Friday, 7 July 2017

Igor Levit's monumental performance of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues

Birmingham Town Hall (Photo: Andrew Morris)
My long drive up to Birmingham was rewarded with an intense and riveting performance of Shostakovich’s mighty Preludes and Fugues from pianist of the moment, Igor Levit. Here’s the introduction to my Bachtrack review:

Deep into Igor Levit’s monumental Birmingham Town Hall performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s vast cycle of Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues, I wondered if this work was some kind of Everest for pianists. It’s rare to meet it complete, in concert. The careful, transparent counterpoint places exacting demands on its interpreters and although it’s never flashy, there are devilishly difficult corners. Success here depends upon unwavering concentration from musician and listener alike. If you fell, there’d be no soft landing, and certainly nowhere to hide. But the mountain analogy only gets you so far. This isn’t music of lofty vistas, of high-wire daring or summit-triumph. Shostakovich’s immaculate miniatures are spare, interior, and their rewards quiet and very personal. When Levit reached the final page of the last, defiant fugue – the effort and intensity registering on his face and his hands pounding out its final unisons – it was clear that this was a long, lonely and intensely moving pilgrimage to some of the subtlest landscapes the piano can paint.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Classical fans bemoan poor quality of yet-to-be-announced Proms season

A broken record

Music fans have freed extra time for whinging this year by bemoaning the poor quality of programming at the 2017 BBC Proms early, three weeks before season details are even due to be published. Twitter, Facebook and other forms of carping have been awash with complaints of slim pickings and dumbing down in the yet-to-be-announced concert series. Twitter user @classicalbore commented that there would be “not much worth seeing at the #2017Proms. Can tell already.” There have also been suggestions that Norman Lebrecht is to dust off his annual Proms-bashing article template and has been seen examining the more obscure composer anniversaries listed in the Boosey and Hawkes music diary in search of outrage-worthy omissions in the season’s programming.

Aficionados are also anticipating an excuse to whine about the dearth of British composers programmed this year, with music by such unsung greats as William Alwyn, George Lloyd and Kaikhosru Sorabji unlikely to be performed. A post on the Bax Botherers forum summed up the mood among many anoraks, complaining “The BBC think they can throw us a performance of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony now and then and that we’ll stop going on about music no one else likes. In actual fact, every performance of a piece by a composer not born in Britain is another missed opportunity to play one of Brian’s 31 other symphonies.”

Meanwhile, Proms organisers are expected to continue their wearisome commitment to composers who aren’t dead by including new commissions in otherwise granny-friendly concerts. Jenny Squeekygate, head of new music at the Proms, commented “Believe me, none of us like this stuff anymore than you do, but we have noticed an inverse correlation between contemporary music and champagne-related accidents in the Albert Hall boxes.  And besides, it just wouldn’t be the Proms without a 7/8ths empty Oli Knussen concert, would it?”

Friday, 21 April 2017

Harpsichordists at War

At the risk of coming off like another, more salacious music blog, I bring news of an astonishing broadside fired between harpsichordists. I don’t much care for the harpsichord and its repertoire, but the rapid rise of Mahan Esfahani hasn’t escaped the notice of my twitter timeline. He added to his trophy cabinet with victory in the BBC Music Magazine Awards’ instrumental category for his DG Goldberg Variations, but it seems his high public profile has not been universally popular among colleagues. An interview with Van Magazine this month led to a blistering response from fellow period-keyboardist Andreas Staier, who’s clearly been holding it in for a while:

“He’d sell his soul for a little publicity. A little calm would be much better. But he can’t afford it. His fame and his career have more to do with his words than with his music.”

There’s a lot more, which you can read here. It’s a patient and careful takedown from someone who really knows what he’s talking about that – though it’s certain Esfahani won’t see it like that. What piqued my interest particularly, though, was his criticism of the classical music press:

“The press is at fault here too. In none of the interviews I cited was a single critical follow-up question asked. And the media has such a short attention span that contradictory and inconsistent statements are ignored even if they occur within just weeks of one other.”

I’ll no doubt sound like yet another blog if I dwell for long on the media-PR complex that constitutes the vast majority of words written about classical music, but suffice it to say, Staier has a very valid point.

Now, I promise not to live-tweet the ensuing historically-informed flame war.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Lost City and Found Music of Z

Whenever I go to the cinema (which has been quite a bit lately) I have at least half an ear trained on the score. This is hardly surprising, given that this is a music blog, but I am often dismayed by how little attention is paid to film music by a lot of mainstream film criticism. I don’t think I’ve read any reviews that mention quite how music is used in the film The Lost City of Z (out now in the UK and I think coming shortly to the US), and perhaps the failure to notice the snatches of Ravel and Stravinsky that pop up in the film reveals something about the musical tastes of most film critics.

The Lost City of Z is a slow, meditative account of the Amazonian explorations of Percy Fawcett who, in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, paid three visits to the Bolivian jungle and became convinced he’d stumbled across the remains of an ancient civilisation. The film touches on the uproar caused by his theories, the implication being that an ancient and advanced culture tucked away in the rainforest would challenge the then-prevalent assumptions about the unique achievements of European “civilisation” (very much used in the singular).

It’s not done that well in the UK and I can see its pacing and fragmented narrative diminishing its commercial appeal, but I liked the film a lot. It looked to me like director James Gray wanted to achieve something of the tone of the infamous box-office failure Heaven’s Gate (which I actually rather like), with perhaps a touch of Terrence Malick on a good day. The lead, Charlie Hunnum, is something of an uncharismatic presence, but some fine supporting roles, particularly Sienna Miller and Ian McDiarmid, make amends.

The music, though. I had a dawning realisation during an early scene, that the chugging of a train was underpinned by a certain famous driving and stabbing moment from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I kept waiting for the next bit, but it became clear that it had been recomposed to peter out in a gentle, conventionally filmic way that left me a little troubled. Why troubled? I’m well aware that existing music is used all the time as background score in films and television. Doesn’t The Rite of Spring, though, deserve more than being repurposed as a musical backdrop, as though its only so-many-feet of filler? It’s not as though the use of the music suggested any meta-textual meaning, in the way that pop songs often do in film, nodding or winking at the audience to make a connection not otherwise apparent.

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe – specifically the glorious sunrise – gets a more extensive outing, suggesting the heavenly wonder of the jungle towards the end of the film. The filmmakers have, though, chopped it and looped it to avoid reaching the music’s climactic point too early, which rather took me out of the moment. The use of the music seems more justified, particularly given that they’d have struggled to find a film composer who could match Ravel’s abilities. In this case, it’s been sensibility and mostly respectfully handled, but I’m sure the composer of the rest of the film’s music, Christopher Spelman, could have come up with some chugging, driving music to avoid the repurposing of Stravinsky’s incendiary masterpiece.

It’s a very good film and well worth seeing in the cinema, if you can. In an age of franchise megablockbusters, it’s heartening to see films like this can still be made, films that don’t pander to short attention spans and formulaic plotting. If filmmakers are going to appropriate great classical music, though, I’d like to think it’s because the moment really demands it.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Some thoughts on the passing of Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I was just this evening thinking about Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The collaboration with Dmitri Shostakovich which, I think, will come to be seen as the defining moment of his career, happened early in his life. His poem Babi Yar, about the massacre of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews by the Nazis in 1941, piqued the interest of the Russian composer, who selected a few more of 
Yevtushenko’s poems and set them in his 13th Symphony. The 1962 premiere was beset with problems. First, the great conductor and frequent Shostakovich collaborator, Yevgeny Mravinsky, withdrew his cooperation and refused to perform the work’s premiere. Then, Shostakovich and replacement conductor Kirill Kondrashin had to contend with their first choice of bass soloist being removed from the performance by the authorities, and the premiere only went ahead because the understudy happened to have turned up unexpectedly at the final rehersal. Yevtushenko, whose reputation was made by Babi Yar, demonstrated tremendous bravery by refusing to be cowed by Nikita Khrushchev at a meeting the night before the premiere. Khrushchev angrily stated that the poem had no place in the Soviet Union; Yevtushenko retorted that challenging anti-Semitism could only “enhance the authority of our country”.

I was thinking about all of this because, as those who know me must be tiring of hearing, I’ve been working on a fictionalised version of this period of Shostakovich’s life, and it just so happened that I had been mulling over the scene in which Yevtushenko arrives at Shostakovich’s apartment to hear a run-through of the 13th Symphony. For both men, the moment of their collaboration marked their most overt acts of political dissention. Shostakovich had always toyed with dissent but, to the frustration of some contemporaries, often retreated from a principled anti-authority sentiment, or submerged it in irony and double meaning. Yevtushenko seemed to be the most courageous of a younger generation of brave Soviet artists, but the trajectory of his career frustrated many when he too moved away from outspoken criticism of the regime. The first signs of this came when Yevtushenko acquiesced to official demands by removing references to Judaism and the Jewish victims of Babi Yar in the poem, instead emphasising Russian suffering.

Shostakovich, Kondrashin and Yevtushenko, in 1962

For some, including the Russia soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, this was the beginning of the end of Yevtushenko’s dissident credentials. In her autobiography, she reacted to the revision of Babi Yar by saying:

“He quickly learned how to pander to any taste, how to keep his nose in the wind, how to know when to bow and when to straighten up. Thus he swung from side to side, from Babi Yar to the Bratsk GES or, even more exaggeratedly, to Kamaz, in which the toadyism is enough to make one nauseous.”

Bratsk GES and Kamaz were, respectively, poems in celebration of a hydroelectric power station and a car factory. Vishnevskaya goes on:

“And when no one expected anything good from him any longer, he suddenly appeared on the speaker’s platform at a meeting of the Komsomol aktiv in the Halls of the Columns of the Palace of Unions – a meeting dedicated to the memory of the poet Esenin – and flattened everyone with his remarkable poem:

“…Dear Enenin, old Russia has changed…
…When the ruddy Komosomol chief
Thundered at us poets with his fist

“The meeting was televised live and nationwide. Judging from how soon afterward the government sent him off to some construction project, he must have taken quite a drubbing.”

Vishnevskaya then describes Yevkushenko visiting the Paris apartment of her and her husband Rostropovich, after their defection. Vishnevskaya had by this time built up quite a head of steam over what she saw as the poet’s double standards, which she unleashed on him over dinner. How could he write what he did while ordinary people suffered in the Soviet Union? Yevtushenko seems to have been amused by her moral indignation, offering no real defence. Vishnevskaya was, ultaimtely, torn between her own outrage and an understanding of the powerlessness of the individual against the forces of ideology. She ends her account with this incredible passage:

“In this vast, monstrous theatre, with our faces twisted by underground jargon, we Soviets wriggle and squirm for one another. We are actors by compulsion, not by calling, in an amateur theatre run by no one. And all our lives, we perform our endless, pathetic comedy. There are no spectators, only participants. Nor is there a script, only improvisation. And knowing neither plot nor denouement, we act.”

There’s a long and fascinating biography to be written about Yevtushenko that would take in his film career and election to public office in 1989, but two final thoughts relate to education. Yevtushenko’s last years were spent teaching literature at the University of Tulsa and I wonder if some of his students really understood the magnitude of his achievements and the import of the events through which he lived. I stumbled across some reviews of his teaching on, which are amusing and unexpectedly revealing of a great man freed from previous strictures:

“YY's classes are probably the easiest classes you can take at TU. That said, he is very difficult to listen to. He goes off on tangents the majority of the class that don't seem related to the subject material. Also, he doesn't have a syllabus because he believes they are "too constraining" for his class. Easy class, but take with a grain of salt.”


“yevtushenko is the most hilarious man in Oklahoma and slightly subtracts from the redneck nature of this two-bit town. go see him on stage... history at your fingertips. Funniest thing is when he handed out a biography of himself before the class started, what a trip!!”


“If you can't get an A in this guy's class you are a total moron. furthermore he is a good guy and passionate about his work. One warning...if he likes your paper, you have to read in front of the whole class. Keep that in mind when you write your papers.”


“insane. likes to make fun of people, i.e. me every night. however, he is fun and a breath of fresh air at this odd school-- just take the class you will get an A and you will have stories to tell your grankiddies! He once turned on a projector with an umbrella he spent 19 minutes looking for in his car. whacko poet.”

And so on.

Lastly, as a teacher, I have taken genuine inspiration from this poem, called Lies.

Telling lies to young people is wrong.
Proving to them that lies are true is wrong.
Telling them that God’s in his heaven
and that all’s well with the world is wrong.
The young know what you mean. The young are people.
Tell them that the difficulties can’t be counted
and let them see not only what will be
but see with clarity these present times.
Say obstacles exist they must encounter
sorrow happens, hardship happens.
To hell with it. Who never knew
the price of happiness will not be happy.
Forgive no error you recognise,
It will repeat itself, increase,
and afterwards our pupils
will not forgive in us what we forgave.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1932-2017

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Hack Attack

This might be the definition of niche – an occasional critic writing about a critic being defended by other critics – but if you’ve swum into these waters by choice, chances are that critics’ judgements are something with which you have some dealings. My mind still turns over the rights and wrongs of passing judgement on the work of far more talented people, though less these days than when I was writing regularly for International Record Review. I was careful, partly because I wanted to do the job well and partly because I didn’t really want to risk being mean. Just once, I submitted a review that had a really quite harsh line in it. I emailed the editor before it went to print, and she agreed. We took it out. The thing was, what I said wasn’t wrong, and I suspect the only reason I took out the offending sentence was because there’s a bit of me that doesn’t want to be disliked.

So, my natural filter meant I never received an angry response from a performer. My interest is piqued, though, when other people do. David Nice (a friend of this blog, I like to think) found his judgement labelled  “wrong-headed” and “stupid” in the comments on his Arts Desk review of Ryan Wigglesworth’s opera The Winter’s Tale, by celebrated tenor Mark Padmore. Padmore wasn’t even in the show; his tirade seems to have been prompted by singerly solidarity with the cast and crew of the opera. Thing is, David hadn’t even been that harsh. He gave the show 4 stars, for goodness sake. This is about as harsh as the review ever gets:

“The real test was going to be whether Wigglesworth could conjure a different world for Hermione's and Leontes's teenage daughter as Bohemian shepherdess and her wooing by a disguised Prince Florizel. He doesn't, in terms of musical language, even if the sounds are more ethereal. Samantha Price and Anthony Gregory (pictured below with the ENO Chorus) charm with very limited material; I suppose it's a mercy we don't get a "hey nonny nonny" divertissement, but this is where a popular, mood-sensitive composer like Joby Talbot, in his music for the Royal Ballet's fitfully very effective take on The Winter's Tale, can give us all the relief we need.”

Too much for Padmore, who railed:

“Having seen the dress rehearsal and the opening night and having talked with the cast who love and value this piece, I was hoping for a responsible and thoughtful review from a website whose purpose is presumably to celebrate and promote the arts. Unfortunately this has not happened and DN has chosen to display only his prejudice and debatable skill as a hatchet jobber. Perhaps I should expect no better from a critic who described me as a 'pipsqueak English Cathedral tenor' in a review of a concert I had not even sung in - but I do expect better.”

A few of things in that extract (from a longer comment, itself a response to a plea from fellow-Arts Desker Alexandra Coghlan for a little more below-the-line respect) catch my eye. There’s something rather odd about the idea that the backstage enthusiasm of the cast should inform the critic’s judgement – this attempt to move the critical goal posts rather reminds me of Melissa McCarthy’s deliciously deranged SNL Sean Spicer yelling “Print that – that’s your story!” There’s the even odder idea that celebrating the arts means never saying anything’s bad. And the second part reveals previous between these two. I’m sure I too would dislike receiving the appellation “pipsqueak”, but there’s no real context here and this kind of dirty laundry doesn’t address any of the perceived failings of the review at hand.

Now, I do have varying degrees of real-life and digital acquaintance with David Nice and his defenders Alexandra Coghlan and, further down the comments, Mark Valencia. The closest I’ve ever got to Mark Padmore was passing him on the stairs at a previous place of employment. I do feel closer to the chastised critic than the wounded artist, though I certainly appreciate the anguish a negative notice must cause a performer or even their friend. But I’m somewhat befuddled by the logic behind this kind of blistering attack on a critic who wasn’t even that negative anyway. Padmore’s display is rambling and splenetic when it could have been thoughtful and still robustly defensive of a work he clearly values. In the end, this is another example of what happens when an artiste responds with a rage on, and an important reminder that the mud you sling online usually ends up on your own face. 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Joyful Noise: Belshazzar's Feast in Cardiff

More Bachtracking, as it were; this time in Cardiff with the BBCNOW:

"William Walton’s brief had been to compose a small choral work; it grew and grew by 1931 into Belshazzar's Feast, a piece about which nothing is small. Walton had nearly given up in the middle, but pressed on as the piece changed out of all recognition. Thomas Beecham, such a supporter of Delius, had quipped to the younger Walton: “as you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?” Brass players have appreciated the extra work ever since."

Read the rest over at Bachtrack.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Haruki Murakami and Mahler's Phantom Memoirs

Haruki Murakami is a Japanese novelist best known for his dreamily surreal books and his continued failure to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His friendship with conductor Seiji Ozawa has resulted in a new book, a series of conversations on music. An extract appeared in Saturday’s Guardian, and it left me scratching my head:

HM: Mahler says in his autobiography that being director of the Vienna State Opera was the top position in the musical world. In order to obtain that position, he went so far as to abandon his Jewish faith and convert to Christianity. He felt the position was worth making such a sacrifice. It occurs to me that you were in that very position until quite recently.

SO: He really said that, did he? Do you know how many years he was director of the State Opera?

HM: Ten years, I think.

Mahler’s autobiography, huh? A shelf full of Murakami books and an interest (in case you hadn’t noticed) in classical music will probably lead me to buy this book, but the lengthy extract on Mahler didn’t convince me that any real insight lay within. Particularly as Mahler never wrote an autobiography. 

Monday, 7 November 2016

Back Reviewing Concerts: Nicholas McGegan Conducts the Bournemouth Symphony

Nicholas McGegan © Steve J Sherman
Conductor Nicholas McGegan (Photo: Steve J Sherman)
I haven’t reviewed a concert in quite a while, so it was good to get back in the business, thanks to Bachtrack. Conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra certainly brought sensitivity and vitality to a collection of pieces by Shcubert, Mozart and Beethoven:

"At the other end of the programme, a rather more serious proposition in four movements: Schubert’s reasonably early but oh-so-mature Fifth Symphony. A product of Schubert’s 19th year, the Fifth demonstrates the charms of a composer who never seems to have suffered the stylistic growing pains of a man struggling for a mature voice. It was here that McGegan drew the best from the BSO, letting the music flow, bringing it to life by making the most of dynamic contrasts and pointed accents. He saw no need to tug at the tempi, and the orchestra responded with playing of considerable subtlety, a case in point being the hushed but nuanced sound of the strings giving space to the conversations of wind instruments as the first movement slipped from exposition to development."

Read the whole thing at Bachtrack.