Archive for the ‘piano’ category

R I P Chris Hogwood

September 25, 2014

SSO Hogwood 1Very sad to hear of the passing of Christopher Hogwood (1941–2104).

Back in the summer of 1968, I had just left school and the family moved from Hitchin to Cambridge (where most of my father’s work was based). In those days the received wisdom was that ‘you couldn’t go to Oxbridge straight from school’, so I needed to find a ‘gap year’ course to prepare me for the big leap. We lighted on ‘Cambridge Tech’ (the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology, as it then was – now Anglia Ruskin University), which offered a one-year ‘Post-A-Level Music’ course for people in my position or otherwise with a year to spare. The college was in walking distance of our new house (which a secretary at the Tech had actually helped us find!) so every day I would trot over to the collection of ‘temporary’ Terrapin huts – creaking under the weight of grand pianos – which constituted the Music Department along with a car park full of garden sheds (each with chair, piano, music stand and electric heater), Male and female mobile loos, and the neighbouring (dark and freezing) Zion Baptist Chapel for extra performing space.

Course director and our tutor in Music History was a bright young chap named Christopher Hogwood, fresh from Cambridge and postgraduate studies in Prague (he was then 27). From the start, he was an inspiration to the rather random selection of musicians who were the eight of us on the course: ‘Wherever you’re going after this’, he said, ‘you’ll be learning about Beethoven and Mozart and Bach and all the usual people – so I’ll teach you about all the others.’ Thus it was that we learned about Louis Couperin, Froberger, John Cage, Janacek, Martinu, Penderecki – and ‘all the sons of Bach you haven’t heard of’ including WF and JCF.

He brought in David Munrow’s Early Music Consort (of which he was a founder member) to give us a dazzling lecture/demonstration; he brought in his clavichord, which he demonstrated and let us play; he gave me piano lessons (Brahms and Mendelssohn – not the repertoire we would instantly associate with him); he organised mini-concert tours using whatever talents and personnel were available – I particularly remember playing at the various Village Colleges around Cambridge; and outside official hours he took us on jolly trips and picnics…

Happy days – lots more memories I could recall. We kept in touch over the years; as his meteoric rise took him ever further afield, he maintained his base in his lovely house in Cambridge (although my memories go back to the one before!). To the last, we would exchange Christmas cards – his always especially printed, elaborate and witty.

I’ve dug out this 35mm slide of Chris (standing at the back, in shades) and some of our PAM group on a picnic in 1969… It’s how I’ll remember him – the twinkle, the grin, the giggle – although he hardly changed over the years.

Farewell, Chris, and thank you for everything.

IMG

Advertisements

‘The foreign gentleman executes an air upon the Grand Piano’

June 4, 2012

Image

This is a scan of a rather faded print that hangs above my piano – found on a stall at Cambridge Market for 10p (‘Nice picture;  two bob?’) among a pile of Victorian generals, circa 1971.  Having just written an essay on Liszt (for Philip Radcliffe), I knew at once who it was.

The mount is labelled ‘London, Richard Bentley, 1843’.  The print was included in ‘Bentley’s Miscellany’ of 1848, but I suspect it was a Punch cartoon first.

The scrawly signature is not, as I first thought, ‘F Liszt’, but ‘J Leech’ – John Leech, prolific and well-known Punch cartoonist.

So… was Liszt in London in 1843?  Any thoughts on whose salon this might be (if not entirely fictional)?

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!).

English Chamber Orchestra at the Wigmore Hall, 3 November 2011

November 6, 2011

Lovely ECO chamber concert at the Wigmore Hall on Friday. First, out trot a pair of girls with curly hair and lacy black frocks, looking for all the world like long-lost sisters… They are Stephanie Gonley (violin, highly accomplished leader of the ECO) and Katya Apekisheva (young Russian pianist, prize-winner at the Leeds Piano Competition, evidently a rising star). We are treated to Schubert’s A minor Violin Sonatina (D385), a work of extraordinary depth and subtlety by a 19-year-old composer. Exceptionally, they played both repeats in the first movement (which Schubert obviously intends you to do). Plenty of fire, passion and introspection – the slow movement was heavenly. Stirring performance of a terrific piece.

Then came Mozart’s Horn Quintet, K407, in which the solo horn is accompanied unusually by a string quartet consisting of one violin, two violas and a cello. Soloist John Thurgood was his usual poker-faced but impeccable self, playing with great wit and aplomb and enjoying the musical company of his colleagues as much as they were enjoying his. (We wondered if cellist Caroline Dale had forgotten her black dress? The only player not in black – but the bluey one she wore was very pretty.)

After the interval, Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet, in an exceptionally spirited (i.e. fast) and lively performance – all great fun. Caroline Dale and viola player Jonathan Barritt would catch each other’s eye and grin hugely at crucial duetting moments. Stephanie Gonley led gamely from the front. My only quibble concerned the platform layout – pianist Katya Apekisheva seemed to be stuck at the back in a world of her own (though she managed some eye contact with Stephanie, and the ensemble was well-nigh faultless). Is there not some way of positioning the string players around the piano so that everyone can see everyone else, and we can see still see them? (Remember that Gerard Hoffnung cartoon…??)

Underpinning the whole performance was the velvety sonorous double bass of Stephen Williams – another poker-faced player, but one who evidently takes great pleasure in his role. He plays a huge, impossibly gorgeous and subtly decorated instrument by Gaspar de Salo, dating from the 1580s – which I thought was before double basses had been invented. A bit of a puzzle. (Oh, all right – cue for lecture about the double bass being a member of the Renaissance viol family and thus having older parentage than the upstart modern violin/viola/cello…)

Smashing evening – thanks for the tickets, Pauline! And thanks to Caro for joining us and for your luxurious hospitality over the Berlioz Weekend (which is another story…)

We have arrived in Sussex!

March 8, 2011

Better late than never (having finally got my internet connection back), this is to let you all know that after considerable tribulations, alarms and excursions, Diana and I moved into our lovely ‘new’ house in St Leonard’s-on-Sea on 17 February.

After a couple of weeks we are at last beginning to feel at home, having unpacked at least some of the 300 boxes that arrived from our two previous houses and begun to sort out what goes where.  It’s a lovely big solid 1930s house – with a huge reception hall with room for both our grand pianos (major selling point) and some endearingly quirky features of design and layout, but in great condition and beautifully maintained.

We’ve had a fascinating session with a couple of local architects, and it looks as if we’ll be able to do a certain amount of building to give us more room, better facilities and possibly even more sea views!

And on 24 February, a week after moving in, I took ‘early retirement’ from my job at the Royal Opera House.  So I’m looking forward to continuing with freelance work but also having time to look at the sea, smell the flowers, listen to (and play, or even write) some different music, and generally catch up on all the good things in life that we’ve been too busy to appreciate for the past few years.

Watch this space for more news and pictures as things happen…

Gerald Barry / Thomas Ades / LSO

June 8, 2010

Extraordinary concert at the Barbican on Sunday night (6 June) – Thomas Adès conducting the LSO.  First, his orchestral work …and all shall be well, inspired by the familiar mantric words of Julian of Norwich.  Superficially simple and tonal, with instruments doodling up and down scales – but strange smeary things were happening en route in a particularly Adès-ian way.  And a glittering final chord with a high major third floating on top – Aha!   Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, I thought to myself.  And I knew that if you had said this to Adès he would have replied ‘Any fool can hear that’.

I have not always been convinced by his music, but he certainly has immense gifts and a distinctive voice.

Then a major (over-long) pause for platform rearrangement – and the fun of watching a second Steinway come up in the magic Barbican lift.  Zoltán Kocsis played Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1 from 1926 – very bristly and percussive.  The featured timps and percussion were brought to the front of the stage (Kocsis’s idea or Adès’s?), thus enabling us to see every detail of Bartók’s demands for different sticks, different ways of hitting a suspended cymbal, and so on.  Just a pity that the lady playing tam-tam was hidden behind the piano and largely inaudible.

The performance was not quite successful:  because of the layout, woodwind and strings seemed somewhat muffled, and ensemble was very rocky at times (better in the morning rehearsal, I have to say).

After the interval, a little Adès showpiece – These premises are alarmed;  more lovely sounds, though as by now I was sitting in my ‘box’ it was hard to hear.

Then the UK premiere of Irish composer Gerald Barry’s one-act ‘opera’, La plus forte (The Stronger), a setting of a Strindberg play translated from Swedish into French (because it was originally commissioned by Radio France) and performed with English surtitles – which is where I came in.  Because of various complications I won’t go into here, I was sight-reading the score on no rehearsal, so things were a bit hairy for me.  But in fact Gerald Barry’s score is so clear and clean, and soprano Barbara Hannigan’s amazing singing is so direct and precise, that I had no difficulty following.  Phew!  She was extraordinary – every note, however stratospheric, exactly in place (even after unaccompanied silent bars!), immaculate French (she is Canadian), and apparently (I couldn’t see much from where I was) brilliantly subtle ‘acting’ in the role of the increasingly neurotic wife who gradually realises that her silent café companion has had an affair with her husband.  (And we loved her appropriately over-exuberant frock and hat.)

Gerald Barry’s music has flummoxed me in the past – I’ve tended to think ‘It will be all right when he’s put the expression marks in’;  very aggressive, few slurs, sometimes very loud, lots of unisons and sforzandos, much machine-like repetition.  But once I had got my ear in, the music was just right for this piece, conveying all levels of expression from calm to watchfulness to nervous tension, playfulness, hysteria, rage, and even belly-laugh humour at times.

And finally, three dances from Adès’s early opera Powder Her Face, full of the student exuberance of youth – plenty of pastiche and fun and games – but showing a composer already completely in control of his fertile imagination.  And, not incidentally, showing himself these days a conductor completely in control of his players (who were having a whale of a time).

What a great Prom programme the whole concert would make!  BBC please take note (if you haven’t already).

Diana’s comment was that the liberating, ear-opening thrill of the whole concert, and particularly the Barry, must have been equivalent to the effect on its first audience of , say, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique;  marvelling at sounds, colours, effects and all sorts of things that music could do that one would never have imagined to be possible.

As I said – an extraordinary concert.

photo of Barbara Hanningan (c) Marco Borggreve

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…