Audio file

Published September 17, 2006

Keyboard Conversations with Jeffrey Siegel: Mozart and Friends; The Power and Passion of Beethoven; The Romanticism of the Russian Soul (all Random House Audio) - An issue that has vexed music lovers for centuries is how does one talk about this most ephemeral, intangible of arts? Mere words cannot adequately suggest what is occurring in a piece of music. And to describe a composition in technical terms robs it of its emotional power.

The answer, of course, is that music does not require commentary; the music itself is the artist's comment on the world around him, the language he chose instead of words. Mendelssohn once said that he wrote music because words could not convey what he had to say with the same precision. Nevertheless, we discuss the art of music through program notes and lectures at concerts, music appreciation classes and textbooks.

Pianist Jeffrey Siegel attempts to convey the experience of music through his series of concerts with commentary, or "Keyboard Conversations." Musicians know these as "lecture-demonstrations," an old and revered institution, and Siegel, an esteemed musician, has long been known for this concept through his radio program and concert tours. Three recent CDs include Siegel's discussion and performances of music by Mozart and a handful of his contemporaries, Beethoven and several Russian composers.

I found these discs disappointing. First, at $14.95 a disc they are pricey for only an hour of play. Second, though Siegel has given second billing to the "conversation" aspect, in fact he talks quite a lot. Beethoven's music, for instance, occupies less than 24 minutes of his disc.

My third and biggest concern is that the topics and the repertoire are pedestrian. Rather than "Mozart and Friends," with its inclusion of single movement of a J.C. Bach sonata and an insipid work by Salieri, why not a single "conversation" devoted to the artistic development of one of music's greatest creative geniuses, Mozart? Why limit a discussion of Romantic pianism to Rachmaninoff, Medtner and Scriabin when there are so many other choices? Can three brief selections by Beethoven really convey his "power and passion"?

Siegel demonstrates how difficult it is to render verbal descriptions of music. His characterizations range from cliches (rhythms that remind one of a "flowing brook") to the ridiculous (a Beethoven selection that is "giving us the impression musically as if a dog is with a bone").

These "conversations" may have limited value for novices. The performances are good (not great), and Siegel manages to include bits of good historical and technical information about each work in an engaging, spontaneous manner.

A better path: Read about the composers and their music at your public library and then purchase a few budget-priced discs of great performances. Or better yet, go to a local recital. And as you listen, allow the music to speak for itself. GRADES: C

- BILL F. FAUCETT, Times correspondent