In my wanderings through the interwebz I came across one of those ‘self-help’ articles which appear from time to time. Since many of us have cottoned on to the fact that, being told one thing is good for you in week one, only to be told the opposite in week four (butter/bacon/coffee/drinks) means we totally disregard them – with one exception: when it’s about Alzheimers. Yes, we read those because that’s not something we want to catch. The article I saw (and binned) was giving the usual tips, like doing crossword puzzles and exercise (yeah – that’s fun when you can’t even stagger down the stairs first thing in the morning, and not because of the healthy alcohol intake of the night before …) and eating whatevah until we’re told not to eat it.
But one ‘advice’ stuck in my mind: music! Best is to actively play music, but just listening is also good. Playing music – that reminded me of an observation: how the advent of the juke box has meant the death of musicians – ordinary people – playing in pubs. Well, the pubs are mostly gone now as well, but that’s another story. About thirty or so years ago, one found such impromptu music being played in Irish pubs up and down that country. It was wonderful. Today, everybody wants to be on telly, or on their own little youtube channel. ‘Music’ has to be ‘pop’, and little girls ‘do’ it, twerking included.
Here’s another thought: after the war, classical music was deemed to be unbearably posh – so it had to be avoided if one wanted to have any street cred at all. At that time, parents were still reasonably strict (well, at least mine were), and they took their task of educating us heathens seriously. Classical music was listened to on the radio: no talking, sit still, and listen to the end. My dad had the most brilliant thought of teaching us how to actually listen: he played Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, telling us that we could hear every new instrument coming in … he was right … and I was hooked on classical music. I got seriously into baroque music (harpsichord) and singing: choir. Performing with the choir or just sneaking in and listening to the great conductors: that was ‘my’ music … pop music was ok, for parties and dancing.
Since I can’t play any more and definitely cannot sing a note without sending The Princess fleeing into the kitchen, I listen. Thanks to the interwebz, anyone can have the best performers at their fingertips, well, on their PCs actually. I praise the stalwart classical music enthusiasts who dig out their old records and stick them up on youtube. One can compare different artists and chose the one one likes best – it’s years since there were record shops where one was allowed to do that. Remember the little cabins, smelly and stuffy, and only three records allowed?
Well, from orchestras to singers to pianists and harpsichord players, now we can have it all – and find obscure composers who’ve written amazing pieces, performed by astonishing artists. I’ll not go into who performed this or that best, or who is the GOAT on this or that instrument: it’s all about personal preferences, and thus I won’t apologise for selecting keyboard music!
Here’s one piece which I find electrifying. It’s by an 18th century Spanish composer, Padre Antonio Soler, called ‘Fandango’. It’s played on a harpsichord. Listen and be blown away … that was composed nearly 300 years ago!
Bach and Handel were his contemporaries, and there’s an outstanding British musician, Trevor Pinnock, who created his own orchestra, the ‘English Concert’, and is a preeminent harpsichordist. This is the Chaconne by Handel – you can’t get more baroque than that! Here’s a Prelude and Fugue by Bach, played by a different artist, the late Scott Ross. Listen to the different voices in the fugue – or not: simply enjoy the wonderful piece of music.
And so on to a composer whose sonatas, variations, rondos and concertos for the piano are joy pure and unadulterated. They sound simple, but believe you me: the more simple something sounds, the harder it is to play. For me, the one pianist interpreting Mozart who is still unsurpassed is Walter Gieseking. He died over sixty years ago. This deceptively simple piece, variations on ’Ah vous dirais-je, Maman’ is the best example: so simple, and so easily murdered … the sound of each single note played, the incorporation of the pauses, gives the piece its transparency and variety. SImply masterful. Next, a late composition, a Rondo, which shows how Mozart’s music was already pointing to the next master composer for the piano. It’s a Mozart Rondo – again, played by Gieseking.
Now let’s conclude with the one composer best known for his pieces for piano – his musical ‘gods’ were Bach and Mozart: Frederic Chopin. I repeat: this is not about finding GOATs, this is about personal taste, so YMMD, but for me there’s one pianist who is the unsurpassed interpreter of Chopin, and that is Adam Harasiewicz. Still, since it’s difficult to find him on youtube, and since I want to finish with giving you a sample each of the five most important forms composed for the piano by Chopin, Vladimir Ashkenazy is a close second.
Here’s a Mazurka – pretty well-known – and here is a most wonderful rendition of an Etude (not the famous ‘Revolution’ one). Both are played by Ashkenazy. And since one has to have a Polonaise when talking about Chopin, here is one, rarely played – Ashkenazy again.
Of course, one cannot possibly talk about Chopin without mentioning his waltzes. This is the ‘Valse brilliante’, played brilliantly by Harasiewicz. Finally a Nocturne (No 21), the piano composition most associated with Chopin. It’s played by Harasiewicz – I have no words to describe it, you just have to listen …
I agree – music is the best way to prevent Alzheimers, and listening has to be as good as playing! Here endeth the lesson …