Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works

In Praise of South Korean Pianism

During the course of some correspondence, my Patron Cory-Paul Allen mentioned his love for the piano playing of Yeol Eum Son. For those of you who are not familiar with her, she is a 32 year-old miracle (born 1986) from South Korea. Here’s a link to a live performance of her playing Chopin’s Etudes Op. 25.   Ignore, please, the handful of wrong notes she plays over the course of her 32-minute performance. This is the real world of live performance, a world in which mistakes are made. (Although based on her body language, Ms. Son is not so forgiving of herself.)  The fluffs make no difference. Yeol Eum Son’s artistry is what counts, and her artistry is superb. And in this, she is not alone. For a country of 50 million people, Korean’s presently make up a disproportionate percentage of some of the best young pianists currently plying their trade. I discussed my friend, the wonderful Joyce Yang (born 1986) in my first Dr. Bob Prescribes post. I hired three pianists to perform the piano excerpts for my “23 Greatest Solo Piano Works” course made for The Great Courses. Two of the three are South Korean: Woo Bin Park (born […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major D960

Earlier this week, my patron Renato inquired: “So, what is Dr. Bob’s prescription for Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major D960 (I listen to Richter’s in Praga 1972) and for Debussy’s Prelude Book I (Michelangeli DG is my choice)? Thanks a lot. Cheers.” These works were featured in my absurdly entitled but well-intentioned Great Courses survey “The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works.” That they are featured indicates that I love them dearly; generally speaking, I only talk about music I love. (There is the occasional exception because sometimes a piece of music is so very bad that it just has to be discussed, like Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, although once heard, such a piece of music cannot be unheard.) I’m going to address Renato’s question in two separate posts: here the Schubert B-flat and next week the Debussy Préludes. The Schubert Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major is a warm, expansive and lyric piece, composed in September of 1828, just two months before Schubert’s death on November 19. It is filled with long, song-like themes, a particular trademark of Schubert’s instrumental music. The temptation – particularly in its lengthy first movement – to succumb to the “leisurely” can be overwhelming, and succumb […]

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Music History Monday: There’s No Software Without the Hardware!

Today we celebrate the birthday of the piano builder and composer Ignaz Joseph Pleyel, who was born in Ruppertsthal, Austria on June 18, 1757: 261 years ago today. It’s entirely understandable if you’ve never heard of Pleyel or his music, because his music – despite being extremely attractive and technically sound – has fallen into almost total obscurity. But if one had to pick a single, “most popular composer” in the years between 1800 and 1820, it would be Pleyel: more popular than Haydn, than Mozart, and yes, most certainly more popular that that curmudgeon Beethoven. A review published in 1791 in the Morning Herald of London states that Pleyel: “is becoming even more popular than his master [Haydn], as his works are characterized less by the intricacies of science.” (The reviewer is saying that because Pleyel’s music was easier to play and less complicated – less “scientific” – than Haydn’s, Pleyel was attracting a wider popular base than Haydn.) In Brussels, the contemporary and most influential music critic, musicologist, composer, and teacher François-Joseph Fétis outright marveled at Pleyel’s popularity, writing: “What composer ever created more of a craze than Pleyel? Who enjoyed a more universal reputation or a more absolute […]

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“The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works” Wins a TELLY Award

. . . and finally [small tear running down cheek] . . . I’d like to thank the Academy [*choke*] . . . I’d like to thank the Academy . . . for . . . for . . .FOR ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! WHAT A BUNCH OF LOSERS! YOU’RE NOTHING BUT A PACK OF GROVELING, PEA-BRAINED WEASELS: BLOOD-SUCKING PARASITES ON THE BODY OF ART; OPEN, OOZING CARBUNCLES ON THE ASS OF PROGRESS! Yes, YES: PUT THAT ON YOUR PIZZA AND EAT IT! One day, before we all pass on to the great unknown, one day – perhaps – we’ll be lucky enough to hear an award acceptance speech end just that way. It would become an instant classic, among the most quoted, listened to and viewed bits of spontaneous media since Sally Field’s “You like me!” speech at the Academy Awards and Ed Ames’ tomahawk-to-the groin on the Johnny Carson show. Given my own occasional proclivity towards ingratitude, it is just as well that when I received a “Telly Award” back in May, I was standing in a nearly empty corner of an office building in Chantilly, Virginia, accompanied only by my great pal Ed Leon of The Great Courses (with […]

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New Course Available — The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works

Now Available: The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works   Purchase Today!   As a solo concert instrument, the piano enjoys an unrivaled popularity in Western music. Capable of a vast sonic range, from ethereal softness to thundering grandeur, its appeal is global and seemingly eternal. For nearly 200 years, audiences have packed concert halls and opera houses to hear performers play this single, phenomenal instrument. One of the primary reasons for the piano’s popularity is the fact that it has inspired many of the greatest compositional masterworks in the concert repertoire. The piano’s harmonic and melodic capabilities, tone colors, and orchestral resources have fascinated composers—the majority of them highly accomplished pianists themselves—since the mid-18th century. The result is a magnificent body of work, from the intricate and lyric creations of the High Baroque and Classical masters to the passionate visions of Romantic virtuosos to the revolutionary sonorities of pianistic “impressionism” and modernism. Within the rich repertoire of the piano, a group of unique masterworks stand out as the greatest achievements of this tradition. These historic milestones in piano writing are celebrated for several key reasons: They have commanded the respect of the music world through their compositional mastery and their […]

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Recording the Pianists at The Great Courses – Part Three – True Professionalism

Ah, the idealized romance of the virtuoso pianist! A solitary figure sitting at a piano communing with her innermost thoughts and feelings through the medium of a repertoire second to none; wresting from the instrument its deepest secrets and sonorities while becoming one with the piano and the music. Yes! Yes! Yes, yes! (“I’ll have what she’s having.”) Her fingers no longer push the keys in some tawdry act of mere physical contact but rather, it is her very soul that animates and gives life to the piano! Thus carried aloft on a transformational musical wind that elevates her spirit, the pianist is rendered susceptible to divine revelation. Yes, well, whatever. A dose of reality, please. Pianists are people. People lead real lives. Real life can often be a challenge. Challenges require professionalism and grit, not idealized romantic cow flop. Case in point. Magdalina Melkonyan – who during her recording sessions appeared totally relaxed at the piano and played like an angel – had quite a week. Magdalina has two boys: Alex, who is 4 years old, and Andre who is 16 months old. On Tuesday evening May 28, Andre came down with a fever of 103.5 degrees. A trip […]

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Recording the Pianists at The Great Courses – Part Two

Today we had the opportunity to meet and hear the third of our three pianists, Eun Joo Chung. She recorded the excerpts for two great and most virtuosic works: Johannes Brahms’ “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel” and Aaron Copland’s “Piano Variations”. She was absolutely stunning. Some logistical info. The studio in which we are recording is a fairly large room, in which the piano is placed dead center in the middle. At any given moment, there are five or six people in the studio. First (and obviously), there is the pianist. Then there are three camera-people, operating, as one might expect, three cameras, which are arrayed around the piano. I am seated at a table to the side, from which I can talk to the pianist and monitor events. Finally, there is my Academic Content Supervisor Cat Lyon, who when called upon leaves the adjacent control room and joins us in the studio in order to turn pages for the pianists I would call your attention to the three camera people. My friends, it is a defining skill that good camera people (and I would tell you that The GREAT Courses employs GREAT camera people) are unflappable: […]

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Recording the Pianists at The Great Courses – Part One

As anticipated in my previous post, I have travelled to Chantilly, Virginia – HQ of The Great Courses/The Teaching Company – to oversee the recording of the musical examples for my latest course, “The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works.” The three professional concert pianists tasked with recording the excerpts are Magdalina Melkonyan, Woo Bin Park, and Eun Joo Chung. We began recording today and will continue for a total of five days. Each day – thanks to the cleverness of my producer, Jaimee Aigret – is divided into two parts: 8:30 AM to 1 PM, and 1 PM to 5:30 PM. Each “part” is assigned to a different pianist. Thus, we will record two pianists per day. They are recording on a Steinway “B”. (Sadly, the elevators here at The Great Courses could not accommodate a Steinway “D”, meaning a full concert grand. Having said that, our “B” is a molto fine instrument, which was last played – so we are told – by Harry Connick Jr. in a concert in Baltimore roughly three weeks ago.) This is what we are asking our pianists to do. Walk into a chilly (those with thinner blood might say FREEZING) studio and warm […]

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The Making of a Course – Part Ten

Tuesday, May 28th I return to The Great Courses/Teaching Company studios in Virginia to complete work on my latest course: “The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works.” We recorded the actual lectures back in January and early February, a process well-documented on this site (scroll down for the blogs I wrote during the recording process and for various studio pix). This next week will be dedicated to recording the actual musical examples that will be heard (and seen) during the course. In the past, such musical examples were excerpted from recordings. This time around, we’re doing something entirely different. We have hired three wonderful, young concert pianists who will together custom-record our musical examples. Among the many advantages of doing things this way is that I will have some say over the interpretive content of the performances. We will also be video recording the pianists, so those who purchase the video version of the course will have the added advantage of seeing as well as hearing the excerpts performed. (And who doesn’t like to watch a great pianist in action? To my mind there’s nothing in the musical world quite as awesome as watching a great pianist perform: her hand speed […]

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