Friday 21 December 2012

Great recordings that never were

A young Emil Gilels
Christmas is almost upon us and has set me thinking about what non-existent treasures I might request from the Music Gods, should I have their number. The era of recorded history is full of missed opportunities: great artists who would have been sublime in particular repertoire but who never had the chance to set it down on record. Here are a few things I wish could have been a reality:

Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues played by Emil Gilels

One of the great twentieth century cycles for the piano and a pianist of lofty nobility; alas, it never quite happened. Gilels – arguably one of the two greatest pianists to have emerged from the Soviet Union – was more closely associated with Prokofiev than Shostakovich. He did, however, record 3 of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, including the final one, which appeared on Columbia and EMI. The blistering intensity of the final fugue suggests Gilels could have worked wonders with the rest of the set.

Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for solo violin played by David Oistrakh

Oistrakh did a lot to promote the music of Ysaÿe in Russia. He recorded a number of pieces for violin and piano and, with his son Igor, became practically the sole proponent of the poeme Amitié. Yet, for some reason, he never fully tackled the most famous of Ysaÿe’s works, the Six Sonatas for solo violin. We have a recording of the third, the famous Ballade, but no more.

Elgar’s Violin Concerto played by Fritz Kreisler

Although the work was dedicated to him, Fritz Kreisler’s involvement with Elgar’s Violin Concerto wasn’t an entirely happy one. He stripped out the solo part’s more idiosyncratic details and didn’t leave a recording of this grandest of works for violin and orchestra. He was, though, the most loved violinist of his generation and must surely have been quite something in this piece. He isn’t the only great violinist who performed this piece but left no recording, however. Eugene Ysaÿe did much to promote it in the first years after its composition, but by the time the technology existed to capture a work of this scale, he was some way past his best. David Oistrakh made the Concerto known in Russia, but no recording of him playing it has emerged.

These are just a few what-ifs that I wish had been a reality. What do you wish the great musicians of the past had left on record for posterity? What neglected masterpieces are ripe for re-recording? Let us know in the comments below.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Review: Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood at Wigmore Hall

Bell & Haywood

Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood at Wigmore Hall, London
11 December, 2012

Of all the violinists doing the rounds, Joshua Bell seems closest to the model of the mid-twentieth century greats who made their way in America – as comfortable in the serious repertoire as in showpieces and the old-style crossover. His Wigmore Hall programme – given with regular recital partner Sam Haywood – offered the kind of variety that we’re used to from this hugely popular American violinist. It alighted on the territory of some of the last century’s greatest – Heifetz and Oistrakh – and found him standing tall in their company.

Bell began with Schubert’s Rondo in B minor, D895 - a vigorous workout of a piece that tripped up the violinist more than once. Largely, though, his rapid finger-work was precise and his tone wonderfully clear. He was on surer ground in Richard Strauss’s Violin Sonata in E flat, Op.18, which revels in the kind of long singing lines that Bell is so good at carrying. It’s one of those finely crafted but rather anonymous early Strauss pieces that offers only glimpses of the instantly recognisable style familiar from the career that followed. Strauss struck his personal sound very suddenly in 1889, the year after composing the Sonata, with Don Juan; had we known him only from the Violin sonata, we’d remember a fiercely Romantic imagination coupled with forgettable melodies. There are some intriguing things, though, in the slow movement, such as the gently turbulent figures that dog the piano part – so delicately captured by Haywood – and the sudden burst of fire that grips the finale in its closing moments.

Bell suspects the influence of Gershwin (or at any rate, jazz) on Prokofiev’s Second Violin Sonata. I can’t hear it, but he placed Jascha Heifetz’s arrangements of Gershwin’s Three Preludes before the Sonata to make the point. The Preludes, originally for piano, sit a little awkwardly when spread between two instruments, but Bell’s swaggering way with them had an authenticity that I suspect only a New Yorker can muster.

Prokofiev originally composed the Second Violin Sonata for flute, adapting it for violin at the suggestion of David Oistrakh. He then wrote what became known as the First Violin Sonata – a work of such ferocious mechanical anguish that the Second can seem a pale flower beside it. Bell and Haywood, though, made it surging but nostalgic and richly coloured. Bell’s vivid sense of narrative flow carried it in a way I’ve never heard before, enriching it with a fragile turn of phrase that didn't negate power. The audience went wild for what followed – Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen and an arrangement for Chopin’s C sharp minor Nocturne – but it was the Prokofiev that stole the evening.

Monday 10 December 2012

Maxim Vengerov - the full interview

Recently, I was lucky enough to be granted a short interview with Maxim Vengerov. Our conversation came shortly before his masterclass at the Royal Academy of Music. Vengerov is Yehudi Menuhin Professor of Music at the RAM and gives regular masterclasses to the students there. Some of Maxim's thoughts on teaching went into a piece I wrote about the masterclass; here is the compelete text of the interview.

Did you have personal experience with Lord Menuhin when you were younger?

The first time I worked with Lord Menuhin I was seventeen. I remember it was just a marvellous experience to work with him. He was so gentle to me. I must have been really nervous. He felt that; he made me really comfortable around him.

It’s quite important that when a young person stands next to you that the “grand maestro” realises what pressure it is for the young one to be with them. It’s the responsibility also: “can I be up to the expectation? Will I be liked by maestro or not?” All these thoughts were coming to my mind. Once I was standing with him he was so incredibly humble. And at the same time I felt that there was a very strong leadership. We played [a] Mozart Concerto. So I felt really really confident as the concert was just wonderful. [I had] very strong memories from the beginning. I came across Lord Menuhin a couple of more times [but] that was the only time we were on stage together - which was quite memorable, I must say.

When you were growing up, was Menuhin’s playing a reference point for you in the Soviet Union? Was it something that you had contact with?  

During Soviet times all we knew was the Russian school – violinists such as David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan. Menuhin came to Moscow in 1960 or something like this, and they produced a recording, or at least that was what we heard. Also, I had since I was a child Menuhin’s recording of Chausson’s Poeme and Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, so I remember it was still this LP which I enjoyed very much. And so Menuhin was on the top of the list, together with Isaac Stern and Jascha Heifetz. His recordings – there were like two or three records available. That was all. So it was quite a rarity, but [one] which we really treasured and studied with my first teacher, Galina Turtschaninova, and that was wonderful. I still have this recording [on] LP. On the cover: Menuhin sitting in shorts. I think he was on the stairs, together with Enescu, with his teacher. So quite a lovely memory for me of my childhood.

When you were able to travel more, did you find all this new information – such as recordings of new violinists – quite bewildering?

Of course. I was struck by the variety of records that were available when I moved to the west. So I was constantly buying different recordings that weren’t available in Soviet Russia at that time.

When you were young, did you take part in masterclasses?

I started taking masterclasses when I moved away from my regular studies. I was at that time sixteen and, for a year, I didn’t really want to take any masterclasses with anyone. It was for me an important time to find out more about myself and what music means to me. The goal was also to find out if music was after all something I wanted to do. It was rather strange because at fifteen I won the Carl Flesch competition, so had a lot of engagements. Nevertheless, I felt the need to find a certain creativity and something of my own. I still was not entirely sure if I wanted to become a musician or not, believe it or not. But after a year of intense study – and that was not only study by myself on the violin – but that was exactly when I was going around buying records, and not necessarily of violin performance music, but also of orchestral symphonies. I was studying the music from the score in depth with the teacher, analysing the form, harmony and then subtleties of the performance, the differences of different conductors. So, for instance, I would buy Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony and I would buy four or five different version so that I could actually see the differences of the interpretations. And so I would shape my own tastes for music. That was important because when I learned a new programme, immediately I would apply the same thing to the repertoire I was playing. After a year of intense study on my own, I decided I had a need to meet musicians – to go to meet the world. I was incredibly lucky because I met fantastic musicians, such as Barenboim and Rostropovich – the two of them became my long term mentors. With Rostropovich, my cooperation with him was about seventeen years, so I consider that some of the best recordings with orchestra I have done were with him, because we had great chemistry on stage. With Barenboim it was a different experience, but no less fruitful from a different angle and different point of view. I met also musicians like Carlo Maria Guilini, who gave me in a very short time – one or two performances – a different comprehension of the musical world and the time. Zubin Mehta; Muti; Maazel: so many that I really profited from. The idea was not only to play with them and ask for their advice, but also to try to follow them in a way, and I told them “maestro, if you feel the tempo should go forward, please do so. Don’t just follow me. I will follow you, I’d like that”. It was interesting for them too! I hope so, at least that’s what I was thinking. In any case, I think that made me a more flexible musician, a more well rounded musician that I was aiming to become.

What do you hope to be able to give to your masterclass students in the forty five minutes or hour that you have with them?

What is easier to do, it’s easier in this such short time to break the confidence of somebody. If you say the wrong words at the wrong time... the student can be quite fragile, especially if he or she trusts you. But what is more difficult it to build something, not to diminish the great qualities that a student has. Everyone has good qualities... Now, you have to say if you were to serve a really good guideline to the student for the next years, then this is a big task and a big responsibility. So I try to be as wise as I possibly can, try to master my form of interacting with them. I try to say as little as possible, but on the other hand I’d like to give them a bit more dense information that I possibly can. Also, we have to guess what the student is able to take during one hour and what he or she is not able, so to say, because sometimes people are just not ready for some things, so you have to already spot immediately what they’re able to perform.

Finally, can you tell us about the performances and recordings that you’ll be working on in the near future?

During this year I have done three recordings. One of them is coming out soon - I think in December. It was done in Wigmore Hall live with [pianist] Itamar Golan, from the recital which was done in April this year. The second recording we have done is with my string ensemble at the Yehudi Menuhin Academy in Gstaad in Switzerland. It’s the works of Mendelssohn – the small violin concerto; pieces by Tchaikovsky and Brahms. I am also a professor of the Menuhin Academy in Gstaad.  Also, the third recording was a rather interesting combination of seventeen original church sonatas for two violins and organ. The last four sonatas are with woodwind, cello and double bass and timpani. So these are original sonatas that are so incredibly exciting. We have done this recording with the principal organ player from Gdansk main cathedral and my Polish student, Maria Włoszczowska. So these are three recordings I have done in the last year.                       

Saturday 8 December 2012

Arabella Steinbacher's Beethoven

Conductor Kurt Sanderling's career was celebrated by the Philharmonia on Thursday, in a concert that included German violinist Arabella Steinbacher performing Beethoven's Violin Concerto:

"German violinist Arabella Steinbacher stripped away some of the deadening portentousness that can dog performances of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and injected lightness of being and teasing charm. Her way with it was contended and sunny and her performance captivated more than her relatively small and occasionally constricted tone suggested it might. Ideally, the long first movement calls for a greater deepening of insight and involvement as it progresses than Steinbacher provided, but her carefree way with the improvisatory solo part of the Larghetto, robust vigour in the concluding Rondo and dazzling command of Kreisler’s cadenzas sealed an effective and very enjoyable interpretation."

You can read my full review at Classical Source.

Friday 7 December 2012

The Queen and Maxim Vengerov

The Queen with Kathryn McDowell of the LSO and Nicholas Kenyon of the Barbican

Peter Maxwell Davies’s tenure as Master of the Queen’sMusic has produced one innovation worth celebrating: the Queen’s Medal forMusic. Rumour has it that Her Majesty’s not the biggest classical music fan, but it’s good to see her clout being lent to the music world. Previous winners have included Colin Davis, Judith Weir and Emma Kirkby. The 2012 medal was awarded to the National Youth Orchestra, the first organisation to receive the honour, at a gala concert given by the London Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday. Violin fans will have known that this marked Maxim Vengerov’s return to an orchestra he played with often before his period of retirement, but it wasn't all plain sailing for the returning king of the violin. I was at the concert and wrote areview for Classical Source.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

The return of Maxim Vengerov

Photo: Hana Zushi / Royal Academy of Music

For a while it seemed as though we wouldn’t see Maxim Vengerov with violin in hand again. A much-publicised injury kept him from performing as a violinist for almost four years. Speculation spread about his own personal reasons for apparently laying down the instrument, but the worst predictions of total retirement proved to be untrue when Maxim returned to recital performance in 2011. Maxim Mk.2, though, is a man with altered priorities: a less hectic solo performance schedule, a greater interest in conducting and a rekindled passion for education.

Despite his period of absence from the stage, Maxim’s popularity remains. At the Royal Academy of Music, on a chilly November morning, ushers are having to turn people away from the most recent of his regular masterclasses. The Academy’s Duke’s Hall is packed with students and interested members of the public, and Maxim’s first comment before them is a revealing one. “You move too much,” he tells Madalyn, his first student of the day, “it is absolutely not necessary.” Movement, once a central part of his playing, has been banished in recent years. Now, Maxim’s energy is directed completely into his hands; everything else is a distraction.

He asks Madalyn to consider her pianist – “You’re part of a team” – and to tailor her phrasing to illuminate the “harmonies”, a word he returns to often. It’s musical consideration, rather than technical, that dominate the short time that Maxim has with each student. But what can he achieve in 45 minutes? He’s certainly aware that damage can be done in that time. “It’s easier in this such short time to break the confidence of somebody”, Maxim tells me when we speak a few days before the masterclass. “If you say the wrong words at the wrong time... the student can be quite fragile, especially if he or she trusts you. But what is more difficult is to build something, not to diminish the great qualities that a student has.”

The format is fixed. Each student plays a portion of a single work, after which the teacher offers constructive criticism and works through particular musical problems.  Madalyn begins very well and Maxim encourages her to vary her use of bow and fingers to produce an even more engaging performance. For the audience, granted access to the teaching arena never normally possible, part of the fun of the masterclass is anticipating which elements of the student’s performance the will be dissected by the teacher. When it comes to his second student, however, Maxim himself appears unsure how to proceed. He asks for extracts from all four movements of Schubert’s Duo in A and at one point walks out into the hall to gain a different perspective. His verdict, grasped at a little, as though the precise problem eludes him, seems broadly accurate: her playing is clean and well judged, but somehow lacking in projection and essential communication. His job then becomes to coax from her from her initial reticence and encourage her to involve those listening in what he calls “the composer’s message”.


For all of the dedication and sacrifice given by the students before him, none can have experienced the early international adulation heaped on Maxim during his teenage years. After studying under the strict and highly pressurised system in his native Russia, he moved west, meeting with success and recognition. He became, initially at least, determined to find his own way and set his own priorities.

“I didn’t really want to take any masterclasses with anyone”, says Maxim. “It was for me an important time to find out more about myself and what music means to me. The goal was also to find out if music was, after all, something I wanted to do. It was rather strange because at fifteen I won the Carl Flesch Competition, so had a lot of engagements. Nevertheless, I felt the need to find a certain creativity and something of my own. I still was not entirely sure if I wanted to become a musician or not, believe it or not.”

In Western Europe, Maxim found on offer a previously unimaginable array of music and culture. He bought records voraciously, not only confining his listening to violin music. “I was studying the music from the score in depth with the teacher, analysing the form, harmony and then subtleties of the performance, the differences of different conductors. So, for instance, I would buy Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony and I would buy four or five different version so that I could actually see the differences of the interpretations. And so I would shape my own tastes for music. That was important because when I learned a new programme, immediately I would apply the same thing to the repertoire I was playing.”

After a year, Maxim felt ready “to meet musicians – to go to meet the world. I was incredibly lucky because I met fantastic musicians, such as Barenboim and Rostropovich – the two of them became my long term mentors.” He worked with them frequently, and with many others. “I think that made me a more flexible musician, the more well rounded musician I was aiming to become.”


While the he may have banished some of his more extreme movements in performance, it’s clear from watching Maxim teach that physicality is vital to his conception of violin playing. When words can’t quite make the point, he acts his intentions with his body, pulling faces and adopting mannered walks to demonstrate the music’s expressive state. He sings, too, sometimes at length, and it’s clear that the voice and the hands draw on the same well of music. Maxim will express a musical transition with an image: one moment of change in the Schubert Duo becomes and picture of weightlessness: “There is no gravity here. You are lost.” Then, the transition, coupled with a joke: “I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Or is it a train coming?!”

The humour serves a purpose, putting the students at ease and encouraging them toward their best. Maxim sympathises with their position, having experienced it himself. He recalls playing with Yehudi Menuhin at age seventeen and dealing with his own initial anxieties. ““Can I be up to the expectation? Will I be liked by maestro or not?”” All these thoughts were coming to my mind.” Menuhin, though, was a model of sensitivity. “He was so gentle to me. I must have been really nervous. He felt that; he made me really comfortable around him.”
Maxim Vengerov - priorities adjusted and reconciled with the violin - is the maestro now. 

Maxim Vengerov is Yehudi Menuhin Professor of Music at the Royal Academy of Music, London.

My thanks to Maxim Vengerov and Nicola-Fee Bahl for their help in preparing this piece.

Read the full text of the interview here.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Devils's Trill's pick of December's new releases

String music

A masterclass from veteran violinist Salvatore Accardo, recorded in Cremona (Dynamic DVD); Beethoven cycle from the Talich Quartet (La Dolce Volta); A Pierre Monteux collection including a Saint-Saens violin concerto with Berlin Phil leader Michel Schwalbe (Testament); Rostropovich collection from revitalised label Olympia; Ferdinand David's music for violin and piano (MDG); The Juilliard Quartet play French music (Newton); Dvorak's chamber music from the Carmina Quartet (Sony); The first volume of a Dvorak quartet cycle from the Volger Quartet (CPO); Yu Chien Tseng plays French violin sonatas (Fuga Libera); Maria Bachmann also plays French violin sonatas (Bridge); Contemporary viola music from Huang Hsin-Yun (Bridge); Cello concertos by Lalo and Milhaud (ARS); More string quartets by Krzysztof Meyer (Naxos); Violin concertos by Sibelius and Tchaikovsky from Soyoung Yoon (Dux); Barbara Helfgott plays pop hits on the violin (Preiser); More Telemann Violin Concertos from Elizabeth Wallfisch (CPO); String Quartets by Boris Tischenko (Olympia); The seasons from Piazzolla and Vivaldi (Dux);    


John Adams's Nixon in China on DVD for the first time (Nonesuch); Richard Barrett - Dark Matter (NMC);  John Cage - Electronic music for piano (Stradivarius); Valerio Losito plays viola d'amore solos (Brilliant); Clarinet concertos by Corigliano and Carter (Aeon); Highlights from Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach, plus DVD documentary (OMM); Arne Nordheim's complete work for accordion (Simax); Michael's Journey Around the World from Stockhausen's Licht (Wergo)

Everything else

Jos Van Immerseel gives the original instrument treatment to Debussy (Zig Zag); Hans Eisler's collaboration with Bertold Brecht, Die Massnahme (MDR); RCA's Living Stereo series in a big box; Mahler's symphonies, complete and recording by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO Live); Martinu's piano trios (Naxos); Orchestral works by Andrezj Panufnik (CPO); More Schubert symphonies from David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (RCA); Schubert - the last years (Brilliant);    

Wednesday 28 November 2012

The rest is newspaper coverage

It’s been a while coming, but London’s Southbank Centre have finally unveiled the first half of their yearlong The Rest Is Noise festival, based on the themes of Alex Ross’s hugely successful survey of twentieth century classical music. Reaction to the scheduling has pointed out the relatively unadventurous programming of the concert series (though we’ve still to see how this chronological series will tackle the later stretches of the century’s repertoire), which largely sticks to a tried and tested selection of modern classics. The Rambler weighs up the series’ good and bad points, while Intermezzo asks if the £500 festival pass is really the bargain it appears to be.

I looked with interest to the national newspaper coverage of the announcement – after all, that’s where we go for considered arts coverage, isn’t it? – and noted that The Guardian’s piece on the subject consisted of not one word of comment or appraisal of the series’ content. The explanation? “The Guardian is a media partner of The Rest Is Noise festival.”

Tuesday 27 November 2012

December's IRR reviews

December’s International Record Review is out now and again features reviews I’ve written. Here’s what I was sent this month:

American Serenade - Rachel Kolly d’Alba
Gershwin/Bernstein/Waxman (Warner Classics 2564 65765-7)

“If the career to date of Swiss violinist Rachel Kolly d’Alba proves anything, it’s that it is possible (thankfully) to enter the field playing something other than standard rep and warhorse concerti. American Serenade is her third album for Warner Classics... [It] explores the cross-contamination of “high” and “low” art inherent in American culture.”

Russian String Quartets – Leipziger Streichquartett
Afanasiev/Borodin/Rachmaninov/Rimsky-Korsakov (MDG307 1758-2)

“The familiar nestles among the obscure in the Leipziger Strechquartett’s album of Russian quartets. Borodin’s evergreen example is mirrored at the programme’s start by a work from a man (Afanasiev) geographically far removed from the heart of Russia’s nineteenth century musical renaissance, providing a glimpse of the artistic inspirations of the time.”

Wolfgang Rihm – Complete works for violin and piano
Tianwa Yang & Nicholas Rimmer (Naxos 8.572730)

Yang and Rimmer prove to be outstanding guides to Rihm’s fiercely focused music. They are alert to every tiny change in dynamic and texture, to every finely weighed gesture that Rihm sets out. Their strengths are immediately apparent in Phantom und Eskapade, a piece completed in 1994 for Anne-Sophie Mutter and bearing one of Rihm’s typically opaque titles. Rimmer’s wonderfully precise touch illuminates the questioning opening and continues to alternate delicacy with barbed urgency throughout this enigmatic piece.”  

Thursday 22 November 2012

Sinfini Music: More of the same?

The launch of new Universal’s shiny new classical music magazine Sinfini Music has prompted a number of posts across the classical blogosphere and provoked predictable responses from certain quarters. Norman Lebrecht, a contributor to SM, heralds its arrival with an enthusiasm that suggests a moment of epoch defining import, comparable with the discovery of America and the invention of cheese. Popular blogger Opera Chic has also been recruited and, if her post on the subject is anything to go by, we can look forward to a quotient of modern ironic jurno shtick and associated megalolz.

Elsewhere, Overgrown Path plots the new site’s coordinates at a lat and long of dumb and dumber, and indeed, first impressions aren’t great. There are well worn (out?) features such as celebrity interviews (Joanna Lumley’s classical faves is one worth missing), guides to recordings of familiar classics (all the choices on their Beethoven 5 feature are Universal titles, but hey ho), and even a naff cartoon. In fairness, there are some worthwhile items that you won’t find in the pages of Gramophone, such as Paul Morley’s stinging views of the Classical Brits and Gramophone Awards.

There’s the question of how much editorial independence is really possible when the main backer has such a vested interest in the market, but I wonder if the real story is that Universal is fed up of waiting for the traditional print media to master the online forum and has decided to step in. Efforts from various review magazines have tended to amount to little more than digital adverts for their own physical editions, and Universal must realise that there's a world of potential coverage that's currently being left to them dang bloggers. But is this really a new new way of funding music journalism or a worrying intervention in a field that should be valueing independence above all else? Time will tell, but for now it looks like (content-wise, at least) it might just be more of the same.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Exstatica at the BBC

Pietro Aretino, author of mucky Renaissance verse
I’d never been to a classical concert that sported an “18+” rating. Have now.  

"The publicity promised “sexually explicit material”. The red-tinted specs handed out at the door suggested we might be set for the lurid excesses of a ’70s exploitation flick. In the event, the BBC Concert Orchestra’s Exstatica proved to be a fairly sober exploration of ecstasy in music. Aside from some mucky verse and an excitable soprano, it was all pretty tame – educational even, with Radio 3’s Christopher Cook keeping his live commentary strictly informative."

Read my full review at Classical Source.

Friday 9 November 2012

Recent reviews for IRR

In recent months I've been contributing to International Record Review, the monthly magazine that does what it says on the cover. Here’s a flavour of what I've been sent this month:

Léon Boëllmann: Chamber Music – Trio Parnassus (MDG 303 1755-2)

“The two substantial chamber works here – the Piano Quintet of around 1890 and the Piano Trio of 1895 – reveal Boëllmann’s talent for superbly woven structures that flow effortlessly between ideas. His ear for clarity and delicacy also impresses – never is the balance between instruments upset by bombast or overscoring...

“Like the music of so many of history’s short-lived composer, it all left me wondering what might have become of Léon Boëllmann had he managed a few more decades.”

Kurtág/Ligeti – Kim Kashkashian – Music for Viola  (ECM New Series 2240)

“Economy is key [to Kurtág]: nothing more than necessary is said. Often a wandering line suffices, always coloured with great delicacy by Kashkashian; harmony, when evoked, is spare and purposeful. Kashkashian excels at fine modulations of unconventional tone.”

Saturday 3 November 2012

November's new releases

A selection of November’s new classical releases that caught Devil’s Trill’s eye:

String music

Contemporary music

Everything else 

Thursday 1 November 2012

Beyond the blizzard of meaning

"The music’s skeletal textures now begin to fill rapidly, tension rises, and the dreaded thing finally happens: the secret police arrive, audibly climbing the stairs (figures 46-7) and bursting in through the door on a triumphant crescendo. In a brilliant alienative stroke, Shostakovich switches the two-note motto around in the upper orchestra like torch-beams while the NKVD move grimly through the darkened apartment in the guise of the vigil theme, growled out on tubas ad bass clarinet – an uncanny parallel to Orwell’s similar use of the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ in the arrest scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four."

Ian MacDonald, The New Shostakovich (London: Fourth Estate, 1990), p112-113.  

I was reminded of this description of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony during yesterday’s performance of the Third Symphony of another twentieth century great, Sibelius, given by Osmo Vänskä and the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall. MacDonald’s Shostakovich seems to compose only to narrate, and the descriptions of the music fall back continuously on a blizzard extra-musical visualisations. Dig too deep for ‘meaning’, though, and we can lose sight of what music does, fundamentally, which is move vertically and horizontally in a language all of its own.

Vänskä’s Sibelius offers an alternative route to musical fulfilment. He looks beyond the Romantic notion of sounds being analogous to feelings and images. His music-making is all about the notes – the way they fall on top of and beside one another. Suddenly, rhythm and harmony can be appreciated in their own right, rather than as codes and signs. To ask what the music ‘means’ becomes as futile as searching for the meaning of rivers and mountains.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Natasha Paremski, the skydiving pianist

Well, have you ever seen a concert pianist jump out a plane before? Me neither. Natasha Paremski is a breath of fresh air though, and her performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto (a piece I’m thoroughly sick of) this week, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, convinced me that it might be worth hearing again, if played quite this well:

“[Paremski] rattled through it as though it was the most fun a girl could have, shrugging her shoulders and swaying in sympathy with the music’s ebb and flow. Paremski wasn’t inclined towards broadness or weight, instead ditching the pomposity to elevate the sparkling delight of Tchaikovsky’s writing. Her touch on the sustaining pedal was feather-light (even with outrageously high heels) and the delicacy of her soft playing was remarkable for its control.”

Dead good, then. That extract comes from my Classical Source review of the concert that also included Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain and a biting performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, complete with gritted-teeth finale rammed home by conductor Andrew Litton.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Glass's complete Quartets in London

Philip Glass, having a good think

Philip Glass’s cycle of five string quartets has been amassing performances and recordings in the last few years, even though Glass himself hasn’t composed a numbered quartet since the early 1990s. This week’s upcoming Smith Quartet concert cycle caught Devil’s Trill’s eye – a rare opportunity to hear the set live. More details at St. John's Smith Square’s website.

Sunday 30 September 2012

New classical releases for October

Here’s a selection of new classical releases for the month of October:

String music

Contemporary  music

Everything else

Tuesday 25 September 2012

John Cage meets Stewart Lee

John Cage:  Indeterminacy
Stewart Lee, Tania Chen, Steve Beresford, Alan Tomlinson
Battersea Arts Centre, September 23 2012

Stewart Lee, Tania Chen and Steve Beresford
Even now, a century after his birth, John Cage’s art feels brilliantly fresh. I say art, because although you’ll see him described as a composer, his exploration of sound was genuinely genre busting, exploding the idea of what music could be. While his European contemporaries were dryly dictating the terms of a new avant-garde order, Cage charted the outer limits of music with a wide eyed wonder, seeing all that was remarkable in the commonplace and the overlooked. And we’re still travelling in his wake, astounded that his big ideas could have been expressed quite so pithily.

While much of the archaeology of high modernism has been brushed aside, people flock to John Cage as to no other twentieth century experimentalist, revelling in the humour at the heart of his output. Cage’s works dare us to giggle, either in joy or disbelief. And so it seems natural that a comedian should have taken quite so strongly to Cage’s work; that’s just what stand-up Stewart Lee has done, locating Cage’s natural wit with his own laconic delivery for this touring event, caught by Devil’s Trill at Battersea Arts Centre.

Lee takes the role of the reader – originally performed by Cage – in Indeterminacy, a series of autobiographical one minute stories read at random to an accompaniment of improvised noise. Cage’s tales are expertly turned – sometimes funny, sometimes poignant and occasionally baffling – but their length determines the delivery, having to last one minute no matter how many words they contain. The composer’s friends and colleagues are brilliantly drawn: the almost chronically unimpressed David Tudor; the existential disappointment of Morton Feldman; the gnomic wisdom of Dr. Suzuki. They all sound great fun. Lee’s deadpan, almost bored style only heightens the comedy. The slow retort of mushroom expert Guy Nearing, on having his mistake picked up by the young Cage (“There are so many.....Latin names.....rolling around in my head.....that sometimes.....the wrong one comes out”) could have been written for Lee.

And then there are flashes of the philosophy of Cage’s world view. He recalls a juke box playing at a swimming pool: “I noticed that the music accompanied the swimmers, though they didn’t hear it”. And so the improvisations of Tania Chen and Steve Beresford, played mostly on musical toys, form an apparently random but often eerily synchronous counterpoint to the text. Sometimes they obscure it, rendering Lee’s commentary a different brand of noise.  

Before all of this, Beresford and Chen take to two pianos to improvise wildly. On this occasion, their first improvisation ranged widely and recalled two other great American mavericks - Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow; their second was a terser, frantic affair. Cage’s fascination for extending instrumental techniques is demonstrated by Alan Tomlinson, following the composer’s diverse instructions in the Solo for sliding trombone – only some of which involve the mouthpiece. Tomlinson raised hoots of delight from the Battersea audience as he barked through his instrument like an angry dog, and that’s what Cage-the-comic would have wanted.