Notes from the underground

Last week, as some of you may have noticed, this very column was mentioned on the front page. That was a kind gesture, advertising me in such grand fashion. Unfortunately, it went to my head, and now I have a new plan to continue this tradition of dominance over the Record cover page. What is this diabolical plan? Read on.

As must be obvious by now, my musical tastes run primarily towards twentieth century classical music. (Of course, there are other, more sinister musics that I enjoy, but you don’t get to know about those.) However, I was not always this way. I only began listening to classical music in around the seventh or eighth grade; before that point I was into a whole variety of musics, some good, some not so good.

The point, of course, is that I had to start listening to classical music somewhere, but that point of departure has yet to be explored in this column. With that in mind, I’ve decided to take you all on a fun little tour of my early classical experience, with the hope being that you will experience the same sense of wonder and intrigue that drove me to continue listening. The other hope, of course, is that the editors will feel compelled to advertise this plan on the front page.

My first great love in classical music was Chopin’s Scherzo #2 in B-flat Minor, played by the great Chopin interpreter of all time, Artur Rubinstein. Rubinstein issued a series of recordings, not surprisingly entitled “The Chopin Collection,” which spanned Chopin’s entire output. The disc that I would have you listen to is found on the second volume of this large compilation (CD C46 16 v. 2) and is the first disc in that set. It contains on it the Ballades and Scherzos, eight medium-length piano pieces which I hold to be among the great works in Chopin’s output.

It may well be the fact that I “grew up” musically on this disc that has placed them so highly in my esteem, but whatever the reason, this disc is still my favorite.

Every aspect of this recording is perfect. Rubinstein is a master at Chopin, clearly paying attention to every note. The pieces themselves are wonderful; the Ballades and Scherzi are generally in loose A-B-A form (with A and B representing different sections of the piece, each with a different mood) and have a wonderfuly improvisatory feel. Chopin improvised most of his pieces on the spot, then wrote them down later. Somehow, these works manage to cohere brilliantly, though some critics might not think so. Tell me what you think.

I should talk about the second Scherzo, since that piece was “the one” – I credit whoever gave me this CD as a Bar Mitzvah gift for sending me down this path in life. Otherwise, I imagine that I’d be on the Bowery somewhere with a sign that read “will dance for food.” In any case, I’m not certain what exactly about this Scherzo made me love it so much. The drama is apparent right from the outset, as soft rumbles in the center of the piano are met with large sounds from the outer registers of the instrument.

The work contains beautiful themes, especially in the middle section, where one particularly haunting theme appears and is developed throughout the rest of the section. When the first section returns, it seems to be identical to the opening, but its ending is replaced by a magnificent coda, a trait common to all the Ballades and Scherzos. A coda literally is a “tail”, and Chopin’s codas are always brilliant and technically challenging.

So that’s the Chopin Scherzo that began my love affair with classical music. If you’d like, you can listen to it eight times a day, as I did for a while. I’m so eager to have people hear this that I would be happy to lend out my personal copy to anyone who wants it — just drop me a line.

Next week, we’ll move to Rachmaninoff, and deeper into the dark recesses of my musical past. Perhaps I’ll also devise a new plan for staying on the cover – “the best music to listen to while naked,” or something like that.

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