Archive for the ‘piano’ category

FOUND!

August 9, 2008

 Well, well.  After a year and a half of commenting and submitting stuff to FOUND Magazine’s Find of the Day, I see that they have finally published one of my Finds!  Apparently it can take several years for a Find to show up, as they get so many, so I’m honoured.

Thanks, guys!

To read all the comments – witty, illuminating and otherwise – click HERE.

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Mark Padmore sings Schubert

May 22, 2008

Mark Padmore (c) Marco BorggreveTwo magical evenings at the Wigmore Hall, thanks to a friend’s generosity (thank you, Paula)… Mark Padmore (tenor) sang Schubert’s two great song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin (‘The Fair Maid of the Mill’) and Winterreise (Winter Journey).

After fifty years of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, we are used to hearing our Schubert songs sung by a baritone, in low keys, with perhaps exaggerated ‘expression’ and rather muddy piano accompaniments (played on a clanky modern Steinway, of course, rather than Schubert’s very light Viennese pianos).  To hear them sung by a tenor is a revelation:  there is a lightness and airiness in the vocal lines, with top notes becoming true clarion high points in the drama, offset by Mark Padmore’s warm baritonal lower register (the vocal range of these songs, particularly in Winterreise, is enormous).  And the lighter texture of the accompaniments in higher keys is a breath of fresh air, even on the modern piano.

Mark Padmore is better known for his ‘early music’ – Rameau, Lully, Handel, and above all the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions.  So Schubert is a big step into the unknown for us, if not for him (in his illuminating programme notes he tells us that he has known and studied these cycles all his life).  His performances were masterly.  His stillness and concentration were most affecting, and frequently appropriate to the near-catatonia of Schubert’s first-person protagonists;  his range of expression was powerful and moving, the more so by being firmly controlled and never degenerating into ‘emoting’ or drawing attention to the singer instead of the song.

The cycles of poems themselves are extraordinary.  By the otherwise little-known Wilhelm Müller, they both depict the progress of a rejected lover towards his doom.  Schubert’s settings are perfectly matched (more…)

Nikolai Demidenko at Blackheath

February 10, 2008

demidenko.jpgThe Burghers of Blackheath did themselves proud this morning – so many tickets sold for Nikolai Demidenko’s Blackheath Sunday recital that they had to move the gig downstairs into the Big Hall. Or was that just a pretext to hire in a big clangy Steinway (I guess) and leave the lovely little Bösendorfer sulking upstairs?

(There’s something about Demidenko’s appearance – short, hunched, bear-like, little beard, businesslike, unsmiling but not humourless – that reminded me of someone. I can’t quite think who it is: Malcolm Lowry? Arnold Dolmetsch? Peter Warlock? John Ogdon?)

I am forever grateful to the Powers that Be for setting Beethoven’s so-called ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, Op. 27 No. 2, on our O-level syllabus a hundred years ago – so I know it well, or so I thought. Nick Breckenfield’s fascinating programme note dismissed the ‘moonlight’ tag, but revealed that the first movement is a meditation on the music for the death of the Commendatore from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a fact which I certainly had not come across before. This makes sense of the Sonata’s subtitle – ‘quasi una fantasia’: meaning not ‘an apology for not being in the sort of sonata form you’re used to’, but ‘like an improvisation’ on an idea by Mozart. An illuminating insight into Beethoven’s creative processes.

A friendly Burgher of Blackheath (who shall be nameless) was absent, as she’d been to a previous recital by Demidenko and said she couldn’t stand the way he played – he ‘bashed the hell out of Schubert’. In the first movement of the ‘Moonlight’, my worst fears seemed to be confirmed. The sound was dry, too loud, and broken up by little hesitations before barlines or even beats – the opposite of the constant flow of triplets the music surely needs. I guess (I couldn’t see his feet) that Demidenko was using hardly any pedal – in contradiction of Beethoven’s instruction to play ‘without dampers’, i.e. with the pedal down all the time (which admittedly wouldn’t work on a resonant modern piano, producing an impossibly muddy effect). Not pleasant.

Liszt called the tiny (more…)

Endymion at Blackheath

January 27, 2008
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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…)

‘The Art of Chamber Music’ (Judith Weir Weekend, 19 Jan)

January 21, 2008

Judith Weir (c) Chris ChristodolouThe Schubert Ensemble (so named because their basic line-up is that of the ‘Trout’ Quintet) played music by Judith Weir and others, as part of the BBC’s Judith Weir Weekend, ‘Telling the Tale’.

Yet again – another concert, another nice old church… 

LSO St Luke’s’ is a small but magnificent 18th-century church by Nicholas Hawksmoor, marooned in a run-down area of East London and left roofless and derelict until rescued by the London Symphony Orchestra as their rehearsal space.  Very nice.

The trouble with Judith Weir is that, next to hers, everyone else’s music tends to sound woolly and self-indulgent.  Not so Martin Butler (a recently discovered enthusiasm of mine!), whose American Rounds came across as neat, colourful, energetic and fun.  Based on different genres of American folk music, its four movements were delightful, in Martin Butler’s charming laid-back idiom – mostly sort of pan-diatonic (imagine, for example, playing everything on the white notes of the piano but not necessarily in conventional chords), the second movement in particular full of tight irregular rhythms that at times reminded me of Martinů.  His trick of ending each movement with a throwaway quiet finish on a solo instrument was very engaging.  The piece will resound in my memory.

Then Judith Weir’s Music for 247 Strings (she has such a gift for titles! – 243 in the grand piano, four on the violin) – a bit of a ‘one-trick’ piece – quirky stops and starts, rhythmic unisons with occasional outbursts of temperament – but great fun.  A little folk arrangement, Arise, You Slumbering Sleepers, was followed by her Piano Quartet of 2000, broad, deep and hypnotic.

After the interval, David KnottsOn Such A Night As This Is! (an awkward title, unexplained in the programme notes) took a fun approach to bees, cattle and earwigs, tailored to the personalities of the players in the Schubert Ensemble.  As my bro commented, it did sound a bit like a Judith Weir imitation;  but it was a bit too pleased with itself and didn’t quite know when to stop – neither of which criticisms could ever be levelled at Judith’s own works.

What was I saying about Judith Weir’s flair for titles?  How could one not love a piece called What Sound Will Chase Elephants Away? for two double basses?  I say no more.

Then an early work with yet another brilliant title (more…)

Dame Myra Hess at the National Gallery

November 21, 2007

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Wait a minute, you say… that was way back, during the War, wasn’t it?  Well… Myra Hess has been brought back to (sometimes disconcertingly vivid) life, through the efforts of The Pianola Institute, in the persons of Denis Hall and our dear friend Rex Lawson – presiding modestly over the proceedings in their immaculate white tuxedos.

myra-hess.jpgTonight’s recital took place in the very room where Dame Myra gave her legendary wartime concerts, the octagonal Room 36 under the central dome.  Amazing sense of being in the presence of history – especially as the small but enthusiastic audience included some venerable guests who had known, and even performed with, Myra Hess;  and one grand old lady (we think Carola Grindea?) who persuaded her not to lock up her piano for the duration of the War, but instead to use her talents as a pianist to raise the nation’s spirits (rather than driving an ambulance ‘which other people can do’).   

With their impressive Duo-Art Pianola hooked up to a Steinway grand (the ‘pianola’ being a Black Box with 88 robot fingers pressing down the piano keys, and presumably with some robot toes for the pedals as well), Rex and Denis treated us to a feast of original piano rolls recorded by Myra Hess and her friends and colleagues – including Harold Samuel, Harold Bauer. and Myra Hess’s cousin Irene Scharrer (whose two electrifying Chopin Etudes were the highlight of the evening for me).  Dame Myra herself played Bach, Scarlatti (arr. Dukas!), Debussy and Szymanowski, and half a twee duet by ‘Burgmein’, who turned out to be the Italian publisher Giulio Ricordi hiding behind a pseudonym.

How’s this for synchronicity?  Two nights ago I was writing up Joshua Bell’s recital (see my previous post) and had a rant about Harold Bauer’s ‘rewriting’ of the Schumann violin sonatas.  Lo and behold, tonight we had Harold Bauer ‘in person’ playing a Schumann Novelette introduced by Denis Hall saying that Bauer had published a complete ‘improved’ edition of Schumann’s piano music, which was still worthy of pianists’ attention today.  Hmm.  Still, the playing was impressive.

Overall, (more…)

Joshua Bell at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 18 November at… er… 7 pm

November 19, 2007

red-violin.jpgAll did not go quite according to plan:  Joshua Bell (along with several of the audience) apparently thought the concert started at 7.30, not 7, so it was getting on for 7.20 when a slightly dishevelled-looking figure finally came on to the Cadogan Hall stage, along with the more impeccably turned out pianist Jeremy Denk, both dressed all in black and looking somewhat like a couple of über-cool twelve-year-olds.

Things were further muddied by a misunderstanding which had led all of us (including me, writing the programme notes, and poor Lisa at the Hall who booked him a year ago) to think he would be performing the Sonata by John Corigliano (1964), whereas Mr Bell insisted he was playing Grieg’s Sonata No. 3 instead.  His rather garbled explanation did little to clear things up.

Anyway, all negative impressions were erased when they started to play.  The Schumann Sonata No. 1 was terrific (a little early scratchiness aside), charged with energy and understanding, the beautiful conversational middle movement full of intimacy and wit. 

(Amazing that in 1945 Harold Bauer thought it necessary to ‘improve’ Schumann’s violin sonatas, correcting perceived errors in balance, texture and dynamics and even ‘touching up’ the harmony.  Even more amazing that, as recently as 1972, John Gardner commends these versions to performers ‘for serious consideration’  [in ‘Robert Schumann, the Man and His Music’, ed. Alan Walker, Barrie & Jenkins 1972]. 

Poor Schumann… of course, he wasn’t well, was he… so he needs a helping hand… can’t orchestrate, poor dear… has good ideas but doesn’t know how to get them across… 

Terrifying arrogance!  Just play what the man wrote, and let it tell you how it’s supposed to go!  Trust him, he’s a greater musician than you will ever be!  End of rant.)

Then came Beethoven’s last Sonata, No. 10 in G, (more…)