

Nelson Freire, the acclaimed Brazilian pianist, passed away earlier this week at his home in Rio de Janeiro. He was 77. Born in Boa Esperança, Freire began playing the piano around the age of four. One of his earliest teachers, Lucia Branco, studied with a student of Franz Liszt. At the age of 12, Freire performed Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and was a prizewinner at the Rio de Janeiro International Piano Competition. Shortly thereafter, he …

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Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto: Oistrakh, Milstein, Heifetz

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major has long held a cherished position in the musical canon. Yet, the value of this popular work was not always appreciated. Following the premiere on December 4, 1881, performed by the Russian violinist Adolph Brodsky with Hans Richter leading the Vienna Philharmonic, the influential critic Eduard Hanslick wrote savagely, “Tchaikovsky is surely no ordinary talent, but rather, an inflated one…lacking discrimination and taste.” He continued, “The same …

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Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 9 “Black Mass”: A Diabolical Landscape

Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 9, completed in 1913, inhabits a haunting, diabolical landscape. The single-movement work begins with distant, mournful descending chromatic lines which outline Scriabin’s iconic “mystic chord,” a hexachord built on fourths which the composer described as “smoky.” In its purest form, the “mystic chord” dissolves harmonic function, leaving us with blinding sound. The marking, Legendaire, over the first bar suggests that we are being lulled into an unsettling dream …

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