Posted tagged ‘Brahms’

Kenneth Hamilton — Brahms Unwrapped

March 15, 2012

Great experience last night at Kings Place – part of the Brahms Unwrapped season – our good friend Kenneth Hamilton playing (and talking about) Brahms’s piano music.  His introductions were illuminating, informative, irreverent and witty as always, his playing quite phenomenally accurate, virtuosic and powerful:  showing us Brahms in a whole new light.

Ken started with the first movement of Brahms’s astoundingly accomplished Sonata No. 3 in F minor, written when he was only 20;  Ken convincingly argued that the movement must have started as some kind of composition exercise based on J S Bach’s ‘Weinen, Klagen’ (with Purcellian descending chromatic bass line) in the same key.  He told us that the ‘grand ending’ of the movement implied that the audience would be expected to clap;  we duly did, and he said he would have been somewhat put out if we hadn’t.

Then he introduced the rest of this huge sonata – unusually in five movements in all – explaining that the remaining four movements hung together and told a story;  the second movement is prefaced by lines from a poem about ‘two hearts in love united’ – Ken demonstrated the ‘heartbeat’ – and Brahms’s melody fits the words so as to be almost a ‘Lied’ setting;  then there’s a stormy Scherzo, then a little movement called ‘Rückblick’ (‘backward glance’),  a minor-key version of the ‘two hearts’ number as a funeral march – ‘either the beloved is dead or their love is dead’, he said;  Ken pointed out the triplet drumbeat motive so beloved of Verdi and Mahler, which he traces back to a Mendelssohn Song Without Words.  Then a stormy finale using the ‘F A E’ theme which occurs elsewhere in his and his friends’ works – standing for ‘Frei aber einsam’, free but alone.  So the 20-year-old Brahms is writing programme music – ‘but we all know Brahms doesn’t write programme music!’  We don’t know who the story is about, he said, but we can follow the ‘trajectory’ of the story – two hearts that beat as one, dissension, breakup, Brahms ultimately reconciled to being alone.  Story of his life!  (And in the 3rd Symphony the theme becomes ‘F A F’ – ‘Frei aber froh’ – free but happy:  the confirmed bachelor.)

After the interval, we heard the last things Brahms wrote – three touching organ chorales, transcribed by Busoni.  Then a little gavotte by Gluck, arranged by Brahms as an encore piece for Clara Schumann.  Ken (authentically) proceeded to improvise a modulatory passage into the key of the next and final piece, the Handel Variations.  Absolutely riveting performance, clearly characterising the 20 or so miniature ‘mood pieces’ of the variations – including a couple of ‘Hungarian dances’ and a musical box imitation (instructed to be played with the sustaining pedal held down so that the music jangled; and its clockwork runs down at the end!).  Finally a massive and magisterial fugue, with a certain degree of pianistic sleight-of-hand but some genuinely complicated counterpoint as well.  One began to view Brahms with a new respect (well, I did, at least).  Ken’s performance rose to such heights of power and energy that he literally almost knocked himself out on the piano lid at the end (‘You’d think I’d know where it was by now’, he said).

And a pretty encore to send us home smiling.

Amazing evening.  Congratulations to Ken – I haven’t done anything like justice to his constantly revelatory comments, nor to  his ability to speak, illustrate and play with not a note (of words or music) in front of him.   Thank you to Diana for getting us the tickets – wouldn’t have missed it for anything – and to Carol for joining us and being so appreciative.  And for the dear friends we met in the audience (you know who you are!).

Sorry, chaps

November 1, 2008

So many wonderful things since I last wrote – pressure of work and other activities has prevented me blogging them, much as I wanted to.  So here is a list of what I should have written about, for your edification and delight…

Covent Garden Chamber Orchestra concert, Saturday 4 October – especially the Schumann Konzertstück for four horns, magisterially played by Richard Lewis, Jo Towler, Duncan Gwyther and Liz Kadir.  Wow.

Haydn’s Creation at the Korean Full Gospel Church in Raynes Park, Sunday 12 October – lots of fun, the Koreans charming and lovely, my contra bottom B flat much appreciated!

The English Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, Wednesday 15 October – Tippett, Britten (Les Illuminations with stunning young soprano Mary Bevan), plus some works by Arab composers including the brilliant and hilarious Saxophone Concerto by Waleed Howrani – a perfect Last Night of the Proms piece?

Celebrity Recital at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 19 October – Emma Johnson, Julian Lloyd Webber, John Lill, surprisingly not a full house:  a treat of Beethoven and Brahms clarinet trios, the Weber Grand Duo Concertant, Julian playing two of his father’s pieces (with Andrew in the audience), and John Lill scorching our eyebrows off with the Chopin C minor Nocturne and the amazing Prokofiev Toccata

Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran at the Opera House, with Juan Diego Florez

Our very own Phoenix Orchestra concert (see previous post) on Thursday 23 October, especially the wonderful and inexhaustible Tom Poster in the Rachmaninov 3rd Piano Concerto

The Esbjerg Ensemble at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 26 October:  Nonet by Louise Farrenc, Poulenc’s Sextet for piano and wind (fantastic), the Schumann Piano Quintet (wonderful as ever).  Slightly dour Danish group, lifted to a higher plane by the tiny, sparky, beaming and incredibly accomplished pianist Marianna Shirinyan (who she??)

And the Brodsky Quartet at Cadogan Hall on Wednesday 29 October – Beethoven Razumovsky No. 1 (what a wonderful piece), Tchaikovsky Quartet No. 1, and two little Stravinsky numbers (Concertino and Three Pieces) which were spellbinding.

Now I’m off to rehearse contra in Boléro (don’t ask)…

Normal service one of these days!

thanks for the picture, Diana…

more Proms — Messiaen, Varese

August 20, 2008

Still piling on the Proms — 14 so far I think. 

Disappointments:  Boulez conducting Janacek‘s Sinfonietta (careful, not exciting) and Glagolitic Mass (I am not at all convinced by the reconstructed ‘original’ version, which seemed muddy and diffuse.  Composers’ second thoughts are usually the right ones!). 

Highlights:  Barenboim‘s East-West Divan Orchestra (why did nobody explain their name in the programme?  It’s from a book of Goethe poems, I think) — I feared the worst from his VERY slow upbeat at the beginning of Brahms 4, but it was fine.  Great the way the players all lunge and sway about in a most un-English fashion!  Special praise for bassoonist Mor Biron, who was, I thought, the best of the solosts in Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante, then excellent in the Brahms, and finally wide awake and full of character in Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale at the late Prom — another highlight, thanks to Patrice Chéreau‘s craggy, louche, hilarious, touching and very French rendering of ALL the characters (and the Narrator). 

More highlights:  Jennifer Bate playing Messiaen on the mighty Albert Hall organ:  L’Apparition de l’église eternelle is a piece I have always loved (an early work), its ‘granitic’ columns of sound rising mysteriously from nothingness and then sinking back again, like an immense and slightly sinister science-fiction version of Debussy’s Cathédrale engloutie.  Then La Nativité du seigneur in all its hour-long splendour, quite wonderful and with a shattering ‘Dieu Parmi Nous’ at the end.  Whoooo!

Last night — Tuesday 19 August — was a (very thinly attended) feast of live orchestra (BBC Scottish) plus electronics — more Messiaen (the late and pretty Concert à quatre), Varèse, and Jonathan Harvey (including an ambitious if over-long new work, Speakings, using the orchestra as a giant speech synthesiser:  interesting sounds, but I was put off by the inelegant ‘bending’ noises the players had to make — especially the oboe — which I know was the point of the piece but struck me as undignified…). 

Harvey’s electronic warhorse, Mortuos plango, vivos voco, featuring a bell and his choirboy son, was a knockout — the composer himself presiding, like a gently beaming silver-haired angel, at the sound desk.  But the highlight for me was Varèse’s Poème electronique — an amazing feat of technology for 1958, clever, imaginative, funny, and — at eight minutes long – not outstaying its welcome.

I’m certainly not complaining about any of ‘my’ Proms — a continuing feast of all kinds of music and such a privilege to be able to experience ‘live’.  Time for several more before I have to return to real life!

.

 

photo of Messiaen by Malcolm Crowthers (c)

Endymion at Blackheath

January 27, 2008
endymion2.jpg

Up the road again this morning, to a Blackheath Sunday concert by ENDYMION (who seem to have misguidedly adopted a new logo which plays fast and loose with the Greek alphabet – no doubt a source of great distress to linguists everywhere, who are still trying to recover from ‘TOYS “YA” US’.  You’re not called ‘SNDPSMIPHN’, are you?  Well then).

The Burghers of Blackheath remain a mystery to me.  Some Sundays, they will collectively decide the concert is not for them, and there may be just a couple of dozen people huddled in the recital room.  Today they were out in force – almost a full house, chattering excitedly.  The average age seems to be about 150 (where will the next generation of audiences come from??), so there was much clattering of sticks and whistling of hearing aids before the music began.    Thereafter, however, you could hear a pin drop (well, actually you could hear an infuriatingly running tap or overflow somewhere, which didn’t get turned off until the interval).

The Endymion Ensemble (founded in 1979 by my dear friend, bassoonist John Whitfield), used to be resident at Blackheath Halls, with an office in the lobby.  Good to welcome them back.  Today’s incarnation consisted of Michael Dussek (piano), Krysia Osostowicz (violin) and Stephen Stirling (horn) – who, if I am not mistaken, was playing in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House yesterday – busy fellow.

Beethoven’s last Violin Sonata (No. 10 in G, Op. 96) is so blithe and laid-back and generally un-Beethovenian that you catch yourself wondering ‘What did he mean by that?’  Nick Breckenfield’s programme note describes the first movement as ‘an intimate, relaxed, long-breathed soirée’ – which is nice.  His theory is that the Sonata was a ‘therapeutic’ response to Beethoven’s stormy relationship with the mysterious ‘Immortal Beloved’.

Krysia Osostowicz played the Sonata with an expression that flitted between rapt concentration and a beatific smile.  In the past, her sound has sometimes seemed to me to be a touch lean and stringy, but not today – rich, secure and expressive.  Perhaps she has a new fiddle?  For once, the Hall’s priceless jewel of a Bösendorfer grand sounded too plummy for Beethoven.  Maybe put the lid on the short stick (i.e. half open)?

Then we had György Ligeti’s Trio (1982) – strong meat (more…)


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