On the classics

You ever start to write a blog post and realize that it’s uninteresting, and no-one’s going to read it?

And then you erase it, and you start over, writing a meta-post about writing a post.  You end up writing the post in the end, disclaiming it with a stupid opening.


Anyway, I’m a diehard fan of Van Cliburn’s playing of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1. It’s a magical piece of music that I’ve listened to over and over – some of my fondest memories in MSE (school library) revolve around that piece.  Every time I hear it, I think of the occasional long nights I put in studying…and it makes me realize how far I’ve come since those days, and just how long it’s been since I closed out MSE. Then I remember I’m happier NOT staying at the library until 2am.

It’s a very intense and moving piece.  At the end of the 3rd movement, you feel like you’ve been away from reality for a bit (especially with those huge headphones I used to have) and need a few seconds to recover.

I found it in my house when I was younger (around High School age), and originally listened to it because of its inclusion in a Monty Python sketch.  In retrospect, the ridiculous frenzy represents the opening of that piece really well.

I can’t recommend this piece more; even if you’re not a fan of this sort of music, it’s worth at least a listen. (The video above doesn’t count as a ‘listen’.)

That being said, on the same disc is a recording of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2, also played by Van Cliburn.  It’s a pretty good piece, but not worth talking about in the same breath with Tchaikovsky #1.  However, it did interest me in Rachmaninoff enough to try some more.

So I got more of Van Cliburn’s playing – there’s a controlled intensity behind it that I enjoy – you can tell that he could play the hell out of that piano, and he could finish either concerto in about 5 minutes if he wanted to.

I really fell in love with his Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #3.  He uses much of the same controlled ferocity that attracted me to his playing style to begin with – it starts out quiet and calm, and builds slowly until the spectacular finish.  It’s done in front of a live audience, so there are a few noises one wouldn’t expect (e.g. a cough in the middle of the first movement), but it is a stellar performance, and you can just feel the energy radiating from the audience.

Tonight my love affair would change.

I was fooling around with my soon-to-be-repurposed computer (maybe as a DVR, maybe as a media center, maybe as a web server…maybe as a drink coaster?), so I turned on the local classical station, WETA (incidentially, the same group that puts out The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, a show that I watched as a child many a time at the parents’ insistence).

The announcer said that next up would be:

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Piano Concerto #3
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano) | Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam | Bernard Haitink (conductor)

I said “ooh, Ashkenazy’s a great pianist, and I know Haitink from a couple of other pieces I have (like Brahms’ Concerto #2, played by another spectacular artist, Emanuel Ax), I’ll give it a listen”.

I was blown away.  There was so much energy and passion behind that keyboard.  It was more controlled than the one I’d come to love so well, and yet it was fiercer and more complex.

Whereas in most areas of music, there’s no reason to have multiple copies of the same work (excepting bootlegs/live editions)…here, there is clearly a justification.  I’ll have to give both a listen again, but they’re both quite powerful interpretations.

I recommend them to anyone – give them a listen when you have an hour to kill; just relax and take in their beauty.

In other news, I put a counter for when my dear Sonia is coming to see me again.  Just typing her name makes me smile a bit :-)  It’s been a few months since I saw her last, and in 27 days I’ll be with her once again!

Hey! Behind the rope! STAY BEHIND THE ROPE!

Hey! Behind the rope! STAY BEHIND THE ROPE!


  1. Yana says:

    As a small child, I heard the Brahms 2nd played by Claudio Arrau. It made such an impression on me that I remembered it, almost note for note, and could sort of hear it in my head and \play\ it back. This was a lifesaver about a decade ago when I was run over by a van and was in terrible pain and virtually immobile in the hospital for many weeks. Last year I heard Ax’s friend and neighbor, Yefim Bronfman, play the Brahms 1st, which I had always hated because of what seemed to be a sawing effect of all the trills. Bronfman changed my thinking about that, and his rendition of the Brahms 2nd recently has supplanted Arrau’s in my thinking. Hard to decide whether his or Ax’s is better. I think Ax’s playing of Richard Strauss’s Burleske is a perfect match of music and performer. As for the Brahms 2nd, anyone who can read music at all should study the score as a way to really get into this amazing work, the piano part of which covers virtually the entire breadth of the keyboard. The overall success of a performance requires a nimble, vigorous and deeply felt piano rendition but also a first-rate horn for the opening notes and an equally superior cello for the third movement. If I had to give up all but one piece of music, this Brahms would be the keeper.

  2. Chris Johns says:

    I know that feeling about being able to “play” it back in your head…I’ll have to try Burleske (as I don’t know it at all!)

    Thanks for the note and the suggestions.

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