When Fred Plotkin confirms an interview for his marvelous, long-format show on Idagio, he asks for a short list of works, just 3-5 pieces, that inspire his guest, which he then links to in Idagio’s impressive catalog. You need to be a member to play the works in full, so I’ve offered two links where possible: first on Idagio’s site, and second on YouTube. These are all works I’ve been thinking about and listening to lately, along with a sentence or two about why. You can watch the full interview here, and enjoy the train whistle — a southbound Amtrak passing under the Rip Van Winkle Bridge along the Hudson River — that sounds just as Fred begins his introduction.
I fell in love with this piece almost exactly a year ago, after Márta Kurtág died (on October 17) and Alex Ross was quoted in the New York Times obituary about their performance of the piece in Vienna, “which was — how else to put it? — one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.” It’s often played during funerals, and is known as “Actus Tragicus,” but what I hear in the music is a love story between two artists that lasted 72 years. As Mitsuko Uchida said, “They live music together.”
Of all the Chopin I’ve been listening to lately, this is the piece that’s stuck in my mind, the one I’m always humming. This recording by Andsnes, in an album of all five Ballades, was released two years ago, and is my current favorite. Chopin also loved it; he told Schumann “it is my dearest work.” You get the sense of narrative in this piece, and it embraces a very broad and changing emotional landscape, going from languid, beautiful melodies to sometimes volcanic, even violent waves. He kind of tortures you, taking you from this heroic beauty through agitation and volcanic energy and then returning again. At the end it has a quality of virtuosity but as is always the case with Chopin, you feel that every note matters – there’s not a single special effect or histrionic gesture. He was 23 when he started working on it, and 26 when he published it. He already knew so much. There’s also a great recording by Nelson Goerner on the Chopin Institute’s website.
I’ve loved this record since my partner, a lifelong jazz lover who discovered it as a teenager, played it for me 30 years ago. Like Chopin in Majorca working on his Preludes, op. 28, Jarrett created this music on a lousy piano under very difficult circumstances. (I wrote about it in a footnote, #106, in Chasing Chopin; see p. 182.) Still, he begins with a bit of humor, quoting the melody of the Köln concert hall’s signal bell that announced the beginning of an opera or concert: the notes GDCGA. You can hear the audience laughing as it registers. This piece, a long improvisation, always lifts my spirits.
The first classical record I received, in my early teens from our beloved au pair, Marika, was a recording of the Suites in G major and C major by Janigro. I wore out the record, and it inspired a lifetime of love of Bach especially, and classical music in general. To my great delight, the Idagio catalog is so deep they have his recording.
One of my favorites by a jazz composer, this piece owes a debt to Chopin’s Berceuse, op. 57 (composed in 1843), and is a work I started playing after the Coronavirus lockdown began, and the politics in our country went haywire. This recording is by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and he deploys a quite Chopinesque rubato. Here is Maurizio Pollini playing the Berceuse.