Bartok, Prokofiev, Suicide and Premature Death

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I recently got a new recording, a superb one, of Bartok’s 2nd piano concerto and Prokofiev’s 3rd, featuring Chinese superstar Lang Lang with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. Click here to view the videos. It’s a tour de force performance of two modern classics. The Bartok has a surrealistic, hallucinogenic middle movement. The Prokofiev is angular, vertical, and a real bear to play. Together they remind me of two unusual, if not strange, incidents of my past.

A childhood friend who was attending USC with me invited me to his 21st birthday. He was acting a little strange, like he was on drugs…he seemed dreamy, peaceful, happy, but way too much so. It didn’t go with the festive occasion. I drove home wondering what was going on with him while listening to some of the eeriest music: the middle movement of the Bartok 2nd. The next morning I got a call from the USC hospital: my friend, disconsolate that his girlfriend was dumping him, had swallowed a lot of pills and almost died.  I went to the hospital, picked him up, put him to bed at my place where he slept for the next 36 hours. I’ll always associate this work, especially this middle movement, with that unfortunate episode.

Around two years later a friend of mine came running down the little hill to my Santa Monica Canyon guest house early one morning, smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer, with a new Angel recording of Prokofiiev’s 3rd piano concerto performed by a young Russian virtuoso named Nicolai Petrov. He roused me from my slumbers and we listened together to this energetic work. Later my friend became friends with Mary Hemingway, worked for the Miami Herald, and pretty much cut a Hemingway kind of figure: roving journalist, lover of adventure and life. He had a real gusto for all that life presented and savored it all.

So when I found out that he died years ago of liver failure I was sad. It all seemed so unfair. He had a joie de vivre and a passion for music and unconventional things: after all, who would want to listen to Prokofiev at 8 am in the morning? We were only 20 years old then!

And so with this new recording, I’ll be thinking about my two friends. These memories and associations remain permanently etched in my mind.