Posted tagged ‘Steinway’

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…)

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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…)

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…)

Harmoniemusik at St Gabriel’s

October 11, 2007

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Janna Hüneke, flute
Sarah Devonald, oboe
Mark Lacey, clarinet
Geoffrey Pearce, horn
Alec Forshaw, bassoon
Paul Guinery, piano

I have known, and played with, members of the wind-based group Harmoniemusik for a long time – in the case of Alec, the bassoonist, for longer than I care to recall (39 years, I guess).  So I always try to get to their concerts if I can.  Last night’s was at another venue new to me – St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico.  It was part of The Seven Series, a series of… er… seven concerts, featuring ‘a mixture of established professionals and some of the most exciting new talent of today’.  Not quite sure how Harmoniemusik fits in to this – ‘exciting old talent’ perhaps?  (sorry!)  The semi-pro (or semi-amateur) group was founded in 1991 after playing together on board a Mediterranean cruise ship, and has recently given concerts in France, Belgium and Germany, as well a regular gig in Cornwall.  They have just released their second CD.

Large Victorian churches are not the most suitable places for chamber music – tending to be cavernous, echoey, COLD!, uncomfortable, and lacking good sightlines;  if, as in this case, you have two rows of pews with a wide central aisle, there is nowhere from which anyone can have a decent view of the whole ensemble.  However, this was part of ‘Gabriel Arts’, an umbrella set-up based on the church, evidently with an enthusiastic local audience;  peripheral attractions included wine, cheese and an art exhibition (buy now or leave a sealed bid…).

The concert kicked off with Bozza’s Trois pièces pour une musique de nuit – one of those wispy French pieces difficult to bring off with non-French players, but they did a fine and evocative job.  Then Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Wind, K452, which Mozart himself thought ‘the best work I have ever written’, and it is certainly a sublime treat.  Pianist was Paul Guinery, better known as one of the voices of BBC Radio 3.  A heart-warming performance, with tempi that felt just right – not too slow, none of that snail-on-a-piece-of-elastic catching up at recapitulations.  Lovely wind solos, fine piano playing;  a word, too, for the piano, a hundred-year-old Steinway with a soft but carrying tone that almost sounded as if it could have been a Viennese fortepiano of Mozart’s day.

The second half (more…)