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A week with: Dame Moura Lympany, “Preludes, Op. 32 (Rachmaninoff)”

I don’t much care for orchestras, or even chamber music, but I’m slowly warming to classical music as played by a single performer.

Solo performances seem more intimate, more welcoming and less bombastic than orchestral recordings.

I’ve been building up to this for years — first with a CD of Bach as played by organist E.Power Biggs; then with Bach’s cello suites as played by Pablo Casals; then Vladimir Horowitz playing Pictures at an Exhibition; and then a raft of Glenn Gould solo piano recordings.

(I suppose some bootlegs of Keith Jarrett’s solo piano concerts from the Seventies merit mention here, as well, bridging as they do the space between jazz and something more highbrow.)

Hungry for more, I explored the Music, Arts and Culture section of the invaluable archive.org.

And there I found this week’s traveling companion — Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, Op. 32, as performed in 1951 by the British pianist Dame Moura Lympany.

What we have here are 13 short pieces for solo piano, written circa 1910. Each prelude is written in a different key, and — when combined with earlier works of Rachmaninoff’s — they form a complete set of music written in all 24 minor and major keys. (Not that that matters to any but the most anal-retentive of listeners.)

I’ve been hoping for the past week, as I listened to Dame Moura do her thing, that I would magically sprout the critical knowledge and vocabulary needed to accurately report on her.

I know virtually nothing about classical music and have never before pretended to write about it.

I have no way to tell, for instance, whether Dame Moura was playing the right notes. (They sounded fine to me. And if any were incorrect, she made up for it in self-assurance — a good skill for musicians in any setting.)

I lack the grounding to know whether her interpretation of the Preludes was traditional, or boldly innovative, or somewhere in between.

With rock n’ roll records, I have any number of signposts I can hitch my comments to — the thematic continuity of the lyrics, the career arc of the performer, the social era in which the music was released, the clarity or lack thereof of the recording, and a million other things.

With classical … well, it’s just pure sound to me, as bereft of context and information as a cummerbund left lying in a subway car.

So I must resort to saying things like:

Some of it sounded like butterflies, and some of it sounded like crashing waves, and this one brief section sounded enough like “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” to convince me that Tony Banks has some Rachmaninoff in his vinyl collection.

I liked it all; I think I have a fondness for short-form composition, as it’s like reading short stories.

Each one is a little different and leaves its own impression. And — since you have 13 of them packed into 37 minutes and 35 seconds — the less memorable ones pass quickly.

(Ray Davies took rather the same approach to writing the early Kinks albums; I tend to doubt he learned it from Rachmaninoff.)

When I wanted to listen closely, the music offered something to get into; when I didn’t, it faded into the background until I was ready to pay it attention again. And, unlike last week’s subject, I could see myself taking this off the shelf again in any number of situations.

Perhaps solo classical music will make additional appearances in this setting.

But not next week.

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One response »

  1. Solo classical music generally is more honest and less for show than large group music, as you say; same probably applies to jazz and even rock. Chamber music (which you referred to in your youth as “Chamber pot music”) is often attributed with the same characteristics; music that is played more for the sake of the music and less to impress the audience, but for some reason I never could get into it. Small group jazz is another thing altogether!

    Reply

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