Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ten Little Known, But Great, Pieces of Music

This is a follow-up to my other post criticizing Ben Shapiro's list of overrated songs. This won't be nearly as funny as one of David Letterman's top ten lists, but then he has a whole team of writers.

10. Nocturno for guitar by Federico Moreno-Torroba. This is perhaps his finest piece for guitar out of the many he wrote, but it is the least played.

9. Divertimento in F major, K. 138, second movement, Andante, Mozart. This simple, unassuming piece gets more heart-rending every time you listen to it. Listen especially for the piquant dissonances between the 0:30 and 0:36 mark and their repeats, at, for example the 1:50 to 1:55 mark. I've tried to steal this progression a couple of times, but it only seems to work if you use it the way Mozart did... He wrote this and two other divertimenti, the so-called 'Salzburg Symphonies' when he was sixteen years old.

8. Cordoba from Chants d'espagne by Isaac AlbĂ©niz. The best piece of guitar music ever written for piano! In fact, it is played more on guitar than piano these days.

7. Aires de Tirana, a bulerias by Sabicas that shows just how remarkable flamenco was before it was turned into a kind of jazz:

and here is Pepe Romero with another version of the same piece:

6. Plainte faite a Londres pour passer la Melancolie, lequelle se joue lentement avec discretion, for harpsichord by Johann Jakob Froberger (here played on the lute-harpsichord--a harpsichord with gut strings instead of metal ones). The story behind this piece is that Froberger, on a visit to London, was hired to squeeze the bellows for an organist so that he could practice (the days before electric motors), but was so overcome by melancholy that he forgot to squeeze and the organist threw him out in the street. I like the title almost as much as the piece!

5. ...des pas sur la neige, from Preludes Bk 1 for piano, Debussy. This piece has a haunting quality that is impossible to put into words...

4. String Quartet op 59, no 3, C major, Allegro molto, Beethoven. And now for something completely different, if you have had enough of this gloomy music.

The version I was really looking for is by the Emerson Quartet for its sheer manic velocity. But it wasn't on YouTube. However, the next piece is, so here are the Emerson Quartet with:

3. String Quartet No. 3 in F major, third movement, Allegro non troppo, Shostakovich. For the premiere Shostakovich added descriptive titles to the movements, possibly to please his political masters. For the third movement it was "Forces of war unleashed".

2. Mazurka op 17, no 4, Chopin. Here is Arthur Rubinstein:

As one YouTube poster put it, "one of Chopin's most evocative and melancholy themes, known only to pianists. It is almost a secret to other musicians and the public."

1. Fugue in E major, Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk 2, Bach. How could I not end with Bach?

I notice that most of these pieces are in slow tempi and might be what you could call melancholy. They are certainly not designed to wow audiences at first hearing. Which is probably why they are little known. But great, pieces of music.


Nathan Shirley said...

If I had to pick a favorite group of Chopin pieces it would be his Mazurkas. Not just for students, these are generally his most experimental works. Some fantastic stuff, amazingly creative.

Chopin is notoriously difficult to transcribe to other instruments, but I would think at least some of the Mazurkas would work well on guitar (perhaps guitar duo).

Bryan Townsend said...

You are so right, Nathan. The mazurkas are a wealth of fascinating pieces. Stephen Aron, who teaches at Oberlin, has actually transcribed ALL the Chopin mazurkas for guitar. Some involved unusual scordaturas, and most had to be transposed to a different key. A lot of them, in my opinion, just do not work. But some work quite well. I have played a couple in concert. The op 17 no 4 is one of the ones that doesn't quite work on solo guitar. But I have done a transcription for two guitars that is lovely.