Steinway & Sons Streaming: An Excellent No-Cost Music Source

Steinway & Sons’ Spirio Playback Piano.
Image courtesy of Steinway.

I felt a rueful twinge when legendary piano builder Steinway & Sons took itself private and as a result was de-listed from the New York Stock Exchange. My nostalgic or sentimental reason was that Steinway & Sons’ NYSE stock-ticker symbol long had been LVB, an homage to Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven’s piano sonatas are generally regarded as the distilled essence of greatness in piano music.

Apart from that, as far as I can tell, jumping out of the goldfish bowl that is the NYSE has done wonders for Steinway. In 2014, Steinway came out with the Spirio, a piano (available in two sizes) that includes the most sophisticated piano-playback technology (a non-MIDI system) ever to reach commercial critical mass. More recently, Steinway has begun offering a record-and-playback version of the Spirio. Steinway’s biggest challenge at the moment is building enough Spirio pianos to meet the demand. Good for them.

Under New Management, Steinway also launched their own CD label (they have also released a few SACDs). They embarked upon an ambitious recording agenda, for which they built a new, state-of-the-art performance-and-recording hall. So that you can hear the complete recordings before you buy the CDs or download the audio files, Steinway has created a dedicated streaming site that offers commercial-free play of complete albums from Steinway & Sons Recordings. There are also informative reviews posted for many of the albums. Steinway & Sons CDs are available from Amazon; hi-res files, from 24/44.1 to 24/192 (varying by title) are available from HDTracks.

I asked Eric Feidner, Steinway’s VP for Music, Media, and Technology, to tell me about what “getting into the record business” has meant for the 166-year old firm.

At Steinway, our very long history with performing artists goes back to the 1800s, with legendary pianists such as Anton Rubinstein and Ignace Paderewski. In recent decades, the “Steinway Artist” program has been a central part of the company. We started the record label about 10 years ago as a natural outgrowth of our relationships with Steinway Artists.

As we moved into the development of the Steinway Spirio, we faced a critical need to create a catalog of “high resolution” music to embed in the world’s finest player piano—we send our Spirio owners new playlists every month. Because there was no such content available elsewhere, we had to build our own. There are now close to 4,000 works in the Spirio catalog.

The Spirio piano’s development and the Spirio catalog’s development processes inevitably became symbiotic with the record label, as through these, we developed techniques to produce commercial audio recordings with far greater efficiency and with remarkably consistent levels of technical and sonic quality. Making recordings and building pianos are now very closely intertwined at Steinway & Sons.

After the jump, recommendations for a baker’s dozen (13) great CDs that you can hear in their entirety at no cost! Continue Reading →

Khatia Buniatishvili: F. Liszt, “Ständchen” (piano transcription after Schubert)

Khatia Buniatishvili (born 1987) chose the music of Franz Liszt for her 2011 Sony Music début CD. So I think it fair to assume that Liszt holds a special place in her heart (an assertion that is validated by a quick perusal of her heart-on-sleeve personal website). My impression had been that she was a pianist who felt the gravitational pull of the monuments of the virtuoso repertoire–her website’s home page features an announcement for her recent recording of Rachmaninoiff’s second and third concertos.

So I was as surprised as I was delighted (and moved) by stumbling upon a live-performance video of her (I surmise) giving a pensive encore (I assume, before the expected blazingly-fast, final encore) at the Verbier Festival: Liszt’s restrained and wistful embellishment upon Schubert’s D 957 No. 4 “Ständchen” (“Serenade”)(“Leise flehen meine Lieder”), which is one of the small quiet glories of the vocal repertoire.

My beau-idéal in pianism is Ivan Moravec; and I must say that this clip is the only thing I have heard from a young player before the public today that reaches Moravec’s level of inwardness and quiet contemplation. Brava.

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An Open Letter to the Rhode Island Arts Community

Aaron Diehl with the New York Philharmonic.

Re: Aaron Diehl, Concert with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, October 20, 2018

I am aghast and outraged by Channing Gray’s ignorant, small-minded, and perhaps even racist review in the Providence Journal.

This insanity has to stop. (If people are more comfortable with the word “dysfunctionality,” that is OK by me. But nobody should be comfortable with the current state of affairs.)

As far as I know, Channing is a failed keyboard performer who (based on a mountain of evidence), has never gotten over it. Furthermore, I surmise that Channing’s specialty was early keyboard music (he played the organ at the wedding of an acquaintance of mine–that’s called gigging). In his review of Aaron Diehl’s performance, he wore his classist ignorance of jazz on his sleeve.

Aaron Diehl’s performance was the most magnificent piano performance I have ever heard from a soloist with the RIPO. From the first notes it was obvious that Mr. Diehl had not only enviable technique, but also something that is increasingly rare these days, that being: Excellent musical taste. Continue Reading →

Q & A with Aaron Diehl

Aaron Diehl’s 2013 CD The Bespoke Man’s Narrative, his début on Mack Avenue Records, fell like a thunderclap upon the jazz landscape, reaching No. 1 on the JazzWeek Jazz Chart.

Something about the advance publicity must have caught my eye or ear, because I asked for a pre-release press copy of the CD. Upon playing it, I was so gobsmacked that I asked my friend and colleague Steve Martorella to come over to listen to it. Steve was a protégé of Leonard Bernstein’s, and his principal piano teacher was Murray Perahia, so I think that it is fair to say that Steve probably knows a little about piano playing. While he was listening to the climax of Diehl’s piano-trio version of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” Steve was definitely getting tears in his eyes. His comment: “I didn’t know that there was anyone new who could play like that.”

In due course my comments on The Bespoke Man’s Narrative appeared in Stereophile magazine. Since then, Aaron Diehl has released another small-group recording as well as a solo project. Next weekend (October 19 and 20) he will appear with the Rhode Island Philharmonic (under the direction of Bramwell Tovey) playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Mr. Diehl graciously agreed to answer a few questions.

Questions, answers, and a sound sample can be found after the jump. Continue Reading →

The Saddest Song

Open Goldberg Variations, Werner Schweer, editor.

Listening to “happy” music can make one feel happier. However, instead of always making people feel worse, listening to sad music often brings on a state of “paradoxical pleasure.”

I am not saying that listening to sad music in and of itself makes people happier. What I am saying is that listening to sad music can evoke a sequence of very complex emotions. Furthermore, many people regard experiencing that kind of a cascade of metamorphosing emotions as “pleasurable.” (Or perhaps, just as a relief.)

The somewhat waffle-like language employed above is in recognition of the fact that many people experience the same music in different ways. By the way, the sequence of emotions Shock/Disbelief/Anger/Despair formerly was called The Four Stages of Saab Ownership. “What do you mean, my engine’s harmonic balancer was held on with glue?”

I think whether the precise emotional mechanism (and what a silly word “mechanism” is to use, in this context) is transference or catharsis or a feeling of empathy will just have to remain a mystery of the human soul. But from the earliest times, serious thinkers (from Aristotle to Schopenhauer) have always recognized that the power of sad music (and also of literature and drama) does not lie in its merely making people feel sadder than they had been.

A recent BBC Culture article asks whether data diving can “reveal” the “Saddest Number One Song Ever.” I think that that article itself reveals the multiple, perhaps even fatal, limitations of such an approach.

If I had to pick one song known to me as the saddest ever (which avoids the major problems associated with judging the quality and the qualities of songs by things like Billboard charts or Grammys), that would be the “Aria” from the Goldberg Variations. The Goldberg Variations might not have words, but right at the top of the score it says “Song” (albeit in Italian).

Song samples and more pondering, after the jump. Continue Reading →

Hyperion Knight at the Alexander Piano

What is it about Australians, New Zealanders and Tasmanians and grand pianos??? At the ripe age of 15 years, Adrian Mann asked his piano teacher how long a piano bass string would have to be, not to require a copper wire over-wrap (to add mass, and thereby lower the resonant frequency). Her answer was, “Very long.” Over the next several years, young Adrian taught himself to build a piano almost entirely from scratch; the result is nearly 19 feet long. He is now doing business under the name Alexander Piano. Hyperion Knight was on tour in that part of the world, and so he stopped in, with the above result. There are two other Hyperion K. videos on Alexander Piano’s YouTube page.

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Glenn Gould: Richard Strauss, “Morgen” op. 27, no. 4 (solo-piano excerpt)

In terms of cultural impact in the broadest sense, Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was one of the most important musicians of the 20th century.

Susan Sontag once quipped that every analogy is a lie, so: you have been warned. I think that Glenn Gould’s place in classical music in the mid-twentieth century is analogous to Miles Davis’ place in jazz during that same era. If people owned only one real jazz LP, it likely was Kind of Blue; and if people owned only one real classical LP, it likely was Gould’s J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations. Gould, more than any other pianist, is associated with the Goldberg Variations, to the extent that the opening measures of the “Aria” are carved on his gravestone.

Unlike most classical pianists of the time, Gould largely ignored the 19th-c. Romantic piano repertory exemplified by Chopin and Liszt, concentrating instead on Renaissance and Baroque music. Gould brought early music before the general public at a time when it was almost exclusively the province of academic specialists, or performers on period-correct instruments. In 1956, Gould’s intuitive understanding of Bach’s style of counterpoint, and his unprecedented clarity of articulation on the grand piano fell like a thunderclap, upon critics and the listening public alike. (Gould’s first Goldbergs album was recorded in 1955, but released in 1956.) Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs remain one of the best-selling non-crossover classical recordings of all time.

What Gould revered in Bach was his sense of sonic architecture. I think that the heart of Bach’s art was that Bach created ordered musical structures to reflect the nature of a God who had created an ordered cosmos that was (largely) comprehensible by the use of reason. (Yes; I know. I am painting with a brush so broad that it can’t fit into a one-gallon paint can.) Therefore, it might not come as a total surprise that in this video clip from a television interview, Gould takes Richard Strauss to task for his Romantic self-indulgence. Or, does he really?

More wild guessing from John, and sound bytes from different performances of Richard Strauss’ early song “Morgen,” after the jump. Continue Reading →

Pianist Hyperion Knight to Perform in Providence (RI), February 25, 2018

Audio by Jerry Bruck, Posthorn Recordings NYC; video and editing by John Marks

I will return to my former avocation of concert impressario, and present audiophile-fave-rave pianist Hyperion Knight in a program of Bach, Beethoven, and Gershwin at the First Baptist Church in America, in Providence (RI) on Sunday, February 25 at 2:00 PM. The recital will be open to the public, and free of charge.

The Third Meeting House of the First Baptist Church in America is a short (seven minutes) walk from the Providence Amtrak (train) station. The starting time of the recital was chosen to make it possible for music lovers from New York City to Boston to arrive and depart with the least fuss possible.

The program consists of music of J.S. Bach (selected Inventions; and transcriptions of choral and organ music including the “Little” Fugue in g); Beethoven’s piano sonata no. 21 in C, “Waldstein”; and Gershwin’s Suite from Porgy and Bess. The recital will last approximately one hour, and will proceed without an intermission. Continue Reading →

John Barry: “Somewhere In Time” Soundtrack (1998 re-recording)

 

Film-score composer John Barry’s father owned movie theaters in England. So, in a sense, Barry (1933-2011) grew up in the movie business. (The family name was “Prendergast;” Barry used his first and middle names as his professional name.) The movie business and the music business are similar, in that fickle public tastes can make or break projects and careers. Also similar in that the process of actually getting paid can be… quirky.

John Barry composed the scores for 11 James Bond films including Goldfinger, as well as for Body Heat, Born Free, Dances With Wolves, Out of Africa, The Lion in Winter, and Midnight Cowboy. Barry’s film scores won him five Academy Awards and four Grammys. However, it is almost certain that Barry’s most popular (and profitable for him) film score was for a film that was decidedly unsuccessful upon its original theatrical release, finding a larger audience only on cable tv, and then a bit later with the advent of home video on VHS cassettes.

That film is the 1980 time-travel romantic drama Somewhere in Time. The story of Barry’s score’s musical debts to Rachmaninoff and Paganini comes after the jump. Continue Reading →

Keith Jarrett Trio “My Funny Valentine” (Rodgers and Hart)

According to pop-song authority Mark Steyn, there exist more than 100 recordings of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine“—by Chet Baker. Baker recorded the song as a trumpeter with Gerry Mulligan in 1952, re-recording it as a vocalist in 1954, a breakthrough performance that has been widely anthologized. I gather that for the remainder of Baker’s checkered career, audiences continued to demand it, because his last recording of it was in 1985.

The 1937 musical Babes in Arms (set in the imaginary town of Seaport, Rhode Island) is famous not only for “Valentine” (the name of the male romantic interest the song is sung to) but also the standards “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Where or When.” Less well known but equally significant is that the show included a “dream ballet” by George Balanchine.

The song starts in C minor, and in emotional tone is both pensive and a bit anxious. The girl knows that her guy is a bit of a ditz, but the idea of losing him upsets her no end—the climax comes on the words “Stay, Valentine, stay.” Standout versions include those by Anita O’Day; Miles Davis; and Bill Evans with Jim Hall. And, of course, Keith Jarrett, here with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock.

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