Masterpieces in Miniature
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.
One memorable morning in a Heifetz class, I accompanied a young violinist on a short piece by Elgar. Every note, every sound, was considered and shaped. Heifetz sometimes played whole second halves of concerts made of such pieces. That morning he was uncompromising as he directed us to find the exact balance of charm and elegance. In the afternoon I accompanied a singer on one of Boulez’s Mallarmé Improvisations, under the composer’s direction. It was striking to notice how similar Heifetz’s and Boulez’s musical concerns were. Both shared the same quest for exact color, gesture, elusive and vulnerable expression, but in pursuit of different musical styles.
The pieces in this album exist in various versions. Many began as piano pieces but were, except for the Ives, orchestrated by their composers. They were often played as encores by conductors like Stokowski and Beecham, who took special delight in working with their orchestras to find the most personal and charming way of playing this music, and giving the wonderful soloists or sections the opportunities to shine.
This recording pays homage to the tradition of these pieces. It marks the beginning of my twentieth season as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, and my seventieth birthday. On these occasions, I wanted to give a present to our whole San Francisco family and to our listeners everywhere. What better way than to fashion a garland of these charming pieces? Playing them is now nearly a lost art. The musicians and I have taken a wonderful voyage in creating these performances, which are a mixture of my musical memories and the imagination and virtuosity of my colleagues.
I want to thank Yuja Wang for joining us in Litolff’s Scherzo, and Jack Vad, our recording producer, for his great sensitivity to the unique sound and style of every piece.
—Michael Tilson Thomas, from liner notes