Before I showed up, no one in my family was musical, played an instrument or even sang in a choir. I found music on my own. In a way, my eureka moment came early, when my parents bought me a little toy piano and, like Schroeder in “Peanuts,” I started picking out tunes on it. I campaigned to get a real piano. It wasn’t until I was 8 that, seeing that I was serious, my parents complied. One day a boxy old upright was hauled into our home on Long Island.
Of course there were formative moments when I started going to live performances, hearing Van Cliburn play the Brahms Second Concerto with the Long Island Philharmonic and Bernstein conduct the “Eroica” Symphony and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” with the New York Philharmonic. It was not my parents but my fifth-grade teacher, a classical music devotee and audiophile, who generously took me to some of my first concerts and, of special note, my first opera: “Tosca,” at the Metropolitan Opera, with Dorothy Kirsten in the title role, Richard Tucker as Cavaradossi and George London as Scarpia.
What really pulled me in, though, was listening to certain recordings in the basement den of my home, by myself. Two albums especially may have pointed me to my life’s passion.
The first was an RCA release titled “Rubinstein Plays Grieg.” I already had a recording I loved of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, which my mother had picked up at a supermarket, and I cannot remember the pianist. On the Rubinstein recording of solo works by Grieg, there was just one longer piece: the Ballade in G minor, written in theme and variations form. I was haunted by the achingly sad theme. The subsequent variations were exciting but baffling. This work of nearly 17 minutes was Grieg’s only attempt at writing an extended solo piano piece, and the music becomes confusingly tumultuous.
What really hooked me on this recording, though, were Rubinstein’s accounts of 11 of Grieg’s short “Lyric Pieces.” Like most aspiring Norwegian composers, Grieg felt compelled to go to Germany to complete his training. Still, he remained Norwegian to his core, someone who loved the music of his country and incorporated freely adapted folk songs into his works.
In the “Lyric Pieces,” the combination of the colorful titles and the wistful music filled me with curiosity about Norway. Why was Grieg’s “Shepherd Boy” so sad? In the “Little Bird,” Grieg depicts no chirping feathered friend but a mysterious forest creature. Even “Spring Dance,”
though hardy and rustic, had thick, heavy chords and strangely
impetuous energy. This recording taught me that music could stir deep,
perplexing emotions in a way that made me want to know more.
The other recording was a Columbia LP of Rudolf Serkin playing three titled piano sonatas by Beethoven: the “Pathétique,” the “Moonlight” and the “Appassionata.” All three pieces were thrilling, and Serkin became my pianist hero.