What are Savants Listening To?
Musical savants have an insatiable appetite for music. It is not uncommon for
two- and three-year-old toddlers -- future savants -- to have memorized hundreds of songs,
well before they demonstrate the ability to speak. As adults, prodigious musical savants
can sometimes play tens of thousands of pieces from memory.
Not surprisingly, nourishing these early musical needs is one of the most important
objectives of Savant Academy.
The following classical music recommendations, assembled by David Mehnert, are designed as
much for young ears as for the savant in all of us. In other words, this is great music
by any standard!
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Musical Savant Listening Recommendations
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonatas (2 CDs), Mikhail Pletnev, piano|
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) was the private Italian tutor to the Infanta
of Spain, who was herself a keyboard prodigy. Scarlatti composed hundreds
of tuneful “exercises” for her, many of which included loose transcriptions
of dance rhythms and popular music from the countryside. This is bright and
joyful music. The great Russian pianist, Mikhail Pletnev, returns Scarlatti
to its popular origins; one can easily imagine the 18th century peasants
dancing and singing along to Pletnev’s engaging and lively interpretations.
This two CD set is addictive! I found it worthwhile at full price, and it is
an even better purchase in this re-issued discount version.
Beethoven Lives Upstairs (Classical Kids series)
This story CD, which is appropriate for most children four and up, tells Ludwig
von Beethoven’s story from the point of view of a little boy in Vienna. The
boy’s mother has rented the apartment upstairs to the composer, and Beethoven’s
story is told in letters exchanged between the young boy and his uncle.
Although the story is fictional, it offers excellent (and painless) insights
into Beethoven’s music, personality, and the drama surrounding the creation
of his last masterpiece, The Ode to Joy (Ninth Symphony). In my opinion,
this is the best CD in an award-winning series of classical music story CDs
from Canada. This recording is a must for children who are beginning to be
interested in the piano.
Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century (2 CDs); Alexis Weissenberg, piano
The “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” series is a gold mine for piano fans,
and I confess that I own more than two dozen selections from the series. I
was inspired to buy this 2 CD set by an NPR interviewer, who brazenly asked
the editor of the Great Pianists series if, over the course of years compiling
the series, he had ever heard a single piano recording that stood out from
all the others. Surprisingly, he said yes: the Scriabin Etude for the Left
Hand, recorded by Alexis Weissenberg in the mid-1950s. This track is so
extraordinarily luminous, you may well pull over the car to cry on the
roadside, as I did when I first heard it. Be sure to buy this hard-to-find
2 CD set before it’s out of print. Nothing Weissenberg plays will disappoint.
George Frederic Handel, “The Messiah,” 1754 Foundling Hospital Version
(2 CDs); Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood
When I was growing up, I considered Handel’s “Messiah” little more than a
sing-a-long ordeal to be endured every December. This CD set completely
changed my mind. First issued in 1980, this was among the earliest
recordings to be made on “authentic” instruments in the original 18th
century style. Conductor Christopher Hogwood also turned to “authentic”
soloists, who are much less affected than today’s operatic singers, and
most important of all, used a boy choir (as Handel originally intended)
instead of the mixed vocal ensemble backup we hear today. This “Messiah”
is remarkably fresh and immediate. Handel wrote the work as a benefit
for an orphan’s hospital, and this recording, with that remarkable boy
choir, somehow manages to restore an innocent uplifting spirit. This CD
set makes a great gift, and is terrific listening at any time of the year.
Frederic Chopin, Mazurkas; William Kapell, piano
My piano teacher often told me that the Mazurkas – Polish courtly dances
– were so idiomatic and peculiar they should never be attempted by anyone
who did not grow up in Poland itself! It didn’t help that the Mazurka
dance itself had very nearly died out by the turn of the 20th century.
The great American pianist William Kapell (1920-1951) took a particular
interest in the peculiar rhythms and accents of these near-waltzes, and
made a point of hearing obscure Polish pianists play them in the New York
of his youth. Kapell recorded them with an extraordinary intimacy and
freedom. This is my favorite recording by my favorite American pianist,
and is alive and very vivid despite its pre-stereo recording standard.
One of the best albums of Chopin you’ll ever find.
The Essential George Gershwin (2 CDs); various artists
Without question, Gershwin is America’s greatest composer. His achievement
is all the more remarkable in light of his early death (of a brain tumor)
at the age of 38. This terrific 2 CD bargain set offers 41 selections from
Gershwin’s work, ranging from recordings made during his lifetime (including
the composer playing his own “Prelude #2” in 1924, and Ethel Waters’
wonderful hit single “I Got Rhythm” made just weeks after the opening
of Girl Crazy), to terrific interpretations by master jazz and
popular singers of the 1950s through 1970s. This set will keep your toes
a-tapping, and remind you what genius really is. “George Gershwin died on
July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to,” wrote
his friend John O’Hara. You don’t have to believe it, either.
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonatas, Volume 3, Naxos Series; Jeno Jando, piano
Naxos, a bargain classical label, has undertaken a 25 CD series of all
of Scarlatti’s sonatas (more than 500 in all). Responsibilities are to
be divided among more than two dozen little-known but highly competent
recording pianists. Each CD is issued at a bargain price, $6.98, and
nearly all of them are satisfying to me and to the savants I teach (who
seem to have a particular affection for Scarlatti). I enjoyed this
volume from Jeno Jando, but could have just as easily recommended
Sonatas #1 from Eteri Andjaparidze,
Sonatas #5 from Benjamin Frith, or
Sonatas #6 from Evgeny Zarafiants.
So when will they issue #7?
Portable Keyboard Recommendation
Quality electronic keyboards can be purchased at Costco, BestBuy, and many other
discount stores in the United States for about $140 to $180. Today’s keyboards
are filled with songs, instrument sounds, and rhythm features, and I recommend
purchasing one even when a piano is at hand. Although slightly more expensive,
I currently recommend the Yamaha PSRK1AD 61 Key Karaoke Keyboard, in part because
it uses a dial rather than a keypad menu (a dial is particularly useful for
visually impaired children).
Amazon not only offers a better price than local discount chains, it usually offers free shipping
on large purchases. Combine the keyboard and all your other purchases into one shipment to save the most.
Six size D batteries are required. Save yourself from buying too many batteries! Invest in this AC adapter.
Rock n’ Blues Harmonica: A World of Harp Knowledge, Songs, Stories, Riffs, Techniques (book and 74-minute CD); Jon Gindick
This book and CD promises five years of harmonica lessons in ten minutes – and it very nearly delivers!
I grew up with a secret envy of people who had mastered the blues harmonica. Last year, a cousin of
mine advised me on my first harp purchase (a Hohner Marine Band harmonica in C, available at most music
stores for about $25), and pointed me to author Jon Gindick for lessons. Gindick has made a career of
paring harmonica technique to its simplest possible level. He has written many books, but this one,
with the CD included, is the absolute best for a beginner. Highly recommended, with no prior musical
Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind (1999); V. S. Ramachandran (with Sandra Blakeslee)
I'll admit I have a few quibbles about what the great neurologist V. S. Ramachandran
says about savants... even so, this book is an exhilarating journey across the frontiers
of neurology, written by one of the most far-reaching and adventurous researchers in the USA.
I consider this book a contemporary classic, which measures up well to some of
Oliver Sacks’ best medical writing.
Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome (1989); Dr. Darold Treffert
From the doctor who pioneered the field of savant studies, this is still the best and most comprehensive
account of savants in print. Check out Dr. Treffert’s remarkable savant syndrome
website as well.