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Debussy: Preludes for Piano, Disc 1

It's cheating to use the word impressionist when describing Debussy's music, and yet it's a simple fact that Debussy's piano compositions sound just as impressionistic as his orchestral compositions. Today's Preludes are stunning and vivid--they have splashes of wild color, strange chords, strange melodies and weirdly unorthodox techniques.

This guy is a true rule-breaker, no matter what instrument he works with.
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Krystian Zimerman, piano
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Claude Debussy: Préludes
Deutsche Grammophon, 1994 [2 CDs]
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Until today, I had only experienced Debussy's La Mer and Images, both of which are orchestral works which are at times is so vivid that you can literally almost see the music (the first movement of La Mer is an excellent example of this).

The Preludes for piano are equally vivid, but I'd argue that at times Debussy's special effects and musical gadgets interfere with the music itself. I'll cite …
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Schumann: Second Symphony

I stood by the body of my passionately loved husband, and was calm. All my feelings were absorbed in thankfulness to God that he was at last set free, and as I kneeled by his bed I was filled with awe. It was as if his holy spirit was hovering over me--Ah! If only he had taken me with him.
--Clara Schumann, after the death of her husband Robert Schumann

We return to George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra's exceptional recording of Schumann's Four Symphonies to hear his Symphony #2.
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George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Schumann: Symphonies 1-4; Manfred Overture
CBS, 1958/Sony, 1996
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When I sat down to listen to Schumann's Second Symphony, I assumed it would sound as Mozart-like as his First Symphony. I couldn't have been more wrong: these two symphonies sound strikingly different.

Listener Notes for Schumann's Symphony #2:
1) You can tell right away that this symphony is far more Romantic in style. …

Shostakovich: First Symphony

I can't help it. I just don't like Shostakovich.

This is the second time I've tried my hand at a Shosty symphony, after listening to and heartily disliking his Eleventh Symphony.

Unfortunately, I felt no emotional connection to his First Symphony either. The music seems random and arbitrary to me--and to be honest, I even caught myself rolling my eyes at a few of Shosty's musical devices. And as I'll show in the listener notes, it's more film score music than symphony.
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Leonard Bernstein and the Chicago Symphony
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 7
Deutsche Grammophone, 1989
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Lucky me: I've still got three more of his symphonies left to listen to: his Second, Seventh and Twelfth.

A little historical background before we get to the listener notes: Shostakovich wrote his First Symphony in 1925 at the shockingly young age of 18. It was his graduation piece at the Leningrad Conservatory.

Audien…

The Piano Music of Robert Schumann: Klavierwerke: Sonata #2 for Piano, Night Visions, Three Romances and Forest Scenes

Today, at long last, I'll finally cover the fourth and final disc of my four-CD recording of Schumann's piano works performed by Wilhelm Kempff. Here are discs 1, 2 and 3 if you missed them.

I've really missed Schumie and his incomparable solo piano compositions. And what's amazing to me about these works is how complex they are. It's actually easier for me to follow a symphony--with all its dozens of different instruments--than it is for me to follow a single pianist performing one of Schumann's works.

Despite repeated listens to each of the CDs in this four disc collection, I feel like I've only scratched at the surface of this music.
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Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Performed by Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991)
Schumann: Piano Works
Deutsche Grammophone, 1975
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Before we get into the listener notes, let me say without reservation that I highly, highly recommend this exceptional recording to anyone interested in classical piano mu…

Schumann: First Symphony

To be sure, a Schumann score is not as foolproof, as "self-rising," as a score of Wagner or Tchaikovsky or Richard Strauss, nor has the musical substance of a Schumann symphony the kind of inexorable propulsion of some Beethoven symphonies, which will survive even a shabby performance relatively unharmed. But is it really Schumann's fault that it takes a little trouble on the part of the conductor and orchestra to make his symphonies come off?
--George Szell, conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, 1946-1970

Schumann didn't just write music for the piano, obviously. But there is a bit of a debate as to the importance of his four symphonies.
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George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Schumann: Symphonies 1-4; Manfred Overture
CBS, 1958/Sony, 1996
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Fortunately, George Szell worshipped Schumann's four symphonies, and he conducted and recorded with the Cleveland Orchestra what is widely considered to be one …

Mahler: Third Symphony

But I have surely written you that I am at work on a large composition. You cannot believe how this claims one's entire being, and how one is often so deep in it that for the outer world one is as if dead. Try to conceive a work so vast that in it the entire world is mirrored--one is, so to speak, only an instrument on which the whole universe plays. (I have explained this to you often, and you must accept it, if you really wish to understand me. Everyone who wishes to live with me must learn this. In such moments I no longer belong to myself.) ...These are fearful birth pains the creator of such a work suffers, and before all this organizes itself, builds itself up, and ferments in his brain, it must be preceded by much preoccupation, engrossment with self, a being dead to the outer world. My symphony will be something the world has not as yet heard!
--Gustav Mahler, in a letter to his lover Anna von Mildenburg, describing the gestation of his Third Symphony--and responding to her…

Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances

The older we get, the more we lose that divine self-confidence which is the treasure of youth, the fewer are those moments when we believe that what we have done is good.
--Sergei Rachmaninoff, in an interview, at age 56.

The Symphonic Dances was the last work Rachmaninoff ever composed. He completed it some four years after his Third Symphony, during a period in his life when "he had become increasingly dissatisfied with himself as a composer and even as a pianist."

Yet more compelling evidence that the profession of classical music brings misery to the vast majority of those who enter it. The more I learn about the lives of major classical music composers and musicians, the more I'm relieved that, at age 17, I gave up any serious idea of becoming a professional trumpet player. I can only think how miserable and self-critical I'd be now at age 40.
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Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 3 in A m…