Showing posts with label Tchaikovsky. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tchaikovsky. Show all posts

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Adventures in Franco-Russian musical pictures

This is an edited version of the talk I gave at the Wigmore Hall last Saturday, introducing a programme that consisted of the Debussy Violin Sonata and both of Prokofiev's, plus Pärt's Fratres, gloriously played by Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne. Enjoy...


Did anyone see Benvenuto Cellini the other night at ENO? Well, I hope that by the time we’ve finished here, you might want to – because this is going to have quite a lot to do with Berlioz. Alina and Steven’s programme focuses chiefly on Debussy and Prokofiev, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the inter-influences between Russian and French music over the decades, indeed nearly a century, before their sonatas were written. I’d like offer you a kind of treasure-trail – a long-distance game of musical ping-pong between these cultures. We’ll look as far back as 1830 and follow the path forward to the points at which Debussy and Prokofiev each breaks away to write violin sonatas that represent them at their most pure, distilled and independent. By embedding both of them in this background, looking at their musical roots, I hope we can gain extra appreciation of and perspective upon their branches.

Let’s turn the clock back, first, by nearly 90 years. In 1830, a new piece exploded onto the consciousness of the French music-loving public: the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique. Even today it seems quite extraordinary to realize it was composed so early - only three years after Beethoven died, and two after Schubert. Berlioz really is phenomenal. If you go to hear Cellini, which dates from 1838, you’ll hear vocal and choral writing that is almost impossibly ambitious, and harmonies that would have been startling even in Wagner. Along comes this visionary, larger-than-life composer, with the sheer scale of his thinking, the dazzling range of his orchestration, the imagination to make music nearly as powerful a narrative force as literature and the courage to dare everything – which is what Benvenuto Cellini is really about.

Much of Parisian musical society, though, didn’t know what on earth to make of Berlioz. All his life he struggled for appreciation at home. Musicians elsewhere, though, were listening with more open ears – notably, in Russia. Berlioz toured there several times, to great acclaim, his last trip taking place close to the end of his life, and it was on that occasion that he met Tchaikovsky.

In Russia, Mikhail Glinka was the forerunner of a group of composers who were eager to build on his achievements: they are known as The Five: Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Cui, Borodin and Mussorgsky. But slightly aside from them stood Tchaikovsky – a colossus in his own right, the most westernized of the Russians and the closest to the world of ballet, in which guise so much Russian influence soon came to the west. Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker offer exquisite orchestration and remarkable sound pictures that were certainly affected by his colleagues, especially Rimsky, but that travelled particularly well.

Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest Tchaikovsky summed up Pyotr’s attitude to Berlioz like this:
“Whilst he bowed down before the significance of Berlioz in contemporary music and gave him his due as a great reformer, chiefly in the sphere of orchestration, Pyotr Ilyich did not feel any enthusiasm for his music…But, although he displayed a sober attitude, free of any blind enthralment, towards Berlioz's works, he felt otherwise about Berlioz's personality during his visit to Moscow. In the eyes of the young composer the latter was above all, as he himself says, the embodiment of 'selfless hard work and ardent love of art'. Moreover, he was an old man worn down by the years and by illness, persecuted by Fate and by people, and for Pyotr Ilyich it was gratifying to be able to comfort him and warm his heart even just for a moment with a fiery manifestation of sympathy. Finally, in the person of Berlioz there stood before him the first great composer whose acquaintance he had had occasion to make, and the feeling of piety which as a young artist he understandably felt for his great colleague could not leave him indifferent. Like everyone who seriously loved music in Russia, he received Berlioz enthusiastically and all his life retained fond memories of his meeting with him.”
A lot of the issues in Russian and French music in the mid to late 19th century are really about a quest for national identity. It’s interesting to note those words about Berlioz being the first great composer Tchaikovsky had met. Russia, having not really had a national identity in classical music, had been importing some, the process started by Peter the Great. But it was down to Glinka’s successors to create their musical nationalism by adding to the mix sounds from the folk music of Russia and its surrounding nations and ethnic groups, making these part and parcel of their compositions. Before that, great composers were there not.

France, ironically, was also slow on the uptake. Its 19th-century musical establishment was seriously, appallingly stuffy, despite Paris being an artistic capital second only to Vienna - home to Chopin and Liszt, besides such operatic wonders as Meyerbeer, who may not have been the greatest thing ever, but was enormously influential, not least on Wagner. Yet these composers were respectively Polish, Hungarian and German. There was little by way of a French national language in music that could be clearly identified. The lyrical concision of melody that characterized Gounod, for instance, or the sparkle of Saint-Saens, is traceable mainly to influences like Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn.

After Wagner’s operas exploded onto the scene, the noxious combination of his overwhelming musical personality plus France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War led to seismic upheavals. In 1872 Saint-Saens, with a group of younger composers including Fauré, Chausson and Duparc, formed the Societé Nationale de Musique with the express intention of creating a uniquely French style of music, independent from German influence.

Now, if you are not going to let yourself be influenced by German music, but you do find examples from overseas more interesting than what your own country has been turning up, what are you going to do? You aren’t going to look at Italy, where opera dominated even more. You aren’t going to look at England, because there’s nothing much to look at. You’re going to look at Russia. Where there is, by now, plenty. Not least thanks to the influence of Berlioz. And you may be French, drawing on Russian influence, but you may not even realize that what you are actually drawing on is a French composer’s influence on Russia!

Here’s one little progression to illustrate this bit of ping-pong. Ravel admired Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. When he was writing Daphnis and Chloe, he got stuck over the final Danse générale and eventually he put the score of Scheherazade’s final movement on his piano, and said he ‘humbly tried to write something similar’.

Here’s Rimsky, then Ravel. And when you hear them both, try remembering, too, Berlioz’s rumbunctious Witches Sabbath from the Symphonie fantastique.

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Scheherazade finale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RX9Bhps-SQ


The chief point of confluence here was of course Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. And it was Mikhail Fokine’s exotic and sexy choreography for Scheherazade which brought that piece to everyone’s ears in Paris, including Ravel’s. The influx began in 1906, when Diaghilev held an exhibition of Russian art in Paris, creating a fascination there with all matters Russian. Two years later he put on Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov starring Feodor Chaliapin and then in 1909 he held a ballet season in which the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, music by Borodin, created a sensation. The colour, energy, vitality and exoticism of ballet as gesamtkunstwerk, with the soaring standard of all its elements, dance, choreography, music and design – all this made a vast impact. Thereafter Diaghilev’s commissions included Ravel’s Daphnis as well as Stravinsky’s first three ballets, The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. I don’t need to tell you what happened in 1913 when they premiered the last of those.

Diaghilev is what Debussy and Prokofiev had in common. Debussy was, of course, at the height of his powers and enormously famous by the time Diaghilev came to Paris. He had less to gain from the connection than his younger compatriot, Ravel, and much less to gain than the youthful Prokofiev. But we still benefit from his limited association because his commission – after an initial approach in 1909 that came to nothing - was the ballet score Jeux, in 1912, in which a tennis match leads its two couples into games of a very different kind.

Its choreographer, Nijinsky, also choreographed Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune in 1912, ending with an erotic gesture that caused a huge scandal. Debussy himself steered clear of both ballet and scandal. And he didn’t much like Nijinsky’s approach to Jeux. Here’s how he described him: “Nijinsky’s perverse genius applied itself to a special branch of mathematics!” he wrote. “The man adds up demisemiquavers with his feet, checks the result with his arms and then, suddenly struck with paralysis all down one side, glares at the music as it goes past. I gather it’s called the stylisation of gesture. It’s awful!”

In 1913 Prokofiev, then aged 22, travelled to London and Paris for the first time and made contact with Diaghilev. The impresario nurtured the young composer by commissioning a ballet score entitled Ala and Lolli; but when Prokofiev handed it over in 1915 Diaghilev rejected it as “unRussian”. This seems a little perverse, since it was always going to be modelled on influences from the Scythian culture of central Asia. Parts of it eventually morphed into the Scythian Suite. But then Diaghilev asked Prokofiev for another score, this time Chout. And as Prokofiev was still quite inexperienced with ballet, the choreographer Leonid Massine and Diaghilev himself guided him closely through the process. The result, premiered in 1921, was a major success – Ravel called it ‘a work of genius’ - and it was followed later by The Prodigal Son, which was choreographed by George Balanchine in Paris in 1929. These paved the way for Prokofiev’s Soviet ballets – Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, among his best-loved works to this day. There was a further ballet for Diaghilev, too, entitled Le pas acier, or The Steel Step, supposedly portraying the industrialisation of the Soviet Union.

This plentiful experience in ballet music was, I think, a lasting influence on Prokofiev, whose fairy-tale feel for colour, elan, rhythm and musical storytelling never left him. The Second Violin Sonata is more or less contemporaneous with Cinderella, and, I think, audibly so. More about that piece in a minute.

If Debussy and Prokofiev’s paths crossed in Paris during those years when Prokofiev was the enthusiastic young blood and Debussy the grand master near the end of his life, there’s precious little sign of it. Still, even if Debussy didn’t know Prokofiev, Prokofiev certainly knew Debussy’s music – and according to his son’s reminiscences, one of his favourite works was the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

Debussy had other Russian connections – and vital formative ones they were. In 1880, in his late teens, he found an interesting summer job with Tchaikovsky’s legendary patroness, Nadezhda von Meck.

Here’s her first impression of him, a letter of 10 July 1880: “Two days ago a young pianist arrived from Paris where he has just graduated from the Conservatoire with the first prize. I engaged him for the summer to give lessons to the children, accompany Julia’s singing and play four hands with me. This young man plays well, his technique is brilliant, but he lacks any personal expression. He is yet too young, says he is twenty but looks 16…”

She described Debussy to Tchaikovsky as her “little Frenchman”. Indeed, she became very fond of him and while he stayed with the family they played through duet versions of several big Tchaikovsky pieces. She told Tchaikovsky that Debussy was enchanted with his music. He made arrangements for duet of some of the national dances from Swan Lake, including the Spanish dance; his very first publication, apparently, was a Tchaikovsky arrangement that came out in Russia; and when he went home he took with him scores for Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and the opera The Maid of Orleans. He was young, intelligent and impressionable and soaked up music like the proverbial sponge.

Here is Romeo and Juliet…listen to the horn at around 8:54 to 9:56

And here is the Debussy. Listen to the woodwind around 5:50...

If that's a coincidence, I'll eat my hat...

Tchaikovsky was not so impressed with young Debussy, though, assessing the little Frenchman’s Danse bohemienne and declaring to von Meck that the form was “bungled”.

Now Tchaikovsky may not have been in thrall to Berlioz, but he was far from immune to him. He once said: “It is Berlioz who must be considered the true founder of programme music, for every composition of his not only bears a specific title, but is furnished with a detailed explanation, a copy of which is supposed to be in the listener's hands during the performance.” I doubt we’d have had his Romeo and Juliet overture without Berlioz’s example. 

Other French music had made a big impact on him, especially Bizet’s Carmen – the Fate motif proved a particular inspiration – and I think some crucial influences from Berlioz aren’t difficult to detect. We’re all too familiar with the applause that often follows the third movement of the Pathetique symphony, that rather brash and hollow march, which creates an expectation that it’s the end, when it’s not. The precedent for a supposedly triumphal march followed by something terrifyingly different was set in no uncertain terms by the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, where the march to the scaffold is mock-triumphal and followed by the witches' sabbath. Tchaikovsky was apparently not an enthusiast over the Symphonie fantastique – he much preferred La Damnation de Faust. But the precedent was there and if there is any doubting the bleak, grotesque impact of Tchaikovsky’s march and the tragedy that follows it, just look at what Berlioz was doing with his and the flavour is somewhat enhanced.

So there again, there’s the progression - Berlioz to Tchaikovsky to Debussy. But by the time we reach Debussy’s musical maturity, issues of musical nationalism are becoming stronger than ever before, in new, less cross-fertilised ways.

The trouble with musical nationalism is that it can be symptomatic of other kinds of nationalism on the rise around it. It has a way of finishing in wars. Both Debussy and Prokofiev were to go through considerable traumas as a result of the wars during in their respective lifetimes; their lives, their thinking and their music were deeply affected.

Debussy was only a child at the time of the Franco-Prussian War and he was fortunate thereafter to spend most of his life in peaceful times; but when the First World War broke out he was no longer in good health. It was around then that he began to suffer from the cancer that would eventually kill him in 1918, even as Paris was under bombardment.

He was ten years old when Saint-Saens was forming the Societé Nationale de Musique in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, and if later on writing music that was essentially French and that escaped Wagnerism became a preoccupation with Debussy, it was musically rather than politically inspired. But the First World War changed all that.

When Debussy composed what turned out to be his final completed works, the three instrumental sonatas – though originally he intended six – his outlook was close indeed to the manifesto of the original Societe Nationale. He was trying to create pure instrumental music that was free of influence from outside and that possessed instead what he felt to be characteristically French qualities. But to do so he now had to look back a very long way - beyond Wagner, beyond Tchaikovsky, beyond Berlioz and even beyond Mozart, turning to the French baroque, notably composers such as Rameau, Couperin and Leclair.

He wrote to his publisher, Jacques Durand, in August 1915: “I want to work – not so much for myself, as to provide a proof, however small, that 30 million Boches can’t destroy French thought, even when they’ve tried undermining it first before obliterating it.” Later he reflected in another letter: “What about French music? Where are our old harpsichordists who produced real music in abundance? They held the secret of that graceful profundity, that emotion without epilepsy, which we shy away from like ungrateful children…”

In his Violin Sonata he captures that quality to perfection. Here’s some of it.


And so Debussy may have begun his career under the shadow of Tchaikovsky and Wagner – but he finished it by breaking free of all external impacts, for the same nationalist reasons that at one time attracted composers to borrow from one another’s traditions. On the manuscript of his sonatas he signed himself simply "Claude Debussy, musician français".

Composers’ chamber music works often reveal their musical thinking at its most private – think, for instance, of Brahms’s clarinet quintet, or Shostakovich’s string quartets. I reckon Debussy is no exception – and Prokofiev, too, finding the intimacy in his chamber music to express everything he could not put into larger public works in the era of Stalin.

Interestingly enough, it seems that Prokofiev probably performed the Debussy Violin Sonata himself, on tour in a duo with the violinist Robert Soetens in 1935.

There’s one more influence from France which contributed to bringing Prokofiev’s Second Violin Sonata into being. This piece dates from 1942, it was the first of the pair to be completed – and it’s not really a violin sonata at all. It was originally written for flute and piano and was apparently inspired – in memory – by the great French flautist Georges Barrère. 

Barrère was one of a powerful line of great French flautists, who also included Paul Taffanel and Philippe Gaubert, and would later extend to Marcel Moyse, Jean-Philippe Rampal. The French repertoire is replete with works conceived for them, including pieces like Fauré’s Fantaisie, Poulenc’s Flute Sonata, Ibert’s Flute Concerto, Debussy’s Syrinx, the big solo in Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe and of course the opening of Debussy’s L’Après-midi  – which we’ve also noted was a favourite of Prokofiev’s. Moyse was another particularly significant example: a friend of Ravel and Enescu and creator of a method of flute playing that’s used by student flautists all over the world, he played under the batons of both Rimsky-Korsakov and of Prokofiev himself. He once declared: “I long ago observed that the real beauty of the sound comes from the generosity of the heart.”

In Russia the flute tradition was less developed than it was in France. The great violinist David Oistrakh spotted the likely lack of demand for this sonata and suggested Prokofiev should rework it for violin. Prokofiev embraced the opportunity and the result was every bit as successful as Oistrakh had hoped. Here he is, playing it, with pianist Vladimir Yampolsky.


But our next criss-crossing of France and Russia is more physical...and concerns why Prokofiev, having left Revolutionary Russia for France, eventually decided to go back again. 

He was not a political animal. He appears to have been rather single-minded about his music; he was also something of a dandy, loving to wear good suits, yellow shoes and plenty of aftershave. But it is ironic that a man preoccupied only with art, love and his adopted religion of Christian Science should have been caught up in seismic political events that changed the face of the planet, and it was inevitable that from time to time their impact would find some expression in his music.

Prokofiev escaped the 1917 revolution in Russia and spent the next decade abroad. He was in the US for around four years, he spent a year in Bavaria writing his opera The Fiery Angel, but the rest of the time he was in France, where, among other things, he worked with Diaghilev. In 1927 he went back to Russia for the first time, encouraged by friends who told him that his music was popular there and he would be greeted with enthusiasm. He found it a very different country from the one he’d left, but he was indeed welcomed back with considerable triumph. That acclaim haunted him thereafter.

Several factors conspired to create the mindset that returned Prokofiev for good to the USSR in, of all times, the mid 1930s. First, after Diaghilev died in 1929, his ballets dropped out of the repertoire and he was left short of a vital commissioning patron. Besides, he was homesick. In a 1933 interview, he said:
“Foreign air does not suit my inspiration, because I am Russian, and that is to say the least suited of men to be an exile, to remain myself in a psychological climate that isn’t of my race. My compatriots and I carry our country about with us. Not all of it, to be sure, but a little bit, just enough for it to be faintly painful at first, then increasingly so, until at last it breaks us down altogether.”

There could have been warning signs. In 1929, trying to get his ballet Le pas d’acier staged at the Bolshoi, Prokofiev faced tough questioning from the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, who challenged him over living abroad and whether a factory in the piece was a capitalist one or soviet. Perhaps it’s a measure of the composer’s ignorance of what had been going on in the USSR that he was furious and declared “That concerns politics, not music, so therefore I won’t answer.” The ballet was rejected.  

The next issue was purely musical. His personal leanings towards traditional forms, clarity of expression and a more traditional outlook than was being taken by contemporary composers in France at the time, let alone in Vienna, made him feel that the USSR might be the place for him. Desiring to create melodic music that large numbers of people could and would enjoy, Prokofiev felt his outlook was perhaps not so far off the official line. He once declared that he wanted to create music that would appeal to people in the Soviet Union discovering music for the first time, aiming to invent ‘a new simplicity’. The Soviet authorities were only too happy to encourage him – his return would be a massive PR coup. He spent much of 1935 there working on his ballet Romeo and Juliet, but in 1936 he was permitted to leave again for a tour, so he was away when Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was denounced in the newspaper Pravda, apparently for tickling "the perverted tastes of the bourgeoisie".

Prokofiev himself was attacked for his artistic outlook at this time - but he wasn’t there, knew nothing about it and wasn’t told the full story when he return. So instead of getting out while the going was good, he wrote Peter and the Wolf, enjoyed a huge triumph and settled happily in a nice apartment with his wife and family, just in time for Stalin’s ‘terror’. Fortunately he remained unscathed, though he incurred plenty of jealousy. Then he wrote an enormous cantata for the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution - only for it to be rejected out of hand.

He made his last foreign tour in 1938 and was offered a very nice contract in Hollywood to write film music. He turned it down: his sons were still in Moscow and he had to go home to them.

It was in the winter of 1938 that he began to write sketches for his first violin sonata. He had been working on film music with Sergei Eisenstein for Alexander Nevsky and was surrounded by the terrible purges of the Terror. Between 1936 and 38 about 7 million Russians were arrested, some half a million public figures were shot and hundreds of thousands more sent to the gulags. By the winter of 1940 Prokofiev found himself having to write celebrations of Stalin’s glorious society even while some of his closest friends were arrested, tortured and killed.

When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Prokofiev was evacuated with a number of other artistic figures, together with his mistress, the poet Mira Mendelson, for whom he had left his wife. They went first to the Caucuses, then to Tblisi in Georgia, and he took his violin sonata in progress with him. 

The Violin Sonata No.1 is much less famous than its sibling no.2, but it is by far the more personal. It’s an almost unremittingly dark piece and near the close of the first movement and again at the end of the entire piece there’s an eerie scalic effect which he described as suggestive of a wind blowing through a graveyard. Here is a complete recording by Oistrakh with the pianist Lev Oborin.


Prokofiev’s health was never the same again after the war. He was chronically ill for his last eight years and died in 1953 on the self-same day as Stalin. The first and third movements of his Violin Sonata No.1 were played at his funeral.

Think how much the world had changed. Debussy lived only long enough to trumpet his nationalist colours at the end of his life, but Prokofiev, born a prodigy with a pushy mother into the world of Tsars, Tchaikovsky and The Five, started off living the hopeful life of a composer who believed that politics and music could be separate, and paid the price by ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time even though he’d had the chance not to. 

You could see him as a hero who stood by his inner convictions and followed his heart. You could see him as an impossibly naïve and blinkered artist, hoist on his own petard. You could forgive him everything, as he lacked the luxury of hindsight. Or you could see in him the tragic story of one who devoted a wealth of talent to ideals that were to prove doomed and deadly. The story, perhaps, of Russia itself.

Now, one person from tonight’s programme has been missing and it’s Arvo Pärt and his piece Fratres. I apologise for sidelining him in favour of the Debussy and Prokofiev narratives – and I am sure that Fratres will be familiar since there can be few contemporary pieces that have been conscripted so often for film and TV. But there is one little footnote to add that ties it to our other pieces. Diaghilev was largely responsible for turning ballet into a gesamtkunstwerk, with Debussy as occasional prop and Prokofiev as musical heir apparent. Last week I went to Covent Garden to see a brand-new ballet entitled Connectome, with amazing designs by Es Devlin, fine choreography by Alastair Marriott and dancing by today’s greatest ballerina, Natalia Osipova. It really was a gesamtkunstwerk. And the music was four pieces by Arvo Pärt – beginning with Fratres. Do see it if you can.




Monday, April 07, 2014

Russian around in Moscow


I've just been to Moscow for the first time. Since I've been mesmerised by Russian literature and music for as long as I can remember, it's taken me a while to get there. Yet much as I love the culture that I know, nothing, but nothing, had prepared me for the sheer magnitude of the real thing.

These guys do nothing by halves.

Moscow is a giant onion, one that makes London - less than half its size - seem like mere wild garlic. This onion is still growing. You can peel back layer after layer, prising them apart with some difficulty: Tsarist Russia, Lenin, Stalin, Putin, everything superimposed and juxtaposed or simply posing - but as fast as you slice, so the new skins slide into being. Everywhere you notice building, restoration, cranes, scaffolding. It's a city that never ceases the process of becoming.

I've been paying house-calls to a few personal heroes. While tourists queue to worship the hoard of silver, gold and Fabergé-jewelled treasures at the Kremlin's Armoury [note to self: Google how this little lot survived 1917?], I found real treasure in the love with which the modest composer and writer museums are cared for - I saw Scriabin's, Chekhov's, Pushkin's, Bulgakov's (the haunted flat itself), but there are many more, and almost every one with a little theatre or concert room attached. The Bakhrushin Theatre Museum is a gem, filled with its eponymous collector's assemblage of memorabilia including Chaliapin's costume for Prince Igor, some rare portraits and photos of Pavlova, Nijinsky, Karsavina, and much more...

Here's Chekhov's house on the Sadovaya Ring, his home between 1886 and 1890:















Today, though, his view over the road looks like this:















Scriabin's home is particularly excellent. The apartment, in a dark turning off Old Arbat Street, feels as if he and his family could walk in at any moment. There's even a little machine on which he would mix coloured lights, furnished with still-functioning bulbs. Here is his Bechstein:




Casts of his hands - and his top hat and tails, preserved in a glass case - prove that he was remarkably tiny in stature. Just picture him strolling up the street with his student chum, Sergei Rachmaninov...

Hours after visiting Scriabin's home, I encountered some of his music. Peter Donohoe played Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.3 with the Moscow Philharmonic at the Great Hall of the Conservatoire (pictured at the top of this post, the conservatoire with its statue of Tchaikovsky) - an amazing performance in which Peter brought such a range of power and colour to the solo part that it was like having a second orchestra on stage. As encore he added Scriabin's Fifth Sonata - and, listening, to compare that little ring of coloured lights with the breathtaking wildfire of the composer's imagination is quite a leap. Moscow may seem vast; but the inward vision of some of its artists was treble that size. 

Peter, as it happens, was my cover star for the very first issue of my old Classical Piano Magazine, some 21 years ago (!) and is somewhat renowned for beating the Russians at their own game - notably the Tchaikovsky Competition at which he shot to fame in 1982. If you don't yet know his blog, please have a read. This British piano lion completely "gets" Russian music and the style of the Russian school, with all the necessary perspective, limitless expressive range and oversized scale of concept. He's a brilliant raconteur, too, and has much to say about his tours of Russia in the Soviet era. It was snowing just before his concerto the other day and the wind chill was around -6. Hah, said Peter, that's nothing. He once did a concert in Siberia in -58. And the hall was full. That was just the beginning...

The Conservatoire (pictured, top, with its statue of Tchaikovsky) has been restored, and beautifully so; the process is, of course, ongoing. The Great Hall feels bizarrely intimate given its generous seating capacity, and its acoustic is warm, vibrant and vivid - among the best I've encountered. The soaring staircases and foyers are painted delicate shell shades and portraits of composers adorn the walls. I had some fun with my limited knowledge of Cyrillic, working out how to spell HAYDN; it comes out as something resembling GAIDEYNI.

If you love literature and music you can't help enjoying the fact that the biggest statues around Moscow are of writers and composers; many streets, squares and Metro stations are named after them. This towering man is Mayakovsky, in the centre of a large square outside the Tchaikovsky Hall:


And here is the entrance to the apartment building housing Bulgakov's "odd flat" from The Master and Margarita:



In five days I have scarcely made so much as a first incision into the surface of this metropolis, one that can, conversely, swallow you up at a gulp. Only one solution: go back, soon.

I had a list six pages long of must-sees, and I saw about one third of one page. I've come home, though, with a still longer list of must-reads and must-hears. We read Chekhov here...but not Ostrovsky? We know about Glinka...but not Verstovsky? (Who he? - Ed. contemporary of Glinka's, vital Russian opera pioneer, but here name pretty much unspoken and music unplayed...). We know something about Stanislavsky - but we maybe didn't know that Chekhov's nephew took another branch of the Method to America with him and taught it to some of Hollywood's leading actors. And when do we ever stumble over a volume of Mayakovsky in sunny London?

Here is a memorial to Emil Gilels on the apartment block where he lived:



Hugely grateful to our wonderful Russian friends Alex and Erika, Sasha, and the British Council people who threw a very lively party in Café Tchaikovsky after a certain concert the other night, for making us feel so welcome and at ease in what might otherwise have been a daunting environment...and for taking us to some super restaurants - one Uzbek, another Georgian, and the Coffee Mania outlet beside the Moscow Conservatoire - plus the cafés of the Shokolade chain, where I sampled something delicious called sea buckthorn, packed full of vitamin C and jolly nice with honey and lemon.

After merely five days in Moscow, staying on Tverskaya Street (over the road from the Gilels plaque) amid unbelievable quantities of traffic (four lanes in each direction, or five?), with the thrill of seeing Red Square for the first time, and having to go "Pinch me, someone, I am really, truly, in the Moscow Metro..." it feels very odd to be home. Trips like this give you a new perspective, honest, guv. The South Circular? A little suburban side street. British weather? Mild, excessively damp, but kind. Surroundings? Green. Very green. You can smell the blossoms. It's quiet. As for cultural life - someone said that there are 40 orchestras in Moscow, most of them state funded. Theatres, concerts, ballet, opera, performance - it is part of a whole way of life. Like I said, these guys do nothing by halves.


You see what I mean?




Thursday, October 03, 2013

Alexei Sultanov plays Tchaikovsky's 'October'



An exquisite performance of 'October' from The Seasons by Tchaikovsky, performed by the late Alexei Sultanov.

This loss of this young Russian pianist was one of the great tragedies of the music world in recent years. He was the winner of the Van Cliburn Competition in 1989, aged only 19, and died in 2005 at only 35. His full story is here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The trouble with sparkles

T'other day I was out shopping when the girl behind the counter, returning my credit card, handed me a gift of a Christmas cracker covered in sparkles. I think our neighbours must have got one too, because they put through our door a cracker joke that runs: "Which players can't you trust in an orchestra? The fiddlers."

The trouble with the sparkles is that they're fairy dust and they fall off. Next thing you know, they're on the kitchen floor, in the cat food, under the piano, on the train and, by now, probably all over the Royal Festival Hall.

And they've got into JDCMB. We all sometimes need to get our sparkle back, so here are five favourite bits of musical glitter and winter snow to light the long evenings, aided and abetted by some great dancing. And they're not all Russian. Don't forget that this Friday it's the Winter Solstice and time for the JDCMB Ginger Stripe Awards!

Prokofiev: The Winter Fairy, from Cinderella - Frederick Ashton's choreography, with Zenaida Yanowsky



Schubert: Der Winterabend, sung by Werner Gura with pianist Christoph Berner. The gentler sparkle of moonlight on snowy stillness...




Tchaikovsky: The Silver Fairy variation from Act III of The Sleeping Beauty (look! No Nutcracker!). Danced by the Royal Ballet's Laura Morera.



Brahms: Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang. (Yes, there are sparkles in Brahms. Just listen to this...) Abbado conducts members of the Berlin Phil and the Swedish Radio Choir.



Rachmaninov: Suite No.2 for two pianos, second movement - Waltz. Alexander Goldenweiser and Grigory Ginzburg don't play it as fast as Argerich and Freire, but there's time to wallow in the glitter.







Saturday, December 08, 2012

Bourne's Beauty blazes bright

Now here is a cracker for Christmas. Some 20 years after choreographer Matthew Bourne (right) first leapt into the Tchaikovsky waters and swam, with The Nutcracker, he has completed the classic trilogy with his long-awaited Sleeping Beauty, now on at Sadler's Wells.

I'll admit it's not impossible that seeing it 24 hours after Robert le Diable made me enjoy it all the more; Tchaikovsky doesn't half sound great after Meyerbeer. But - like Bourne's legendary Swan Lake and his inspired, wartime-London Cinderella - this Sleeping Beauty, performed by Bourne's New Adventures, pulls you into its own world from the start.

The secret is, of course, the music. That's where Bourne's magic often lies: in his passion for, and understanding of, the emotional resonances of a score that sometimes aren't articulated in the original choreography. Rather touchingly, he has dedicated the show to the memory of Tchaikovsky. And though it's been cut - including interval, it's just two and a quarter hours long - Bourne has an unerring way of homing in on the bits that everyone adores and making the most of the drama in them, elements that the original choreographer, Marius Petipa, sometimes prefers to mask. The tension in the storytelling is plentiful, and there are plenty of laughs, too. Designs are by Bourne's chief collaborator Lez Brotherson: sumptuous, detailed and glowing with rich colour to match that of the music, with fantastical shards of lilac and green for the fairies, exquisite Edwardian gowns for the birthday party, scarlet and ebony catwalk-style for the weird final act...

 We start in 1890. The king and queen are childless - and it's Carabosse who remedies the situation. Aurora therefore is a changeling, perhaps stolen from the woods or fields - though I read it at first as Carabosse being the surrogate mother to end all surrogate motherhood. This not-so-royal Aurora has a wild nature and the curtain rises on mayhem in the nursery as the baby, brilliantly puppeteered, crawls everywhere, teasing her minders and climbing the curtains. The fairies (left) - three of whom are male, Count Lilac (Christopher Marney) included - sneak in by night beneath a vast moon and deliver their solos, watched by the fascinated puppet-baby: they endow her with such qualities as ardour, resilience and, with finger-pointing Golden Vine Petipa references, temperament in the form of the fairy Tantrum (the terrific Liam Mower, once an original-cast Billy Elliot on the West End stage). But the king has not shown his gratitude to Carabosse and she arrives for her revenge - her prophecy acted out by its future protagonists, with a blank mask over Aurora's face. The vision produces the visceral terror any parents would feel upon being told their lovely daughter will die in agony. For once you realise the power of Carabosse's curse. This isn't just a nasty fairy story; it is the worst thing that could happen to them.

Count Lilac saves the day. He's a vampire. Lilacula? The Lilac Fairy is usually the symbol of all that's good; vampires, on the whole, are not. This takes a little getting used to. But we can cope with that.

Fast-forward to the golden Edwardian summer of 1911, and Aurora is fighting to get her stockings off. Most Auroras are wedded to their pointe shoes; we watch their Rose Adage balances for any hint of wobbling ankle. But this Aurora - danced by the flexible and radiant Hannah Vassallo - is inspired by Isadora Duncan and she leaps free, wondrous, expressive and barefoot. Besides, she's hiding her childhood sweetheart, Leo the gardener, under her bed. The party is in the garden; the waltz's props are not garlands, but tennis rackets. Aurora misbehaves. Then into the gathering walks Vladimir Jurowski...

No, no, not really - it's Caradoc, son of the deceased Carabosse, played by the same dancer, the sultry Ben Bunce, ready to take revenge on his mother's behalf. Dark, sensual, sexy and evil, he brings with him a black rose. Aurora is both attracted and fearful. The rose seems to intoxicate her when she sniffs it. The Rose Adage becomes the dramatic climax. It starts as a sweet evocation of young love for her and Leo - Dominic North, whose appealing, gauche manner is underpinned during the course of the show by some serious technical virtuosity - but turns to tragedy when the black rose's thorn does the inevitable. (Editor's note to Petipa: in a land where spindles are banned on pain of death, how come your Aurora is allowed to handle roses?) Poor Leo, who's been tending the palace rosebeds, is blamed. Once again Count Lilac must save the day. But how is Leo to stay alive 100 years to be there for Aurora when she wakes up? A few lilac teeth in the neck sort that out.

A hundred years later, it's 2011. Leo, emerging from a tent by the locked gates of the palace, now has wings; he's one of the immortals/undead. Lilac gives him the key to the portals and they enter the Land of Sleepwalkers, where the Vision Scene is alive and well in the starlit woods.

Tchaikovsky's phenomenal sleep music - one of his most magical passages - finds Caradoc inside the palace, trying in vain to awaken Aurora. She doesn't respond to his kisses. There's a fast-asleep pas de deux, a la Romeo and Juliet tomb scene. The awakening itself becomes a showdown between Leo and Caradoc - and it certainly doesn't end the way you expect. Instead, the plot thickens...

Cue 2011, and something more akin to Eyes Wide Shut than Puss in Boots. Caradoc now has his own logo, and possibly his own fashion label. His red and black nightclub and its leather couches are preparing not so much for a wedding as for a satanic ritual, or worse. Aurora, zombified, arrives in wedding dress, a sacrificial victim (above).

Into this scene slinks the hapless Leo, ready to rescue his beloved. Caradoc, horribly transformed into a bare-chested Dracula with wings, towers over her, ready to bite or rape or kill - and Leo stabs him through the heart with his own logo. Not a wooden stake, but we can deal with that too, and it says plenty about logos. Does this show innocence and everlasting true love winning the day over the evils of fly-by-night fashion, sleb cultcha and materialism? Hope so.

The great pas de deux music signals Leo's reunion with the sobered-through-experience Isadora Aurora: freed from stylised classicism, it allows them unfettered expression, and I don't think I'm the only one who shed a quiet tear at the liberation of the lovers, Aurora's feet and Tchaikovsky himself. Ultimately the couple produce their own bewinged puppet-baby. "They all lived happily ever after" acquires certain new resonances in the context of the undead.

It's brilliant, beautiful, utterly bananas, overwhelming in its tenderness, dazzling in its imaginative freedom - and it works because it all springs from love and respect for the original. Admittedly, sometimes one wants more focus to the sculptural aspects of Bourne's choreography; if/when I missed Petipa, it was the great corps-de-ballet set pieces plus the fairies' ensemble of the prologue. Still, the concepts mostly work well: the waltz is perfect Edwardiana, the red and black Polonaise scarily coordinated for contemporary decadence. The highlights are the pas de deux, which give the lovers freedom to relish the music's blazing emotion: Aurora takes flying, barelegged leaps into Leo's arms; their bodies eat up the space in almost more than three dimensions as they spiral about the stage.

Perhaps it depends what you want from a Sleeping Beauty and how attached you are to Petipa's original. If the answers to those are respectively "a long evening including every piece Tchaikovsky provided" and "very", this mightn't be for you. (It wasn't really for The Arts Desk's Ismene Brown.) But for others, beside fresh air such as this, Petipa - astonishing though he will always remain - could feel just a little fettered and fussy. I loved it to pieces.

The music was recorded specially for the show and is rendered warm and passionate, with lovely violin solos from Gina McCormack. I'd prefer it to be live, but I guess you can't have everything.

Apart from that, the announcement this week of the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy couldn't have been better timed.

The Sleeping Beauty continues at Sadler's Wells until 26 January, then tours.







Saturday, June 30, 2012

An operatic top ten...

What makes a really good opera production? I saw one the other day. It was Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades at the bijou Grange Park, an hour or so down the M3 in the Hampshire woods and fields. World-class quality in a place about the same size, seating-wise, as the Wigmore Hall; an absolute powerhouse of a Herman from the American tenor Carl Tanner and a Lisa to match from the radiant French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels. The roller-coaster score, in the hands of conductor Stephen Barlow - who knows precisely how to pace and shape the drama - swept us all along, Pushkin incarnate in music. This is an opera I've seen a number of times, yet often under slight duress of the "I really prefer Eugene Onegin" type. But this time, I fell for it wholesale and stayed under the spell throughout.

That's thanks, in no small part, to the direction of Antony McDonald. A former co-director and co-designer with Richard Jones, McDonald has become a Grange Park stalwart, and his insights into this work leave me eager to sample more from him. The production does everything that a truly excellent opera production should. It takes a problematic work and convinces you that it's a masterpiece; it takes a problematic tale and makes it almost too real; and it stays with you for days afterwards, teasing out the deeper currents of the story and pointing up the connections that undoubtedly are there, but that could easily be forgotten, neglected or lost.

Here's my Top Ten of what makes a really good opera production - illustrated by this one.

1. It pulls everything together. It makes sense; it's rounded and satisfyingly deep.

2. The majority of operas are familiar to the majority of opera-goers (sad, perhaps, but true). A good production makes you feel you're seeing it for the first time, in the best possible way.

3. Psychology is acute; action matches script, plus some. Prince Yeletsky's aria - beautifully sung by the young Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang - is delivered to a Lisa who is slipping away from her unfortunate fiance's grasp by the minute. And he - attending the fancy-dress ball - is clad in a Pierrot ruff [pictured left] that makes him seem pitiable, even though the rest of the time he's an arrogant, entitled, sod-off aristo - and doesn't neglect to collect his winnings from the dead Herman's pile at the conclusion.


4. It's alive to semi-visible dramatic truths and draws them out, without thumping everyone over the head. For instance, Herman is totally bonkers. He's known by his friends to be obsessive; but we soon see that he's also a fantasist who has lost touch with reality. If he brandished his revolver at the Countess (a superb Anne Marie Owens, pictured right), it wasn't noticeable. Instead, she starts to succumb early in that devastating scene to clear symptoms of a heart attack. Herman is so bound up in himself that he doesn't notice. "Do you even have a heart?" he demands, failing to observe that that heart is busy killing her. When he states, later, that he brandished his gun at her and she keeled over, this is his own grandiose fantasy - it's not what actually happened, and that tells us more about him than this moment would have were it the truth. Later, we notice that the final gambling scene takes place without him knowing that his one-time pretext for undertaking it - winning money so he can "deserve" Lisa - is defunct, because Lisa has shot herself and is lying dead at the side of the stage where we can see her but he can't. He never thinks to ask where she is or what will happen to her.

5. The society in which the action takes place is all-important and enhances the action even when it is not the original. McDonald has updated the action to just-pre-Revolution Russia. As the Empress appears (in the auditorium) and the chorus pay her homage, red leaflets flutter down from above, and we don't need to pick one up to know what it's all about. The aristocrats - principally the Countess and Yeletsky - are of another era, stuck in the past; contrast the Countess's crinoline ballgown with Lisa's schoolmarmish outfit. And they behave with considerable vileness towards their underlings; it's clear why they would be hated and rejected, but they are rounded enough for us not to hate them altogether. This is a portrait of a society that has gone to pot and will soon implode: and with that goes the obsession with gambling, the drunkenness, the venality...

6. ...therefore it tells us a lot about our own time too.

7. It draws out darker psychological suggestions in the story, but lets us figure out the rest. Herman has the key to the Countess's room because it's a short cut to Lisa's room and her bed. He, though, is keener to wrest the secret of the Three Cards from the Countess, who long ago gave up her virginity for the sake of that secret. He unveils a giant nude painting of the Countess in her youth, when she was known as The Venus of Moscow. There's some correlation within Herman of the Countess and Lisa, and of the Three Cards and something sexual - and we don't learn exactly what it might be, but it's there, and it nudges our perception towards some deep-seated trigger for his madness.

8. The design (also by McDonald) and lighting (Paul Keogan) mesh together and match the music and the concept. And this is a concept production, but it's so good that you don't realise it at the time.

9. Attention to detail is magnificent. That matters more than ever at Grange Park, because the audience is so close to the stage that everyone can see everything. Tomsky's narrative in act I (sung by the excellent Roman Ialcic) is a case in point: he brings his storytelling to life by casting himself and one of his several pals in its roles, and becomes quite carried away when proferring an illustrative kiss. The pal's astonished exchange of looks with the other pal is priceless.

10. None of this would work were the performers not up to it. The casting is superb. Set-piece moments - like Polina and Lisa's duet (brava to the fulsome Polina of Sara Fulgoni) - are able to shine, with stagecrafted images that match their emotional content.

And now for something completely different. This is the beginning of another version altogether of The Queen of Spades - starring Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans, with music by Georges Auric. Spot one motif that pays tribute to Tchaikovsky's leitmotif for the three cards...







Monday, January 02, 2012

Cracking the O2 Nut

Rewind to Millennium year. Tony Blair's government has decided to leave us as its legacy the most magnificent flexible performance space in Europe. Audiences of many thousands can flock to the east London riverside to see rock concerts, ballets, operas, superstar lectures and big-screen spectaculars, to name but a few possibilities. The Proms consider relocating in order to treble the audience size and improve the sound quality. The seats are comfortable, the acoustics state-of-the-art and adaptable to any occasion, the sightlines carefully considered at all levels. The foyers are warm, pleasantly designed, friendly and welcoming, the food outlets offer - besides pizza, or fish and chips - falafel and organic salads, home-made chocolate cake and fresh juices. Soon no visit to London would be complete without a trip to the People's Palace of the Arts.

Instead...they built the Millennium Dome. A great spawling shell containing...emptiness. Think of the length of time it took to decide what to do with the damn thing. Think of the cost, dear readers. Think of the waste. Then think how different it could have been if only they'd decided to build it as a proper venue in the first place.

I trotted off to the Dome last week. It's now comfortable enough in its adopted skin as the O2, but still - what a missed opportunity it is. It doesn't feel only 12 years old: it has all the atmosphere of a miserable 1960s relic, with stairs that look as if they've been exported from the old Swiss Cottage swimming baths, and an all-pervasive smell of beer and burgers.

But the Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker was of course the purpose of the visit. And whoosh - two bars of Tchaikovsky and the entire O2 was transported to dreamland in one swoop. It was absolute magic from start to finish. If this Nutcracker can transcend that venue, then it can do anything.

Here's my review, for The Independent. (Not sure if it has already appeared in the paper - it isn't online yet.)





Balletic bravura, dazzling transformation scenes, a giant flying goose – Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker has become a national favourite. Still, with so many different Nutcracker stagings grinding away this Christmas, especially in London, bringing it to the gaping spaces of the O2 had to be something of a gamble, and not only because of the challenge of selling enough seats. Can its dream magic survive the transition from traditional theatre to an outsize arena with popcorn and eat-in-your-seat pizza?

It also had to survive an unfortunate late addition to the line-up: Joe McElderry crooning three Christmas carols in hideous, sickly arrangements. Goodness knows why he was there. But as soon as the show got underway, the spell created by Tchaikovsky and BRB’s expertise spun its joys unhindered on the sizeable stage.

Moving this complex showpiece to a space that neither it nor the company had inhabited before must have been a gargantuan task, yet glitches were few and far between – just a little over-enthusiasm with the dry ice for the battle of the rats, perhaps. A large screen brought us the welcome option of close-ups, the amplification of the orchestra was unintrusive, and best of all, the superb cast seemed to rise to the evening’s demands by bringing out any extra percentage of energy they might conceivably keep in reserve.

In Peter Wright’s Nutcracker – his own choreography rubbing shoulders with Lev Ivanov’s and some by Vincent Redmon – the momentum of demanding dance scarcely lets up. The party scene brings us three generations of a family happily taking turns on the ballroom floor, from the excellent children to some lovely vignettes for David Morse and the great Marion Tait as the grandparents. Our heroine, Clara, is barely off stage in either act, although when she is finally transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy for the great pas de deux, it’s another dancer who takes over. Rather like bringing out Wayne Rooney for the penalty shootouts.

Still, Clara has plenty to do already, and Laëtitia Lo Sardo joyously captured the adolescent girl’s voyage of discovery as she balances on the cusp of womanhood. Her Nutcracker Prince was the dashing César Morales, Robert Parker conjured a flamboyant magician-uncle Drosselmeyer, and the unshakeable Nao Sakuma as the Sugar Plum Fairy offered a tranche of ideal classical control.

Did it work? The ultimate verdict must come from the many children in the audience – for in the interval, through those soulless, stadium-style foyers, virtually every little girl was dancing. That’ll be a ‘yes’.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Festivities: Argerich and Freire play the Sugar Plum Fairy

MERRY EVERYTHING, EVERYONE! Enjoy this sliver of seasonal magic played by Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire.
Love & hugs from JDCMB