Remembering Seymour Lipkin

pianist Seymour Lipkin (1927-2015)
pianist Seymour Lipkin (1927-2015)

American pianist and teacher Seymour Lipkin passed away on Monday. He was 88.

Born in Detroit, Lipkin studied with Rudolf Serkin, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and David Saperton. During the Second World War, while still a student at Curtis, he accompanied Jascha Heifetz in concerts for American troops stationed around the world. In 1948 Lipkin won the Rachmaninov Competition, launching a significant solo career. He was a longtime faculty member of both the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music. In his youth, he studied conducting with Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood and George Szell as an apprentice at the Cleveland Orchestra.

Interviews suggest that Seymour Lipkin was the model of a well-rounded artist. As a teenager he was inspired by the music from Wagner’s Ring Cycle. (He would later serve as Curtis’ opera pianist). For students, he stressed the importance of listening to a variety of music and developing your own interpretation.

Seymour Lipkin was regarded as one of the finest interpreters of the music of Beethoven. In 2004 he released the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas on the Newport Classics label. Unlike many artists, he was intimately involved in the editing of his recordings, with the goal of capturing the spontaneity and cohesiveness of a live performance. Here, he plays the stormy first movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata:

In contrast to the opening movement, the second movement of the “Pathétique” moves to a serene new world:

Here is the Rondo:

Oliver Sacks’ Earliest Musical Memory

Neurologist Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)
Neurologist Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)

 

The English neurologist Oliver Sacks passed away yesterday at the age of 82, following a battle with cancer. Sacks examined the relationship between music and the brain. His research highlighted the surprising ways some Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s patients respond to music. Demonstrating that music occupies more areas of the brain than language, Sacks considered music to be fundamental to humanity. His findings are outlined in his 2007 book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain and the NOVA documentary, Musical Minds

In an interview, Oliver Sacks once talked about his first musical memory. He recalls his brother playing C.P.E Bach’s Solfegietto:

That piece of music was banged into my memory. It’s a piano piece with a very Bach fugal structure. It’s formally intricate, but it also arouses an intense emotion that I can’t really describe. I think it was a rather jolly piece. But my brother died a couple years ago, and now it comes to me as if it were his signature tune, with an elegiac quality. 

Oliver Sacks’ contributions, seemingly driven by a passion and fascination for music, were significant. His use of music to unlock the otherwise bleak world of patients with neurological disorders was inspiring. He attempted to give us a glimpse “under the hood” in an effort to capture the essence of our relationship with a piece of music. But reading Sachs’ description of Solfegietto, it’s easy to sense that, despite his extensive research, the true power and meaning of music remains elusive. Beyond the reach of science, it “can’t really be described.” W.H. Auden’s words come to mind:

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.

Here is C.P.E Bach’s Solfeggio, performed by the Israeli pianist, Tzvi Erez. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was the second surviving son of J.S. Bach.

Can You Say Summertime?

pianist and composer Fazil Say
Fazil Say

The free-spirited Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say (b. 1970) is an artist who refreshingly resists easy category. As a concert pianist, Say performs all of the standard repertoire with emotional warmth and effortless technique (here he plays Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G). As a composer, he has written symphonies, piano music, which draws on the prepared piano sounds popularized by John Cage and Henry Cowell (listen to the ethereal and sensuous Black Earth), a Sonata for Piano and Violinand a Violin Concerto among other works.

Say’s native Turkey (formerly the Ottoman Empire) has long been a vibrant crossroads between East and West. Appropriately, Say’s music turns on a dime between Western classical influence, jazz and Middle Eastern sounds…a rich stew of influences reflecting an increasingly shrinking, global, twenty-first century world. It is also deeply rooted in improvisation (listen here and here). Throughout the twentieth century, a gulf grew between composers and performers. Music veered away from melody, tonality and popular influence. Composers like Fazil Say seem to be mending this gulf.

Here is an excerpt from Fazil Say’s website:

Composing is always a form of improvisation: with ideas, with musical particles, with imaginary shapes. And it is in this sense that the artistic itinerary and the world-view of the Turkish composer and pianist Fazıl Say should be understood. For it was from the free forms with which he became familiar in the course of his piano lessons with the Cortot pupil Mithat Fenmen that he developed an aesthetic outlook that constitutes the core of his self-conception as a composer. Fazıl Say has been touching audiences and critics alike for more than twenty-five years in a way that has become rare in the increasingly materialistic and elaborately organised classical music world. Concerts with this artist are something else. They are more direct, more open, more exciting; in short, they go straight to the heart. And the same may be said of his compositions.

In future posts I’ll have more thoughts on Fazil Say’s compositions. In the meantime, as we enter the dog days of summer, here are Say’s variations on George Gershwin’s Summertime, written in 2005: