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Album Title: Masterpieces in Miniature
Artist: San Francisco Symphony
Label: SFS Media
Provenance: Recorded and Mixed to 192kHz, 24-bit WAV PCM, except for Trk.6 The Alcotts from A Concord Symphony, recorded to 96kHz, 24-bit WAV PCM.
My earliest musical memories go back to my parents’ home. They lived in a small ranch-style house surrounded by orange groves and cactus in the then very rural San Fernando Valley. Music was an important part of their lives, and they had a collection of 78RPM records that embraced Bach, Brahms, Britten, Broadway, Villa-Lobos, Sibelius, and Stravinsky.
They both played piano. We had a vintage Steinway upright with a rosewood case. My mother played carefully, following the notes in her volumes of Mozart and Grieg. My father, who barely read music, could play anything by ear. All he had to do was hear something once and he’d do a pretty reasonable rendition of it, with occasional outtakes to his basic Yiddish Tin Pan Alley style.
One musical source my parents had in common was a big red book that lived on the piano. It was a collection of short pieces called something like Music the Whole World Loves to Play. The book contained pieces like Grieg’s The Last Spring, Cui’s Orientale, Schumann’s Happy Farmer, Liszt’s Liebestraum, Sibelius’s Valse triste, and Beethoven’s Für Elise. I had my own little book called something like Miniatures of the Masters. The wonderful tunes in these books were often being played by one or another of us as people were cooking, reading, or just being at home.
As my musical education continued, I began to encounter these pieces, and many others like them, played as encores by the great musicians whose recitals my parents and I attended. These pieces made unforgettable impressions when played by masters like Heifetz, Piatigorsky, Rubinstein, or Arrau. It was electrifying to hear and see Rubinstein play Falla’s Fire Dance, his hands flying up from the keyboard, or Heifetz playing Sinding’s Suite so rapidly that his bow became a blur.
But perhaps even more memorable were the quiet and tender pieces they played, like Debussy’s Rêverie. These pieces were haunting, unforgettable. They seemed to explore the realms of vanished emotions, like wistfulness. They seemed like elusive and charming recollections of long ago. Under the hands of the masters, they possessed a profound simplicity.
Later I had the opportunity to discover just how seriously artists like Rubinstein and Heifetz regarded the playing of these pieces. In a master class they could devote as much time to them as to a whole movement of a famous sonata. They were aware of every gesture, every color, every little hesitation—and of finding a way to make this all seem spontaneous. I drank it in.