Yuja prepares to play Beethoven backwards

Yuja prepares to play Beethoven backwards


norman lebrecht

November 10, 2020

The story is told of a proud father who took his 12 year-old to Jascha Heifetz.

‘He knows the whole repertoire,’ bragged the Dad. ‘He has fabulous technique. He can play the Beethoven concerto backwards.’

‘So,’ said Heifetz with his trademark sour look. ‘Let him play it. Backwards.’

Looks like Yuja Wang is taking up the challenge.



  • Alexander says:

    judging from the picture you chose she is certainly making something up 😉

  • Rogerio says:

    Ahh, another Heifetz anecdote. How the inhabitants of Classical-Music-Town like to climb up to the shoulders of the gods they create so that those below look smaller. Certainly Heifetz is on Olympus reading this SD news clip … with his trademark sour look.

    • E Rand says:

      It’s hard to understand the enmity here. Heifetz was a supreme artist during a time when such artists were elevated by society to a rightful pedestal of importance and admiration. Would you prefer we quote from Cardi B’s WAP?

      • Rogerio says:

        You mention Cardi B’s WAP and Heifetz in the same paragraph. He now looks down on both of us with his trademark sour look. Dude, you are my brother.

        • Rogerio says:

          But now you have opened Pandora’s Box;
          “- He got a beard, well, I’m tryna wet it”
          “- I let him taste it, now he diabetic …”
          Unfortunately, there is more art here than in most violin solo performances.

      • Ron says:

        Why not? At least she’s not a musical snob.

        • E Rand says:

          Cardi B isn’t a musical snob? You might be surprised. Anyway…its hard to look down upon anyone when you are positioned at the very bottom of a cesspool.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Heifetz was a wonderful violin player, and his high prestige made him in a sense overrated – for example Schoenberg lamented that Heifetz could not play his violin concerto thus the concerto was unplayable. Given the outrage that Jonas Kaufmann sang “White Chritmas” (see another recent post in SD), what to say about Heifetz collaboration with Liberace in a TV show?

    • M McAlpine says:

      “I occasionally play works by contemporary composers and for two reasons. First to discourage the composer from writing any more and secondly to remind myself how much I appreciate Beethoven.”
      (Jasha Heifetz)

    • E Rand says:

      I’m not aware Heifetz ever collaborated with Liberace; he was VERY careful about such things. The only comedy routine he ever gave was with Jack Benny, and even then it was only done out of his deep patriotism and gratitude for the troops during WWII. He promised himself he would never do such a thing again.
      Heifetz was far more than a wonderful fiddler. He brought violin playing into the modern world and was an artist and architect of breathtaking proportions.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        In one occasion, Heifetz was guest in Liberace’s TV show, and he played a tune with a candlelight coupled to his violin to match the candlelight the pianist used to have on his instrument. That was before Liberace became the “Liberace” of late days.

        • David K. Nelson says:

          1. It was Jack Benny, not Jascha Heifetz, who joined Liberace on TV wearing a glittering jacket and with a tiny candelabra clamped on the scroll of his instrument, presumably not his Strad or his Pressenda. And it was Liberace of the color TV era so it was — dare I say Liberace in his prime? Heifetz MIGHT have cracked a small smile at thus being confused with Benny. Heifetz appeared on a few “popular” radio shows, and engaged in strained “banter” but that was about the extent of it.

          2. Heifetz was fully prepared to play and maybe even record the Schoenberg Violin Concerto (which by that time had been premiered by Krasner, so no opinion about its playability was going to be formed by what Heifetz did or did not do). Both men moved in some of the same Hollywood circles, which included Hollywood composers. The deal, which had been arranged by an intermediary, possibly someone from RCA Victor, was that Schoenberg had to supply, at his own expense, a pianist who would learn the piano reduction of the orchestra part. Supposedly Heifetz had the concerto at least somewhat “in his fingers” when the time came for the run through with the pianist. Schoenberg, and this was late in his life, told Heifetz that he, Heifetz, was richer than Schoenberg was and thus it was absurd for him, Schoenberg, to have to pay the pianist. Heifetz among his other personality quirks was a stickler for agreements and punctuality, and Schoenberg had just failed on both counts. According to the story as I have read it (and this might have been in The Strad’s epic issue decades ago entirely devoted to things Heifetz), that was that. If Schoenberg said that Heifetz couldn’t play it then he was conveniently forgetting some key facts as to why Heifetz didn’t play it.

          3. I don’t think Heifetz had a sour expression, as opposed to, say, Rachmaninov who was sometimes described as one tall scowl, so much as a poker face. In the Herbert Axelrod picture biography there is a candid photo of Heifetz at a recording session with Charles Munch wearing a wide grin and Axelrod’s caption was “HEIFETZ SMILES!” It is indeed a surprising photo. Heifetz sued Axelrod over the captions by the way, in particular the one that said Isaac Stern had more influential friendships in the music world.

          4. Don’t judge Heifetz’s repertoire by what he recorded. Ditto Milstein’s by the way.

          5. Liberace, in his earlier black and white TV show days, did collaborate with the eminent cellist (and former boxer!) Ennio Bolognini in a portion of the Liszt Concerto in A. It is on YouTube and well worth seeking out. Bolognini made some recordings and wrote some pieces that cellists still ponder and marvel over, but this seems to be about the only film of him playing that seems to be available. Other than the goofy moonlit sky background there is nothing slick or superficial about the performance. Between other televised performances of excerpts, this fragment with Bolognini, and his Columbia LP Liberace by Candlelight (his violinist brother George conducting) you could piece together a goodly percentage of the Liszt A Major Concerto played by Liberace.

          Or you could listen to the Richter recording.

          6. Louis Krasner’s performance of the Schoenberg with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1940 is sometimes thought of as the last straw between the orchestra trustees and Leopold Stokowski. The trustees had instructed Stokowski to program less modern music, and here he goes and arranged for the Schoenberg Concerto to be on a program! The trustees refused to authorize paying Krasner’s fee so Stokowski paid it out of his own pocket.

          • Pianofortissimo says:

            It was black&white TV, and it was in a TV documentary about Heifetz shown in the Swedish TV some years ago. But maybe I’m wrong abou it. Anyway, I don’t care about Liberace and I’m no fan of Heifetz.

          • microview says:

            It was Stravinsky, being his smart self, who described Rachmaninov as a ‘six-foot scowl’.

    • Marfisa says:

      re David K. Nelson. The Ennio Bolognini YouTube clip with Liberace is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YLqtdw7tGk. Incredible vibrato. Is it true (Wiki) that Piatigorsky regarded Bolognini as a greater cellist than both himself and Feuermann?

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Lots of fun, by the sound of it!!!

    • Hilary says:

      Shura Cherkassky was asked why he programmed contemporary music and replied “to keep myself young“. In his 80s he was learning, and programming Ligeti, Stockhausen and Berio. Not the core of his repertoire of course.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Inverted, not backwards, as the picture shows.

  • yujafan says:

    Yuja is up for any challenge that you might set her, Norman! Fabulous, life-affirming artist! What does it matter how she warms up? If it works, it works.

    • Brettermeier says:

      “What does it matter how she warms up?”

      Some people here are just jealous that they’d need medical attention after trying that kind of warm-up.

      • John Borstlap says:

        My PA – on the advice of her therapist – always tries that position before she takes-on the pile of letters, preferably at the top of the stairs, but it always results in catastrophic results and again those irritating delays in the administrative trajectory.

      • Anthony Sayer says:

        She’s liable to get a lot of attention with that warm-up.

        • Sue Sonata Form says:

          You’ve nailed it. There’s quite a lot of the narcissist and exhibitionist in Yuja Wang. I’ve seen every trait of hers (sans the pianism) in an erstwhile daughter-in-law – right to a Tee. It was the first thing I recognized when I looked at that picture. My ex D-I-L used to do those stretches in public, when watching the children’s soccer. And she has exercising rings suspended from her ceiling in the house and posts pictures of herself doing these workouts, with the bored children having to sit and admire her.


      • Ashu says:

        Or watching her warm up that way.

  • Nijinsky says:

    Ahuh. Steinway does make pianos whose keys go against gravity, against the rules of nature, as well as against allowing them (the keys) to do it by themselves.

    I just love the sound of empty oil drums….

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Was Yehudi Menuhin ever ridiculed for doing yoga?
    What about Zubin Mehta? I’ve seen a photo of a shirtless young Zubin doing some kind of head- or shoulderstand.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    It’s called yoga, Norman.

  • Garech de Brun says:

    One cannot “play” Beethoven. One has to perform Beethoven.

    The former is done by a monkey on a barrel organ, the latter by someone like Paul Badura-Skoda on a Bosendorfer Imperial.


    • Greg Bottini says:

      The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 6th. Ed.:

      play /pleɪ/ verb. OE.
      [ORIGIN Old English pleġ(i)an, plæġian = Middle Dutch pleien dance, leap for joy, rejoice.]
      ► III 23 verb intrans. ▸ a Perform on a musical instrument, produce music from an instrument. Foll. by on, upon. OE. ▸ b Of music: sound. Of an instrument: produce music. E16. ▸ c Of a disc, tape, etc.: reproduce (esp. musical) sound, esp. for a specified time. Of a radio etc.: transmit or give out (esp. musical) sound. E20.
      (a) T. S. Eliot You need a good piano. You’ll play all the better.

    • Marfisa says:

      Or like Conlon Nancarrow?
      (though perhaps not an Imperial?)

  • Jenni Li says:


  • B. Guerrero says:

    It’s called yoga. A good percentage of the female population enjoys doing it. A smaller percentage of men do too. She has a nice body, doesn’t mind displaying that fact and does yoga. Get over it! It’s one thing to leer. It’s quite another to keep posting photos with strange written projections and subtexts. If this were a ‘serious workplace’, you could easily get dismissed or sued.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    This picture broke my computer. I will have to go out and buy a new one.

  • William Safford says:

    I dunno, NL, that one is a bit of a stretch.

    But maybe that’s a bridge to a wider audience….

  • E says:

    Yoga…Strength and grace.

  • Ozenc says:

    Backwards sounds ambiguous for music, does it mean “blindfold”?

    • Sam the NYLIC says:

      “Backward” like the story attributed to a visitor in the Vienna cemetery
      (where Beethoven is buried). As he is walking toward Beethoven’s tomb, he hears a vaguely familiar music. After a while he realizes that it is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony playing backwards.
      The next day, he goes there again, and realizes that the Eighth Sym-
      phony is going backward. He goes to the caretaker and asks him what
      is going on, to which the caretaker replies, “Beethoven is decomposing.”
      Let’s hope that Yuja’s exercise will be pleasant to hear. …

  • Nijinsky says:

    That is a good exercise to do. I’ve recently released tension in my neck, https://www.youtube.com/c/dradamfields/videos and was quite amazed at the emotional release. How music just poured out of the piano. Ended up doing yoga every day for a month, spontaneously from the exercises. although I make most of the exercises up myself creatively, from feeling. And I can do that pose there also, only just recently as well.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There are many ways of preparing for a good pianistic performance. I know of a pianist, I won’t tell his name but it is [redacted], who – the night before a concert – sleeps in his grand together with his wife who happens to be quite short. He had chosen her 14 years ago for her size so that they could precisely fit into the form of the instrument. His concerts always go very well, although his wife often complains about back pain after such preparation.

      • David K. Nelson says:

        Pianists have so many more options for concert preparation than violinists. My cat sometimes falls asleep in my violin case, but at 6’7″ it is with great difficulty that I join her.

        • John Borstlap says:

          In Linz there was an organist in the eighties who slept in the organ the night before a recital. On one occasion he got stuck between the prestant 8′ and mastodont 16′ and could not get out in time. A double bass player at the Heidelberg Symphoniker takes his instrument in his bed every night, which resulted in his wife demanding a divorce (I heard this from the 2nd trombone player who would try-out his glissandos over dinner). And it is a known story in the profession that famous violist [redacted] leads a double life with two instruments that don’t know about the other one, but that may be a viola joke. Musicians are rather strange people.


    There is a well described phenomenon in the Vienna cemetary of people hearing what seems like Beethoven’s music played backwards…..locals attribute this to the fellow’s decomposing……

  • BruceB says:

    Keep clicking, folks. Norman needs the site to make money and, as you can see from the number of comments, provocative pictures & posts about Yuja, Lola, Khatia and Anna help keep the lights on. We complain, but we wouldn’t want the site to shut down — or even worse, go behind a paywall — would we?

    So click, and click, and comment, and complain, and click some more. And keep coming back.

  • Edgar Self says:

    For sour looks it’s hard to beat violinists Leonid Kogan or Oskar Shumsky, who defeat all challengers with one lip tied behind them. David Nelson, did you ever see and hear Leonid Kogan play Paganini’s “Nel cor pie non mi sento” variations on YouTube? Ugly brute,–I saw him once in recital in San Francisco, but this knocked me over, unabridged I think, unlike Vasa Prihoda’s, whose Dallas recital I also saw but unusually can only remember as extraordinary, no program or details remain.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      Yes I know it and I’d go to a plastic surgeon and have myself look like Kogan at his most fierce in a New York minute if I thought it would give me, oh, 30% of his musicianship and technique. My looks and my violinism would improve!

      I also would not mind being able to bend over backwards. Bending over frontwards (or rather bending over frontwards and then being able to straighten up again) is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

  • Laura says:

    Forget it.
    This is not the circus. What is the point? When I was in conservatory (about fifty years ago) we had the unexpected opportunity to hear Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ on reel to reel loaded backwards for about ten minutes. May I say that it was not unpleasant, but did not progress anywhere. Best to all of you.

    • Garech de Brun says:

      Why on earth would one want to listen to Dido and Aeneas backwards?

      Unless you were already “laid in earth”.

      • Anthony Sayer says:

        The title, in its schoolboy form, does actually suggest this.

      • John Borstlap says:

        To begin with: Dido and Aeneas backwards is spelled Saenea dna Odid, which sounds like a Welshman just coming from the dentist.

        And there is the story of the student at [redacted] university, preparing for his degree exam in composition, and he could not find any usable idea. Then a well-meaning postgraduate told him: ‘Do as I did, I took a recent piece of the professor and copied it backwards. Nobody notices.’ The student followed-up this excellent advice, but was quite shocked that his score was rejected out of hand, with the comitee’s comment: ‘Why did you find it necessary to copy Schoenberg’s chamber symphony?’

  • Garech de Brun says:

    Culture, including classical music has to be imported into the US from us here in Europe, since their own does really not really count as such.

    They may indeed have an Oxford in Idaho or Alabama, however we have the real Oxford in England.

    There is nothing finer than our choral evensong and the music of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.


    William Byrd
    Anthem: O Lord make they servant Elizabeth

    Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford
    Dir Bill Ives

    • Doc Martin says:

      Yes Garech, Evensong at Magdalen is heaven. Bill’s record of Byrd’s Second Service, with verse anthems is superb.

      Never knew about those fake US Oxfords. They have a fake Dublin and Vienna I understand too.

      • Garech de Brun says:

        Yes everything is fake in the US to be sure.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Also a Cambridge, home of Harvard and MIT.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It’s not fake, they are names taken from European cities to keep the recollections in mind of the Old World. It sometimes creates immense logistic problems when, at a music management, a tour is organized and in the instructions from above, someone had forgotten to mention the right continent.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Ingenious composers, notably Sebastian Bach, wrote music that can be played backward, upside down, forward, or in a mirror with no loss of coherence. Baroque and Renaissance artists like Albrecht Duerer, with his magic squares, and Bach delighted in numerical games, and closer to our time Adrian Leverkuehn. There is a close relationship between mathematics, physics, and music, from Pythagorus on.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That is true, and it is one of the most interesting aspects of art music.

      The structure of music could be considered a mathematics of fleeting relationships, without fixed points, hence the infinite variations.

      Leverkuehn did not exist, however, and on top of not existing he had a pact with the devil, writing sound art that had to ‘take back’ the humanistic message of Beethoven IX. But he did not need to exist, the job was duly executed in postwar modernism.

      In the Four Duets of JS Bach, there is one where at a point in the middle the music suddenly turns backwards, which is impossible to hear because it is a seamless transition. And the entire piece is a harmonious jewel.


      • Edgar Self says:

        I didn’t know that about Bach’s “Vier Duetten”, John, thanks. I talked to Tatiana Nikolayeva once about their kinship with the Two-Part Inventions, but the retrograde passage wasn’t mentioned.

        I think the grounding of tonal music in the physical overtones system is why Furtwaengler said atonal music is “biologically inferior” to tonal musiclc (his emphasis, italicized). I also believe it is one reason that atonal music is incompatible with the human nervous system.

        The dust jacket of Alfred Knopf’s hard-bound Borzoi edition of “Doktor Faustus”, in which the fictitious composer Adrian Leverkuehn figures, depicts one of Albrecht Duerer’s numerical magic squares, which delighted its author,Thomas Mann.

        • John Borstlap says:

          It’s a wonderful book isn’t it? And Durer’s wonderful pictures can be quite revealing of the human condition.


          There are very good arguments to reject atonal music as music. But the boundaries between music and the atonal field: sonic art, are fluid. The final word on such boundaries have been given, I think, by Schoenberg himself. Even the best sonic art is so much poorer than music because it remains stuck on the surface level of sound, it is materialistic in its intention. Music does not exists in the tones but in their relationships. Where there are none, the sounds stop being music, and remain sounds. If done well, sonic works can be beautiful as abstract decorative patterns can be beautiful, but claims that it is a ‘further’ development of music are nonsense.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Yes, Thomas Mann’s “Doktor Faustus” is indeed a wonderful book, as you say, John Borstlap. Besides the two of us.– I have worn out two copies,– its readers pro and con have numbered Hermann Hesse, Alan Gilbert, Clifton Fadiman, Furtwaengler, Schoenberg, Theodor Weiss-Adorno, and Bruno Walter.

    Amazinhgly prescient in music matters from a primitive Pennsylvania lprotestant sect to Opus 111, it is a complex story on at last three lvels: the Faust legend, invented biography of an imaginary modern German composer, and inside Germany during World War II. Inexhaustible, it includes a Martin Luthrrian character, scenes and discussions of German university life, a richly comic Jewish impresario, mentions of Karl Erb(e), Ansermet, and Klemperer, 12-tone composition that infuriated Arnold Schoenberg, wartime devastation, scientific ‘speculating the elements’, the inter-war Munich cultural life, properties and characteristics of musical instruments, and the motif of disease and art, evocations of Nietzsche, even entire lectures on Beethoven, &tc. I’m very glad that you know itl.