Astor Piazzolla at 100

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), the Argentine tango composer and virtuoso bandoneon player. The tango, a seductive dance made up of African, Native American, and European cultural influences, originated in the 1880s in the impoverished districts of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Similarly, Piazzolla’s music simmers in a rich melting pot which blends sultry tango rhythms with jazz and classical elements. Piazzolla played a major …

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Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio: A Haunting Elegy

Dmitri Shostakovich completed the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor in 1944, shortly after composing the “wartime” Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Shostakovich had scarcely finished the first movement when he received word of the sudden death (at age 41) of his close friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, a brilliant musicologist, critic, and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic. For nearly twenty years, Sollertinsky had been one of Shostakovich’s most loyal defenders. His influence included introducing …

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Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata: Five Key Recordings

Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, Op. 47—better known as the “Kreutzer” Sonata—was first performed on May 24, 1803. 216 years ago today, Beethoven and the Afro-European violinist George Bridgetower (1778-1860) premiered this convention-shattering music at Vienna’s Augarten Theatre. Beethoven was so late in completing the manuscript that Bridgetower was forced to sightread the performance, at times looking over the composer’s shoulder at the full score. Originally, the manuscript was inscribed with the lighthearted …

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Prokofiev’s Haunting First Violin Sonata

“Wind passing through a graveyard…” This is how Sergei Prokofiev described the hauntingly ethereal passage at the end of the first movement of the Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor. Hushed, wispy scales rise and fall in the violin over a series of numb, ambivalent piano chords. This chilly passage, which is anything but definitive or conclusive, returns later in the final movement. It encapsulates the atmosphere of the Sonata, perhaps the darkest, most …

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Gidon Kremer’s Changing Approach to Solo Bach

  It’s some of the most deeply profound and perfect music ever written, and it employs the most economical means imaginable. J.S. Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, completed in 1720 and neglected until almost a century later, are a cornerstone of the violin repertoire. They’re studied by every serious violin student. Yet, as you play solo Bach, you quickly get the sense that it takes a lifetime to fully grasp the …

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The Joy of Wrong Notes

The element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out. For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto …

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Recomposing Vivaldi’s "Winter"

As we await today’s meteorological prediction from the groundhog, let’s enjoy the icy sonic chill of “Winter” from The Four Seasons, Vivaldi’s collection of violin concertos composed around 1720. This piece can sound radically different from one performance to another, depending on choices of tempi and style. The concerto’s programatic elements remain: the orchestra’s frigid opening ponticello (a raspy sound created by playing as close to the bridge as possible), flying spiccato bowing suggesting …

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