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When piano sonatas first became popular, in the 18th century, they were primarily written for home use, for talented amateurs to play for evenings with the family. Some sonatas were obviously more difficult than others, and a few by Haydn or Mozart, required a professional level of ability, and indeed, were written for the composers themselves to show off their performing abilities. But most were written to be sold as sheet music, and that’s how their composers made their livings. 

At the time, there were no public piano recitals to attend. There were private performances given for the aristocracy. Public concerts tended to feature concertos and concert arias, with maybe a little symphony or two thrown in. But no one bought tickets to hear a piano sonata — why? when you could play them yourself at home after dinner.

Then came Beethoven. 

Piano sonatas also used to run from perhaps 10 minutes to 15 or 20 minutes. Mozart’s C-major sonata (K. 545) comes in three movements. The first runs a tad over two minutes; the second just under four minutes; and the finale about a minute and a half. The bigger sonatas, such as his Sonata in A (K. 331) with the famous Ronda a la Turca, comes in at about 14 minutes, as played by pianist Mikhail Pletnev. 

Then came Beethoven, the revolutionary pounder of the keyboard, who shocked his contemporary listeners with the power, difficulty and length of his piano sonatas. The Appassionata Sonata of 1805 is devilishly difficult and a bit over 21 minutes. 

Then there’s the Hammerklavier Sonata of 1818, which is twice as long (Barenboim’s most recent recording takes 50 minutes) and 10 times more difficult, ending with a giant double fugue that confused his first listeners. What the heck is going on? It’s the original knucklebuster. Just look at that pile of notes:

Things changed after Beethoven. The 19th century saw fewer piano sonatas, but much bigger and more difficult specimens. You could say that Beethoven seems to have presented a challenge to all those who came after him: how to live up to his example. 

And the example he gave was for a longer, more complicated sonata — a kind not to be played by prosperous daughters of the middle class after dinner, but by traveling virtuosi giving piano recitals to a paying public. Franz Liszt began the practice, but the long, knucklebusting piano sonata was established. 

There were less ambitious works written, and the standard for most of the 19th century was the character piece, not the sonata. These were short catchy pieces sometimes singly and sometimes strung together in a suite, such as Schumann’s Carnivale or Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons

This was the heyday of Chopin’s waltzes, mazurkas and polonaises, of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, of Brahms’ intermezzi and capriccios. 

And when there were sonatas, they went big. They became symphonies for the keyboard. 

I’ve chosen six of these knucklebusters as exemplars. There were more, but they haven’t joined the repertoire of regular performances. But these six as regulars of the recital hall. 

I’ve also appended a list of my favorite recordings of these sonatas. Notice, I did not say “best.” There are too many CDs out there and I haven’t listened to them all (although I have come close with the Hammerklavier — I once owned 21 complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas and another five sets of the late sonatas by themselves, so I’ve heard quite a few). I’ve only listed recordings I have listened to. 

Beethoven Sonata No. 29 in B-flat, opus 106, “Hammerklavier”

Beethoven was at the height of his fame after the premiere of his Seventh Symphony, but the years that followed were thin ones for the composer. He was tied up in endless legal difficulties over his nephew, Karl, and was suffering from endless bouts of gastritis. He produced little between 1813 and 1818. But then came the final flourishing of late quartets, late piano sonatas and, of course, the Ninth. 

The first big explosion was the “Hammerklavier” sonata, that giant monstrosity of pianistic torture. It begins with a grand military fanfare, makes fun of the same in the teensy second movement, reaches the heart of things in a 20-minute adagio and concludes with a monumental fugue which demonstrates every trick in the book of fugue writing —- play the tune upside down, play it backwards, slow it down, speed it up, slow it down upside down, speed it up backwards and end it all with an explosion of hiccups and trills. 

It was the longest piano sonata written to that point and still one of the most challenging. 

It is the adagio that holds the key and the emotional power of the sonata. It has been called a “mausoleum of collective sorrow,” and “the apotheosis of pain, of that deep sorrow for which there is no remedy, and which finds expression not in passionate outpourings, but in the immeasurable stillness of utter woe.” It is that rare sort of music that you inhabit rather than simply listen to. 

My favorite recording, since I first heard it 50 years ago is also the first recording made, in 1935, by Artur Schnabel. It has been in print since it was first made and despite being in rusty sonics, comes across clearly as music of the most profound sort. 

If you want more modern sound, I recommend the 1970 recording by Rudolf Serkin. In completely modern sound, I love — especially the adagio — by Daniel Barenboim in his 2012 release of the complete sonatas. 

Schubert Sonata No. 21 in B-flat, op. posthumus, D. 960

When Franz Schubert reached the age when Mozart had died, he’d been dead for four years already. Mozart died at age 35 and mourned as a genius who died too soon. Schubert died at 31 and we can only mourn the lost of what he could have written in those missing four years, to say nothing of what we could have had if he had lived a normal life span. 

As it was, in the last year or so of Schubert’s life — when he knew he was dying — he produced a stunning series of works of such profound depth and beauty, it can only be called a miracle. There were the final three string quartets, the C-major Quintet, and the final three piano sonatas. If all we had from Schubert were these works, he would be given a first-class ticket at the front of the bus with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. 

The final sonata, in B-flat, is one of the longest written by that time, rivaling Ludwig’s “Hammerklavier.” It, too, has a central slow movement of intense emotion. Arthur Rubinstein, who played the sonata as well as anyone ever has, said of the adagio, “This movement is like death. There is nothing else as close as this music that shows us what death feels like.”

Rubinstein recorded it twice, only a few years apart, but it is his first, from 1965, that I think is the best ever. There is a gracefulness and a humanity in the playing that is uniquely Rubinstein’s. 

There are tons of other performances, from everyone from Horowitz (a bit clangy) to Alfred Brendel (a bit stodgy). But I also recommend the versions by Radu Lupu and by Mitsuko Uchida. 

 

 Liszt Sonata in B-minor

Franz Liszt is the guy who invented the piano recital: people paying good money to hear a pianist on stage all by himself, amazing them with his showmanship and technical brilliance. Liszt was the equivalent of a rock star in his day. Oh the women! Oh the humanity!

A lot of what Liszt wrote is surely just showboating — “Look what I can do!” But he wanted to establish his bona fides, also, as a great composer, and among those things he wrote of more serious intent is his gigantic Piano Sonata in B-minor. 

Written in 1853, it divided the listening audience in two, half hating, half loving it. Brahms fell asleep while hearing it. The critic Eduard Hanslick said “Anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help.” Another German critic, Otto Gumprecht, referred to it as “an invitation to hissing and stomping.” 

Liszt sent Clara Schumann a copy of the sonata. In her diary she described the sonata as “a blind noise … and yet I must thank him for it. … It really is too awful.” 

Yet, the more avant-garde audiences found it thrilling, adventurous and exciting. Richard Wagner loved it. And today, it is a staple of the concert repertoire. I have heard two great live performances of it, first by Emil Gilels and more recently by Andre Watts — both overwhelming experiences.

My favorite performance is by Ukranian pianist Valentina Lisitsa. Too many upstanding and earnest pianists have attempted to overcome the showmanship and flash in Liszt to, supposedly, “find the music.” But Liszt without the dash and flash isn’t really Liszt. The exhibitionism is built into the score, and Lisitsa’s Liszt (not just in the sonata) is the perfect presentation of what Liszt is supposed to be. It’s louder, faster, more dazzling. (Hence, Lisitsa is sometimes pooh-poohed by the snobbier critics).

If you don’t mind a slightly older audio sound, you also can’t go wrong with Vladimir Horowitz, who also knows what this music is about. Finally, I treasure the CD of Watts playing the sonata, with panache and taste, which reminds me of hearing him do it live. 

Brahms Sonata No. 3 in F#-minor, op. 5

We think of Brahms as the old man with the beard spattered with cigar ash, but he was young once, full of piss and vinegar, and at the start of his career he wrote three monumental piano sonatas, opuses 1, 2, and 5. Each busting knuckles with the best of them. They are big, even by the standards of the time. 

The third is the one that caught on. He wrote it in 1853, the same years as Liszt wrote his sonata, and when he was just 20. It is vast, passionate, and gawky. It’s aggressive opening uses the whole length of the keyboard from booming bass to tintinnabulating treble. The second movement is tender andante inspired by a poem about pale moonlight and love. A rumbling scherzo follows and then an extra movement thrown in — a “recollection” or “remembrance” (“Rückblick”) that recalls the sweet andante with sweet nostalgia. (Did I mention that through all five movements, there is also a subtle recollection of the Dah-dah-dah-Dum of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — a ghost in the mechanism). Finally, an agitated rondo finale. The contrast between the more assertive segments and the more quiet, thoughtful parts give this sonata a sense of encompassing the range of human thought and emotion. 

No one plays Brahms better than Arthur Rubinstein. Period. Brahms is his mother tongue and compared with him, every other pianist, no matter how good, is speaking a second language in Brahms idiosyncratic keyboard style — the opposite of the natural pianism of, say, Chopin. But Rubinstein makes it flow and sing. 

He recorded it twice. The more recent, from 1959, is in better sound, so it is my first choice, but I have to put the 1949 version in as my second choice. There are many other good recordings of the sonata, but the only one which comes close to Rubinstein (that I have heard) is by Helene Grimaud. 

Ives Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass. 1840-1860” 

England has a centuries-long tradition of eccentrics, but America, in contrast, has its crackpots. Charles Ives was one of them. 

He began writing his second piano sonata in 1904, but didn’t finish it until 1915. I use the word “finished” provisionally, because after it was published, in 1920, Ives continued fiddling with it, rewriting it and republishing it in 1947. It was not performed, in full, before a paying public until 1939. And each performance after was slightly different, partly because there are ad lib sections of the score, and partly because Ives kept jiggering with it. He said it was never meant to be finished, but always to be a work in progress. 

Oh, and it comes with a 120-page preface, called Essays Before a Sonata, in which he discusses not just the music, but the whole of the Transcendentalist movement in New England in the 19th century. 

Ives wrote the work was his “impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.”

The first movement, “Emerson,” is quite craggy, but there is humor in the following “Hawthorne,” and quotes from Beethoven’s Fifth, played after dinner on a parlor piano, in “Alcotts,” and finally a quiet, moody reflection of Nature, with a capital “N” in “Thoreau.” 

I got to hear Jeremy Denk play the Concord Sonata at Zankel Hall in New York, in a program that also included the “Hammerklavier.” Back to back in the same recital was more than impressive: It was like watching someone run a marathon in the morning and after lunch complete an iron man competition. It was exhausting. For a recording of the sonata, Denk is my man. 

But I also have a soft spot for a recording I have cherished for almost 50 years, first on vinyl and now on CD — Nina Deutsch in a Vox Box with a host of other Ives piano music. She brings a slightly softer edge to the Ives. And there is the original recording, made in 1949 by John Kirkpatrick, who first championed the piece. 

 

Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 in B-flat, op. 83

Schubert had his final three sonatas; Brahms had his first three. Knucklebusters seem to like coming in threes. Serge Prokofiev wrote his group of three during World War II, and are hence often grouped as his “War Sonatas.” Each is a job-and-a-half to tackle, and any of them could be chosen to represent Prokofiev as a knucklebuster. But the one that has become popular is the Seventh, in the middle of the trio. 

The sonata is usually seen as a reflection on the war, but, like so much Soviet music of the time, it holds an unspoken reference to the terror under Stalin. Prokofiev was friends and working colleague with theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was arrested, tortured and murdered by the NKVD in 1939. Meyerhold’s wife, the actress Zinaida Reich, was stabbed 27 times in her apartment after Meyerhold’s arrest, also by the NKVD. Prokofiev (like Shostakovich) constantly feared they might come for him, also. He wrote a panegyric cantata “To the Glory of Stalin” for the dictator’s 60th birthday, in hopes to be left alone, but also wrote this piano sonata, in a more personal style, to maintain his self-respect. 

The first movement is a rough and tumble Allegro Inquieto. The second movement, Andante Caloroso, quotes a song by Robert Schumann, with lyrics that read, “I can sometimes sing as if I were glad, yet secretly tears well … everyone delights, yet no one feels the pain, the deep sorrow in the song.” It is one of the most beautiful moments Prokofiev ever wrote.

That is all followed by the toccata-like finale, Precipitato, which explodes and doesn’t relent until the final pounding chords. It is an angry, propulsive moto perpetuo, with an obsessive repetition in the left hand of a figure in the odd time signature of ⅞. It beats and crashes over and over till audience and pianist are exhausted. 

I heard Maurizio Pollini play the Prokofiev Seventh in Los Angeles many years ago in another monumental program (which also included all the Chopin Preludes and ended with Stravinsky’s Three Scenes from Petrushka). Pollini was great. 

But my first choice remains a dark horse: Barbara Nissman, on a disc with all three of the War Sonatas. Nissman makes the music less brutal, more musical, and I have loved this disc since I first got it in 1989. Nissman was the first pianist to record all the Prokofiev sonatas on CD. The first recording of the Seventh Sonata, by itself, was by Vladimir Horowitz, and it is still a show-off piece. And there is also a great recording by Pollini. 

Not on the list

These six pieces hardly exhaust the 19th century’s love of the big and difficult piano piece. I stuck with sonatas. I could have included Schumann’s Fantasie, op. 17, which could be considered a sonata. I could have included Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Choral et Fugue, which could also pass as a sonata incognito. Or either of Serge Rachmaninoff’s piano sonatas, which are clearly knucklebusters — but not so firmly established in the repertoire as the pieces I have chosen. Some will complain I didn’t include Alkan, but his music will probably never be generally popular. 

You may have your own candidates, either for compositions or performances. These are mine. 

Where I sit at my desk, typing this piece, I am surrounded by shelves filled with CDs. There are thousands of them. Eleven complete Mahler cycles (and I just ordered another). I don’t know how many boxes of Beethoven symphonies I have. I have literally lost count. Some are filed with Beethoven, some under the name of the conductor, some in my historical bin. Too much. Too much.

Henry David Thoreau famously advised “Simplify. Simplify.” And so, I’ve been cogitating, Marie Kondo style, how to reduce this agglomeration into a fine sauce, into the absolute essentials. 

And so, I decided I would pick a single composition and recording from each of the major composers and stack them up in a neat, tiny pile, figuring they would do me for the remaining years of my declining life. 

I realized, too, that I had to limit my list. There are simply too many composers out there. Do I really need Hans Pfitzner? Can I do without Louis Spohr, Max Reger, David Diamond? Surely, there is a short list of the pillars of Western art music. If not, I would make one. 

If you don’t find Palestrina on this list, or Josquin de Prez, it is not because I don’t value their work. I don’t even include Antonio Vivaldi, although I love his music and probably should include at least the Four Seasons. But I have chosen to start with Bach. He really is the fountainhead of the 250-year project we now call “classical music.” At least, those composers who followed him considered him so. 

Each of these winnowed-down composers can enter only a single work on my list, and I have chosen for each of these, a single performance to put in my “keepers” pile. 

Here are my suggestions, in roughly chronological order.

Johann Sebastian Bach — Since I want as much of him as possible on my pile, I will add the St. Matthew Passion, one of the greatest works of art ever assembled. It goes on for as much as three hours, depending on whether you’re listening to Otto Klemperer or Riccardo Chailly, who can squeeze the whole thing onto two discs. 

For my pile, I’m going with Klemperer, who brings a majesty and awe that few can match. In fact, if I had to have only a single recording on my pile, it would be Klemperer’s Matthew Passion. 

(If you find the passion too dour and downbeat, you can substitute the Mass in B-minor. I won’t complain. Klemp is good in that, too.)

George Frederic Handel — If I can have three discs of Bach, I can do the same with Handel. I love the 12 concertos of Op. 6. They come in two forms: currently, the historically informed performance practice, bouncy, quick, staccato versions that dominate the market; and the old-fashioned warm Mitteleuropean version. No one does that anymore. 

I grew up hearing violinist Alexander Schneider in New York, and his brand of committed music making. And I have a set of his Op. 6 recordings, with a pick-up ensemble, that it horribly out of date, but glorious. Into the pile. 

Domenico Scarlatti — On the shelves are all 555 sonatas, played on harpsichord by Scott Ross. But I hate the clangy, monotonous sound of the harpsichord and prefer my Scarlatti translated to piano. Most pianists now attempt to imitate the harpsichord by using no pedal and dry staccato. I want someone not afraid of using what the piano offers. My favorite used to be Vladimir Horowitz. He is still great. But I have since discovered an even richer performer in Mikhail Pletnev. This is magnificent piano playing. 

Joseph Haydn — Papa is hard to narrow down for me. He is one of my absolute dearest composers. But how do you choose a symphony over a quartet? Or a single symphony or quartet over all the others. Haydn’s work is so consistently excellent, it makes it hard to pick one as more essential than another. But there is The Creation. It is unlike anything else, and has the greatest sonic description of chaos ever devised. In his lifetime, The Creation was recognized as his crowning achievement. 

I have something like half a dozen recordings of it, including two by Leonard Bernstein, who had a magic sympathy with Haydn always. I will choose his second recording, with Deutsche Grammophon although I think the earlier with the New York Philharmonic is just as good. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — The problem with Wolfie is similar to that with Haydn: consistency. But Mozart is best in opera. I would have chosen The Marriage of Figaro — his most nearly perfect work and the world’s most perfect opera — but instead I pick Don Giovanni, which, although it sags a bit in the second act, has more emotional power and heft. 

There are many great performances, and lots by the newer, faster, punchier conductors who follow historically informed performance practice (pardon me while I spit at their feet). And my choice is the recording with Cesare Siepi as the Don, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. What a supporting cast! 

Ludwig von Beethoven — I hate to be caught out as predictable, but after considering one of the late quartets, or the Hammerklavier sonata, I realized that there is only one possible choice. I am sorry for it, but I have to pick the Ninth. If I had been really snobbish, I would have suggested the Missa Solemnis, but I don’t know anyone who really enjoys that music. Respects it, yes. Reveres it, even. But enjoys? No. But the Ninth. It was the sign over the door to the Nineteenth Century. Enter who dare. It cast a shade over the next hundred years. You wrote in emulation or reaction against. 

I’ve got to fess up to liking the first and third movements more than the second and fourth. The scherzo seems a little thin melodically speaking, and I always have to get through the first half of the finale before hitting the solid core of gold, which starts with the fugue after the Hogan’s Heroes’ march. The Adagio, though, is as sublime as music gets, and when it is done right, the first movement is a vision from Dante: If the conductor lets the tympani roar properly, the recapitulation can rouse the fight-or-flight in you. Too many conductors smooth that bit out, letting the kettle drums murmur underneath the themes. In 1942, Furtwangler unleashed his tympani in a recording that is both the greatest performance and one of the sloppiest and poorly recorded in history. You have to put up with a lot in that historical document (including knowing that Hitler was in the audience), but it is the version I put on my pile.

Franz Schubert — The riches are there: the Unfinished Symphony, the Trout Quintet, the B-flat Sonata, the Death and the Maiden quartet. Heck, the F-minor Fantasie for Two Pianos, the two piano trios, to say nothing of the songs, especially Winterreisse. But the most moving of all, deeply emotional and profound is the String Quintet in C, sometimes considered the greatest piece of chamber music ever — even topping Beethoven’s late quartets. That’s saying something. 

Lots of great performances, but my favorite and the one on my pile is by musicians from the Marlboro Festival. Some find it a bit over the top; I find the top cannot be gone over in this music. The disc also gives us The Shepherd on the Rock, sung by Benita Valente and so we have one of the songs, also. 

Robert Schumann — Bobbie doesn’t get a lot of props these days, and he can get repetitious. And as he aged, he became outright boring. But in his hot youth, he wrote a lot of the world’s most memorable tunes. For me, what goes on the pile is Carnaval, a series of sort-of variations, a necklace of character pieces for piano. 

There are two essential recordings of it: Artur Rubinstein and Sergei Rachmaninoff. When push comes to shove, I’m taking Rach with me. 

Felix Mendelssohn — My absolute favorite Mendelssohn is his Hebrides Overture, but it is too short for my pile, and so I pass by his symphonies and, god help us, his tedious oratorios, and pick the most elegant and refined of all the great violin concertos. 

I am in luck, though, because Pinchas Zukerman plays the bejeezus out of the concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Phil and pairs it with the Hebrides and as a bonus, a rousing performance of the “Italian” Symphony. That’s hard to beat.

Hector Berlioz — This will probably be a controversial choice. How can you not choose the Symphonie Fantastique? It is his signature piece, and under the baton of Charles Munch, it can’t be beat. But my heart belongs to the Requiem. I love it without regard for its faults. It is ingenious, tuneful, and loud. (My college roommate’s brother used to love what he called “the loud classics,” by which he meant things like the 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s Fifth, but you can’t get much louder than the Dies Irae in the Berlioz “Wreck.” 

And there is one recording above all: Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Too many other conductors (I’m looking at you, Colin Davis) attempt to make sense of this irrational music, to tame it and have it make sense. But Ormandy lets it all hang out, and his tenor, Cesare Valletti, is just cheesy enough. 

Frederic Chopin — This is a toughie. Chopin wrote mainly short pieces, and so picking just one would be giving him short shrift. I don’t particularly like his piano concertos, and his sonatas are fine, but what he really calls for is a program of mazurkas, scherzos, ballades, waltzes and the bunch. 

There are two contenders, almost opposite poles apart, interpretively, but they are the best at getting the spirit of Chopin. Most modern pianists are too dry and all seem to hate the pedal. The older Chopin tradition is closer to what the composer wanted. One could choose the 10-CD box of Artur Rubinstein Plays Chopin, which is a delight. But it is made of his later, stereo recordings, and his older mono ones were more idiosyncratic. Still, it is a great box. But on my pile goes Vladimir Horowitz: The Chopin Collection, with seven CDs. Volodya has all the snap and jump that sit in the music waiting to spring out. It’s a close call. The Rubinstein is more complete, but Horowitz is the only pianist who has ever taken the measure properly of the Polonaise-Fantasie, and so, I’m going with Horowitz. 

Franz Liszt — Like Chopin, Liszt is best in the shorter to medium size pieces. I’d want a compilation.

The best Liszt pianist going is Valentina Lesitsa, who understands that Liszt without the theatrics is not really Liszt. Those pianists who try to extract the “music” from the glitz only destroy the essence. The problem is that Lisitsa has not released a really good single Liszt disc; the best is spread out on several. No one does the second Hungarian Rhapsody with as much schmaltz as she does. She is great. But, I have to choose, and so, I’m going with a great 2-disc compilation on DG called Liszt: Wild and Crazy, with the works spread out among more than a dozen great pianists. 

Richard Wagner — Oy, Wagner. This is a kind of classical music Everest, not just because the music is great, but because it takes a mountain-climber’s stamina. To a true Wagnerite, the music is transcendental, mythic, epic. To the not-so-convinced, it can seem bombastic, never-ending, and pretentious. I’m with the first group. I’ve attended two full Ring Cycles live, and own six cycles on disc. So sue me. 

But I’m not going to take all that with me, and so, Kondo-style, I will divest and choose a single disc. Each of Wagner’s operas contain longueurs, segments of what can seem like filler, as the story is rehashed once again. But the first act of Walküre is a perfectly enclosed whole, musically. Arturo Toscanini recorded Act 1, scene 3 with Helen Traubel and Lauritz Melchior that is, for me, the perfect Wagner recording. The disc also includes the Siegfried Idyll and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

Anton Bruckner — Sometimes, it is hard to tell one Bruckner symphony from another. He had one tone, one message, one purpose in all his music. Symphonies Four and Seven are the easiest to love; Eight is the longest and most sublime; the unfinished Nine is profound. But if I choose just one, it will be Symphony No. 5 in B-flat. It has that fugal finale, and a first-movement ear-worm that you will carry with you for life.

And my recording of choice is with Hans Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic. No one gets Bruckner quite like the quirky Kna. The disc also gives us Wagner’s Dawn and Rhine Journey, and so we get to cheat a little on our Wagner. 

Johannes Brahms — OK, this is painful. Old beard-face is very close to my heart. I’m going to want to add to my pile the DG box of “Complete Works,” but that would be cheating. Brahms is the greatest composer of chamber music since Beethoven and Schubert, and no one has equalled him since. His symphonies and concertos are top tier. But the music that moves me the most, that I could not live without, for it provides me with the deepest consolation is his German Requiem. “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras.” It is the most human, compassionate, loving music I have ever heard. I weep just remembering it. 

The greatest performance ever recorded, by general acclamation, is that of Otto Klemperer, with the Philharmonia and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Ralph Downes. I’m putting on top of my pile, so I can reach for it first. 

Giuseppe Verdi — I’m afraid am giving opera the short stick in this selection. I shouldn’t. And Joe Green is going to take a beating here. Because, although I would love to add Otello or La Traviata to my pile, I’m going to choose instead his Requiem. It is operatic, after all. 

Into the pile goes my Barenboim version, with the La Scala orchestra and chorus and Anja Hareros, Elīna Garanča, Jonas Kaufmann and Rene Pape. It is stunning. 

Antonin Dvorák — After Haydn, no composer has been more mentally and emotionally sound and hale than Dvorak. And that has translated, as with Haydn, into a remarkable consistency of quality across genres. You pretty much can’t go wrong with him. I’m going to go against the grain, here, though, and not choose the cello concerto or the New World Symphony, but an old Columbia box of the two piano quartets, the piano quintet and the lovely bagatelles for two violins and harmonium with the Juilliard Quartet and pianist Rudolf Firkusny. This recording is a delight.

Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky — When I was younger, there was a prejudice against Tchaikovsky. My generation preferred irony and detachment. Tchike was all heart-on-sleeve. And besides, he wasn’t German, which meant he didn’t build his symphonies out of tiny germs of thematic material, like Brahms. We were too sophisticated for Tchaikovsky. We were, of course, stupid. Tchaikovsky was a great composer, a brilliant orchestrator, and put more of himself into his best music than almost anyone. For my pile, I’m going to pick his Sixth Symphony, the “Pathetique.” Everything about it is brilliant, emotionally deep and how can you not love the five-beat “waltz?” 

The performance I choose is Bernstein’s from 1987, with the New York Philharmonic, on DG. It is nearly an hour long (most performances run 40-45 minutes), and with anyone else, that slowness would dissipate all the forward motion of the music, but Lenny manages, even at the crawl, to keep the drive going, and the emotion he wrings from the performance is sui generis. Not to everyone’s taste, but it makes the music an experience, not just a pleasant listen. 

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov — I can’t live without Scheherazade. It is Rimsky-Korsakov’s greatest bit of tune-making and orchestrating. It is lush and washes over your ears like gentle surf. 

There are some great performances, including Beecham and Stokowski (I have both), but the one I’m gonna keep is Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, not only because it is a delicious recording, but it also includes the most joyous Capriccio Espagnol and the Russian Easter Overture, making it a Rimsky trifecta. 

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This takes us up to the end of the 19th Century. In the next piece, I’ll clean out my 20th and 21st century clutter.

triangles
The late writer George Plimpton was famous for his participatory journalism: He risked life and limb while playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions, trading punches with boxer Archie Moore, blocking 100-mile-an-hour hockey pucks as goaltender for the Boston Bruins. All to get a good story. plimpton

But the only time Plimpton admitted getting scared was when he played triangle for the New York Philharmonic, facing conductor Leonard Bernstein.

“He would stare at Bernstein over the top of the triangle, metal rods gripped tightly, and look for some cue in the whirlwind of Bernstein’s movements that suggested it was time for him to play. And then: Ping!

The story was remembered in Barry Green’s book The Mastery of Music, by Philharmonic percussionist Walter Rosenberg, who tried to help the poor journalist.

“Bernstein would look at him and say, ‘George, would you play that note for us again?’

“George would pick up the triangle and play it again: Ping!

“The maestro would ask George to try it one more time.

“Another, rather tentative Ping.

“‘Once more,’ Bernstein would say as he cupped his hand behind his ear.

Ping.

“The tension in the room was mounting — the orchestra members didn’t quite know where Lenny was going to take this one. Finally, he said to George in a rather impatient, dissatisfied manner:

” ‘Now, which of those four pings do you mean? They’re all different.’

“Poor George was obviously in shock. He stood there trembling, his face a complete blank, not knowing what he had done wrong, or what he could possibly do to play his ping any better.”

He was playing the triangle, for goodness’ sake, an instrument that even kindergartners negotiate easily in rhythm bands. How hard could it be?

“A lot of people come up to me and say it must be easy to hit the triangle,” says Bill Wanser, former principal percussionist for the Phoenix Symphony, who retired in 2013 after 38 years at the back of the orchestra. “I tell all my students, you don’t hit anything, you play it. You touch the instrument because the touch you give the instrument determines the kind of sound you get from the instrument.”bill wanser and triangle

Bill Wanser

I talked to Wanser when the orchestra was going to play the Franz Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat, which has such a prominent part for the lowly triangle that when critic Eduard Hanslick first heard it in during its premiere in 1855, he dubbed it the “Triangle Concerto.”

We talked in his home studio, surrounded by the drums, xylophones and timpani of his trade. A soft-spoken man, then 62, he had been with the Phoenix Symphony since 1975. He was hired by the late Eduardo Mata and has seen the orchestra through five music directors.

He has thought a lot about the lowly triangle and his part in the concerto.

“You have to have a concept in your head of what you want that sound to be like, before you actually play that note, because that’s going to translate, if you practice, to what kind of touch you give that beater when the triangle and the beater meet. If the touch is correct, the sound you have in your mind will come out correctly. But you have to have that idea.

“I’ve heard recordings when the triangle just sounds terrible because someone’s just hitting it. But with the right kind of touch, the right feel to the rhythm, the whole thing sparkles. That is what I try to do.”

Thus begins a mini lesson on the complexities of playing the triangle.Grover Pro triangle

First, there’s the triangle itself. It comes in many forms and sizes, mostly from 4 inches to 8 inches, made from steel, bronze or some alloy.

While a grade-school triangle can cost as little as a couple of bucks, a professional triangle sells for an average of about $75.

A Grover Pro bronze model is “meticulously hammered in a compact randomized pattern,” as the company’s catalog says, which “ensures that the inherent fundamental pitch is dampened and that the instrument’s intricate and complex harmonic structure is enhanced.”

The 6-inch version sells for $140.buddy and thien gold triangle

For those who admire James Galway’s gold flute, there is a 9-inch all-gold triangle, sold by Buddy and Thein, which goes for a cool $650.

The triangle came to European orchestras from Turkish janissary — or military — bands. The original version of the triangle had a series of rings attached to the bottom rung to make more jangle when the instrument was played.

It came to Europe after the defeat of the Ottoman Turks outside Vienna in 1683, when, supposedly, the fleeing Turks dropped their instruments in the field. By the time of Mozart and Beethoven, such “Turkish” instruments as cymbals and triangles had become part of the orchestra, at least for military effects.

That percussion became a regular part of the orchestra in the 19th century, and such exotic instruments as the cymbal, the tam-tam (Chinese gong) and the lowly triangle became means for composers to “colorize” their music.

But the triangle itself is only the beginning. There is the beater to consider.triangle beaters

Black Swan Percussion offers a set of six differently weighted beaters in a nylon case for $127.

“I have a collection of color-coded beaters,” Wanser says. “They’re various thicknesses. They used to make triangle beaters from solid metal, but these are not solid.

“We found that we can eliminate some of the contact sound if we don’t use solid beaters. So this guy came up with different thicknesses of metal wrapped around a shaft and separated from the shaft with epoxy.”abel triangle

Wanser has spread out his collection of triangles and beaters on a soft cloth over one of his xylophones. There are eight triangles of various sizes and metals and some 20 beaters.

He picks one up.

“I’ll probably use this one for the Liszt,” he says. “The metal is fairly thin, just a nylon insert in there, but still enough weight I can produce a pretty big sound. And then, it won’t have quite the tick.”

The tick, he says, is the enemy. You don’t want a metallic sound, like machine parts clanging together. You want something more like the “eructation of an angel,” a scintillant, chiming ping. If you hit the triangle the wrong way, or with the wrong beater, you can make it sound like a traffic accident.

“You have to think about where you hit the triangle. These are things most people don’t know.

“Hit it here and you get this tone: Ping.

“If I play more toward the corner, where the metal is a little denser, then you get this: Ping, but a different ping.

“Or hit it near the top, and you have this: Ping.”

The sound of a triangle is not a simple note, like a violin note or a piano note. It is a mix of upper harmonics, all mixed together in a ping without a pitch. But hit it in different places, and you draw out different harmonics.

“You can almost get a triad out of it,” Wanser says. “Ping; ping; ping.

“And, of course, if I play at the very tip of the beater, I’m going to get a brighter sound. If I play more in the center of the beater, I get a much darker sound. Halfway in between, I get this sound: Ping.”

The sound of the triangle is usually meant to blend in with the orchestra, a coloration effect.

“There are not a lot of triangle solos,” Wanser says. “One that comes to mind is in Brahms’ Third Symphony. It’s a single triangle note that comes at the end of a quiet string passage and puts a period at the end of it: ‘Ding.’ It’s just a color that you want.

“But for the Liszt concerto, you want a bright, articulate sound because it’s a rhythmic passage, not just color, and you don’t want too much shimmer in it.

“When I play that, I’m going to move the beater around on the triangle because the second note is going to be a little brighter than the first, a little sharper sounding.

“Plus, it’s easier rhythmically if you move your beater along the triangle instead of hitting it in the same spot over and over. If you’re playing rapid successive notes, if you move just a little bit, it’s easier to phrase and make the rhythm clear and more articulate.”

And we haven’t even mentioned counting.liszt score

The score for the triangle — like that of many percussion instruments — has very few notes on it and many, many rests. Sometimes a hundred bars of rest before a note is hit. Percussionists count those rests. Wanser’s score for the Liszt concerto shows four lines of empty staves, with bars numbered on them. Over a single rest on the staff, there will be a number — 17 in one place, 32 in another — that tells you that rest covers 17 or 32 bars of tacit, or silence from the triangle. Wanser counts each bar.

“There’s tons of counting,” he says. “I’ve played for a lot of years, and I’ll find myself counting my steps as I walk down the street. I’ll sit and have big, long rests, and it’s a challenge to keep focused on what you’re doing.”

Click to enlarge

There are stories of percussionists reading books or checking how their stocks are doing while they are waiting for their single cymbal crash or gong cataclysm.

“That was probably more prevalent in the past than it is today,” Wanser says. “I studied with the legendary Fred Hinger, who was percussionist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and later for the Metropolitan Opera. I asked him, ‘How do you count?’

” ‘First of all,’ he said, ‘Never rely on any cues; never rely on anybody else. Do your own counting and always be 100 percent sure of where you are in the score.’angelica kauffmann Allegra

“You have cues written in your score,” Wanser says, “but I don’t rely on those cues because maybe the horn has miscounted or something. It doesn’t happen very often, but it would be the one time it happens, and it could throw everybody off.”

Is it any wonder that Plimpton sweated his time with Bernstein?

Of course, a triangle player doesn’t only play the triangle. He is a percussionist who will play whatever instruments are called for, drums, xylophones, woodblocks, glockenspiels, and even back up the principal timpanist if needed.

“I have a friend who plays with local amateur groups, and he’ll come over to discuss a part once in a while,” Wanser says. “He’s a decent drummer, but I’ll show him what I would do, and he’s amazed because he hasn’t been able to do it. He’s not a professional player.

“The perception is that anyone can be a drummer, but it’s not so. There’s a lot of people who can play drums and pick up the sticks and hit a drum, they have the coordination and can play very complicated rhythms. But do they practice eight hours a day, the way a professional musician does? Have they developed the muscle memory?

“So, when people say, ‘You’re a drummer,’ I say, ‘No, I’m a musician.’ “