9 Phenomenal Classical Performances On Youtube (piano edition)
Youtube is one of the greatest examples of our capacity for taking things for granted. You know, recorded music is a fairly recent phenomenon. Most people never had the opportunity to hear things like this at all. For many centuries, hearing musical genius was a special treat for the ultra-privileged. Only a couple decades ago, people would have paid thousands to have access to all the music on youtube. But, even though it emerged in our lifetimes, total access to virtuoso performances of the best music compiled over centuries already seems ordinary. Even when combined with funny cat videos. Weird, huh? No matter how good something is, it will soon just seem normal and we’ll desire even more.
Annnywayyy, I’m pretty dumb at classical music, but I really like listening to it. So, here’s some stuff I like to watch and listen to before bed. This is the piano edition. I plan to make a non-piano edition, and maybe I will.
Vladimir Horowitz: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto 3 – 1978
First off, my entire existence is consumed by a hatred for the man who pops up at :31 and starts applauding like Charles Foster Kane when Horowitz enters the stage. An “all about me,” type if I’ve ever seen one. In his this man’s mind, the headline reads “deeply intelligent audience member appreciates Horowitz so much more than others.”
I’m doing two Rachmaninoffs but I’m a shred head since I was about twelve, so go suck an egg if you don’t like it. I love the ambiance of the seventies and the fact that a video like this was something special when it was made. And it represents a great point of historical continuity. Rachmaninoff was born in 1873, Horowitz in 1903. Slash was born twelve years before this video was made. We’re not as separated as we think. Anyway, the two were friends and Rachmaninoff said, “This is the way I always dreamed my concerto should be played, but I never expected to hear it that way on earth.”
Yuja Wang: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of The Bumblebee – 2010
Flight Of The Bumblebee is kind of obvious, but it is fun and Yuja Wang completely destroys it. This piano was psychologically traumatized for the rest of its life. Did you just say, “if it didn’t want this to happen, it shouldn’t have become a piano and start hanging around concert halls?” Wow. Just wow. Nice victim blaming. Also, this is the closest I’ve ever heard somebody come to making an actual buzzing sound when playing this.
Glenn Gould: Bach’s Goldberg Variations – 1981
Glenn Gould, my first piano love. Yes, it was because they made a movie about him. What of it? Shiney McShine was a hell of a film. I wonder if, when women see a guy play piano like this, they think, “I bet he flicks a mean bean.” In any case, I don’t have much to say about this. It’s a video of Gould recording in the studio. I’ve included a version with a brief interview. Have you ever looked at a bar of gold and wanted to eat it? Gould’s tone sounds like what I think an edible gold bar would taste like.
Mitsuko Uchida: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 20 – 2001
A great setting in a beautiful venue and a bit of a novelty, in that Uchida is both playing the piano in this concerto and conducting the other musicians. A rare player/coach, like Pete Rose. That doesn’t seem efficient but the role of the conductor on gameday is a bit of a mystery to me anyway. It sure as hell looks like she is using her super powers to extract perfection from the otherwise merely great musicians, but I think most of the work of a conductor is done in practice, drawing up all the Xs and Os on the chalkboard. Uchida has a vision of the best possible execution of this piece and she must pull it into the material world. Watch her do it with her playing and and coaching. This performance has the pleasurability that is inherent to Mozart, but an emotional and tonal richness that takes it to another level. Maybe it is possible to give 110%.
Anna Fedorova: Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 – 2013
My favorite moment of this great performance starts at around 34:10 when Federova blasts through a difficult and powerful sequence and then has this little moment of triumph and swagger. I made a little highlight so we can enjoy it anytime we want.
This one also has a good comments section. Many are upset that the audience is so poorly dressed. It sounds snobby, but if you can’t be snobby about this, what can you be snobby about? I wear socks like five times a year, but maybe we should keep one or two little sanctuaries where you are supposed to show some respect and put on your fancy clothes. Others are angry at those who notice Federova’s beauty and charm, seemingly oblivious to the fact that music exists largely so that we can impress potential mates. It’s all part of the package, which is stunning.
Maurizio Pollini: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 - The early 80s?
From what I hear, a lot of people find Pollini too clinical and not emotional enough. So it’s funny that he is considered a great interpreter of Beethoven. I can see both sides here. This is beautiful, pristine. I normally think of Beethoven as ferocious. Alex DeLarge’s music. It’s sort of like Rush covering a Metallica song. There’s room in the world for that and I love Pollini’s playing, which clearly has a passion, all it’s own.
Arthur Rubinstein Plays Chopin – 1950
Arthur Rubinstein is considered one of Chopin’s greatest interpreters. Here’s an old newsreel of Rubinstein running through a bit of his repertoire at his home with some friends (or maybe actors) in 1950. The same sort of experience the Paris elite coveted a bit more than 100 years prior, when Chopin gave similar performances. Now, you can enjoy it on a whim as you complain about a TV show not entertaining you enough for free in another tab. The audio quality is not great, but it’s good enough.
Sviatoslav Richter plays Bach – 1978
This is a little Soviet film, capturing Sviatoslav Richter performing a couple of Bach concertos. As you can tell, I love these little extras that show us the time, place and audience, even if only briefly. It’s all part of the story and it should be captured. The performance itself justifies Stalinism. I find myself captivated by the “backup” musicians, who are producing incredible, gorgeous music. Then Richter pulls me back to his own brilliance. When people say stuff like, “Bach is the voice of God,” this is what they are talking about. Open your heart to Allah!
Elizabeth Bergmann, Marcel Bergmann, Sandra van Veen and Jeroen van Veen: Simeon ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato – 2011
What is artistic expression? I think it’s something like the conveyance of natural forms passed through the prism of the artist’s individuality. A simple example would be your painting of the ocean that looks like the ocean, and conveys its beauty, but is also done in a particular style that belongs to you, which is also beautiful. We take things like symmetry and natural progressions as our starting point, as these things please our ears and eyes. Then, we play with them to varying degrees, including breaking them down. But, since we are a part of nature ourselves, the separation of these two components is not clean.
Wiki says that Simeon Ten Holt “used consonant, tonal materials and his works are organized in numerous cells, made up of a few measures each, which are repeated ad libitum according to the player’s preference.” To me, this means his work duplicates a natural process, like the formation of the natural structures in the visual component of this video. Watching the pianists as the form of the music emerges from them is like watching the formation of a chain of islands or the path of a river. Look at the large scale natural structures and listen to the music and observe the continuity through the positioning of the pianos, the people playing them and even the sheet music, the DNA of this organism. And you see the performers experiencing and observing the same thing, even as they are driving it. A natural process that is conscious of itself. The human experience. What I’m saying is, watch this video when you are high.