“The Great Pianists” Non-Fiction: Lang Lang’s Memoir & Van Cliburn’s Biography

This month I have intensified my piano-learning (finally finishing all the piano method books I once started and jumping on Duvernoy, Schytte and Lemoine’s studies) and been listening to a lot of piano music (especially to Godowsky’s Java Suite this month), so I have also decided to share some piano-related books I have been reading recently.

I. Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story [2008] by Lang Lang – ★★★★1/2

Chinese pianist Lang Lang is considered to be one of the leading figures of today’s classical music world and one of the most accomplished pianists of our modern time. This is his memoir in which he tells his story, from his birth in 1982 in China’s north-eastern city of Shenyang, his early musical education and upbringing, to his hard-work and his family sacrificing everything to see him become “the world’s no. 1”. It is a moving autobiography of a child once living in near-poverty, but always working very hard and dreaming “big”, and then of a young man, not always believing in himself, but always being clear in his mind what he wants to achieve next, overcoming his tricky family life and the Chinese competitive system. There are no “self-indulgent” paragraphs in this memoir. It is clear and to the point, with very short chapters, in which Lang Lang, first and foremost, pays tribute to his family and his teachers, who always believed in him and enabled him to become what he is now, an immensely popular classical pianist.  

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Review: Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by John Eliot Gardiner 

Music in the Castle of Heaven [2013] – ★★★★

I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well“. Johann Sebastian Bach

The music of Bach is complex, inventive, awe-inspiring and brimming with mathematical precision and religious fervour. The man behind it appears equally stern and unreachable. But, who was Johann Sebastian Bach really and how it came about that a cantor operating in a rather small region of Germany managed to compose music of such brilliant contours, imaginative force and spiritual depth that it now forms much of the foundation of our classical music and is worshipped by many across the globe? In this non-fiction, British conductor John Eliot Gardiner aims to shed light on these precise, still puzzling questions. Music in the Castle of Heaven is an illuminating account of Bach’s life and music that starts from the premise that to understand Bach’s art we have to first immerse ourselves in the very essence of his time and place of birth. Numerous factors influenced Bach and made him into a musician we know today – familial, historic, socio-economic, cultural, educational – and without knowing these we cannot fathom Bach’s mind and how it worked. Gardiner strikes at the very heart of Bach’s genius, presenting us with a complex and sometimes contradictory musician who was also a very empathetic man.

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Dmitri Shostakovich – Piano Concerto No. 2: II. Andante

Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich was born on this day (25 September) 115 years ago, in 1906 (died in 1975), so I am sharing this part from his Piano Concerto No. 2, composed and performed for the first time in 1957. It is a very touching piece of understated beauty.

Recent History, Science & Music Non-Fiction Reads: Five Points, When Brains Dream & Year of Wonder

I. Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum [2002] by Tyler Anbinder ★★★★

I love reading about the history of New York City, for example see my review of Mark Kurlanskys The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York [2006]. In Five Points, Tyler Anbinder focuses his attention on once the most notorious area in New York – the infamous Five Points, once a densely-populated, poverty, crime, riots and disease-ridden area. The area, which was once a green place with a lake called “The Collect Pond”, became by the end of the eighteenth century “a putrid nuisance” (due to local industries’ contamination) [Anbinder, 2002: 14] and, later, a place to be feared and ruled by criminal gangs. However, what became a place of danger for some, also turned into a place of fun and unthought-of opportunities for others. This non-fiction book is a very detailed account of the history of Five Points in the nineteenth century. Through documents, contemporaries’ accounts (each chapter starts with a “personal story” prologue), maps, graphs and old photographers, the author shows how Five Points gained such a vile reputation around the world and what made it so different from other New York neighbourhoods.

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Review: Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces by Laura Tunbridge

Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces [2020] – ★★★★★

Did you know that a music piece (a Septet) that made Beethoven’s name in the nineteenth century is hardly ever played today? Or that later pieces by Beethoven that are now known to everyone were considered in the composer’s time too complex and brazen to merit any attention? Beethoven’s elusive “Immortal Beloved” is still without identity, and his attempts at self-promotion were not always successful. Through just nine musical pieces, Laura Tunbridge places Beethoven in a particular time and place in her well-researched book, presenting an intimate and detailed image of the great composer. Rather than Beethoven being an isolated genius making music masterpieces on his own, the author talks of Beethoven as a gifted person that was depended on others (such as on his friends and patrons), as well as on the particular time, norms and politics, as well as on the musical tradition in which he lived. Tunbridge demonstrates how Vienna and Beethoven’s own personal life affected his music, and how changing perceptions, as well as tastes of nobility, ultimately dictated and shaped the man and his music that is now admired by millions.

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Ludwig van Beethoven: 250 Years – Sonata “Pathetique”

17 December 2020 marks 250 years since the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven (he was baptised on 17 December 1770, but his real date of birth was probably 16 December 1770). Considered by many to be the greatest composer who has ever lived, Beethoven composed some of the world-famous classical music compositions, from Piano Sonata No. 14 (“Moonlight Sonata”) to “Emperor Concerto”. I would like take this opportunity to share one of his masterpieces – the beginning of “Sonata Pathetique”, No. 8. My favourite performance of this piece is by Vladimir Ashkenazy at the University of Essex in Colchester in 1972.

Yann Tiersen – Comptine d’un autre été

After Yann Tiersen’s Rue des Cascades, I feel like sharing this quieter but no less beautiful composition by the composer. Comptine d’un autre été forms part of the score for the film Amelie [2001]. This piano arrangement/performance is by Rousseau.

Erik Satie: Je te veux

Erik Satie [1866 – 1925] was a French composer known for his Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes compositions, among other late 19th century experimental music (he was “a precursor of minimalism, repetitive music and the Theatre of the Absurd”). This week it will be 154 years since the composer’s birth, and I would like to share his uplifting Je te veux composition to brighten everyone’s Wednesday.