Showing posts with label Wigmore Hall. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wigmore Hall. 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.




Thursday, April 10, 2014

Meet...Tara Erraught

Rising star alert: Irish mezzo Tara Erraught is giving her London debut recital at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday afternoon. She is then singing Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne. I've been following her career for a good few years as she's worked her way up, not least via the Bavarian State Opera's young artist programme, and her enthusiastic advocates include pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who introduced and accompanied her in a big outdoor concert in Amsterdam a few years back. I asked her for an e-interview... First, an extract from La Clemenza di Tito in Munich...




JD: Tara, tell us about you. You’re from a big family in Ireland? How did you start to sing?  

TE: I am one of three children, but we grew up on my grandfather’s farm on the east coast, with all of my mother’s family.
        I began to play the violin aged five, as we had a wonderful orchestra in the primary school, and all of my family had learned before me. However, when I was ten I was taken for my first singing lesson with the wonderful Geraldine Magee in Dundalk, with whom I studied until the age of 17. I was a huge fan of singing and I knew every word to the cassette tapes of Neil Diamond and the hits from the 60s that my parents had, so it was a good time to learn an appropriate song for a young girl! I loved it from the very beginning - there was never any question of which I preferred.

JD: What have been your big career breaks so far? Which roles/concerts have you enjoyed most up til now?

TE: I have been so lucky! Really blessed to have such opportunities. Firstly, I have been blessed with wonderful teachers, without whom one could not tackle wonderful opportunities when they arise. Before we mention professional success, I should mention how important it was to my career becoming a member of the opera studio of the Bavarian State Opera. That was already a "big break". Directly after the third year of my undergraduate degree, they offered me a position in Munich, which of course I jumped at! Two immensely important years that helped form my performance abilities, stage technique, understanding of the industry and audition practices. Without these things I would not be where I am today. 
            Since then, I think most everybody would say my big break was jumping in at five days notice to sing Romeo in the first night of Vincent Boussard's production of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. It was an amazing evening, one that I will never forget for the rest of my life, so I hold that opera very close. I sang the title role in a first night of Rossini's La Cenerentola at the Vienna State Opera in 2013, another wonderful time, with a composer I LOVE! Of course I must also mention my last role debut as Sesto in a premiere production of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito at the Bayerische Staatsoper this past March. Another production I will never forget, a stunning role, surrounded by my best friends on the stage, this was a very special experience! 
JD: What has it been like to be on contract to the Bavarian State Opera? What does their young artist programme offer that is special? In what ways has it been good for you?
TE: It is wonderful to be a principal Soloist at the Staatsoper, not only as a performer but also because many other incredible performances and artists surround us on a daily basis. I loved my time in the opera studio. There were only eight members and not only did we have singing lessons, repertoire coaching, drama class, language classes, but also one full production a year, as well as small roles on the big stage, the ability to watch performances, and more importantly, to watch other artists rehearse. What I learned there about my own voice, my performance abilities, was incredible, but it was so very important to watch older singers, to learn the tricks of the trade through observation.
JD: You’re about to sing Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne. How do you like Glyndebourne? And how do you like Octavian? What are your thoughts about his character?

TE: Glyndebourne is the most stunningly beautiful place! You can’t imagine what it is like to take a break from rehearsal, and enjoy some air while walking through the gardens or around the lake! I mean, it’s something from a dream. I am loving our rehearsals, the cast and collective colleagues are a great team, and although we laugh a lot, we get a lot done! 
Without giving away much about my character, I will say that I don't play him, I try to inhabit him, and in turn I think there is quite a depth to this young man. He is not in an easy situation from any angle, and he goes from being a young lover, to being a man... it’s an amazing growth to experience. However, to say any more would be giving things away... I must say, I LOVE this music, it enraptures you! This is my first Strauss main role, and I tell you, it pulls at your heart strings! At our first musical rehearsal I didn't even make it to the end of the first act without shedding a few tears of total awe.

5. Tell us about your programme for the Wigmore recital - how did you choose it? (It is an unusual line-up of Brahms, Britten, Wolf and Haydn.) Are you excited about singing at the Wigmore?

TE: I cannot tell you how excited I am to make my British recital debut in the stunning surroundings of the Wigmore Hall. I have just finished my second recital tour in the USA and I loved every minute, so I am so looking forward to doing a recital here! A recital is a wonderful way to get close to the audience, to feel them, what they like, and to discover new levels in your own performance.
            The programme: I wanted to do some of my favourite repertoire, which reflects where my path has taken me thus far. The Wolf and Brahms, both German, are so so much fun to sing, goodness me, I mean, talk about a belly full of fire! I desperately wanted to do some Britten as I have not yet had the pleasure to sing any of his operas, but I have always been a big fan of his music, and to take his folks songs out and present them seemed like the perfect idea! Finishing with the Haydn, I began singing in Italian as I learned my vocal technique, so to come back to this language is always a pleasure, and I just LOVE this piece! 
JD: What are your dream roles for the future? 

TE: There are so many - it all depends on where the voice decides to go. I would love to sing a Donna del LagoItaliana in Algeri andOtello from Rossini as well as Mozart’s Susanna from Figaro - those four are right up there on my list. Some day, I want to revisit Romeo, I will also look at Der Componist from Ariadne auf Naxos, Adalgisa from Norma, Orsini from Lucrezia Borgia and Sarah from Roberto Deveraux. But right now, I am happy with the roles I am singing! 

JD: Any more highlights for the rest of the summer or the 2014-15 season that you’d like to flag up?
TE: I am very much looking forward to taking a supporting role this autumn in a new production of the Makropulos Case in Munich, a holiday performance of Hansel with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, singing Barbiere and La Cenerentola in Hamburg next winter, making my US operatic debut in Cenerentola at Washington National Opera, and returning home to Dublin for my first solo gala with the RTE next June.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Andras Schiff goes gold



This was the moment on 21 December when Andras Schiff was presented with the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society at the Wigmore Hall. Receiving it makes him the successor to such figures as Rubinstein, Horowitz, Curzon and only a scant handful of other tip-tip-tip-top pianists. He had just given a remarkable recital consisting of Bach's Goldberg Variations in the first half and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations in the second. It was his 60th birthday that very day.

The citation is inspiring and his response touching, humble and rather heart-rending. He went on to play a short piece written in memory of his mother, Klara Schiff, by his teacher from Budapest, Gyorgy Kurtag, who has also been presented with the RPS's Gold Medal this month. The RPS has been celebrating its own bicentenary this year, as it happens, and the bust of Beethoven is on the stage in memory of the Society's commissioning of his Ninth Symphony.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Benjamin Grosvenor at the Wigmore Hall - review

My review of Benjamin Grosvenor's astonishing recital on Monday night, for International Piano Magazine. Contains names I do not throw around without seriously good reason.

http://www.rhinegold.co.uk/magazines/international_piano/news/int_piano_news_story.asp?id=1873

The concert went out live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen to on the iPlayer for the rest of the week: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03cnd6y

Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Andras Schiff and a different kind of holy grail

If there's a holy grail for pianists, it is probably Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' Sonata, Op.106. Those performing the Final Three Sonatas are plentiful these days, but ask any pianist about their Beethovenian inclinations and mostly it'll be the mighty H that they will treat with the most  respect/kid gloves/freakin'terror. It is a Missa Solemnis of the keyboard, a Grosse Fugue for ten fingers and one brain. If you hear a good performance - one that shows the intricate mastery of the counterpoint, the searching existential embrace of the adagio and the strength of the core spirit that must win through, to say nothing of the seeds of nearly a century of music that followed it - it can feel a little like seeing a unicorn, so startling, unbelievable and inspiring is the result.

There was indeed a unicorn at the Wigmore Hall last night.

Continuing his series of the complete Beethoven Sonatas, Andras Schiff, tackling them in chronological order, has reached the late works and put together Opp.90, 101 and 106 in one programme, performed without a break. After bowing a couple of times he sat down to play an encore. What could follow the 'Hammerklavier'?

He stayed silent, smiling to himself and Wilhelm Backhaus's Bechstein for a moment longer than was comfortable, just long enough to think "Andras, nooooo..." - but happily it was a yes, for what comes after 106? Why, of course...109. Whole of it. Light relief, perhaps, after the unicorn? We still remember the time Schiff played the whole Wanderer Fantasy as an encore while giving the complete Schubert Sonatas 15 or 20 years ago. Those attending his Final Three Beethovens on Friday are in for a treat.

It can take a Bach expert to bring out certain truths in late Beethoven. This music isn't primarily emotional, but spiritual, philosophical, wise and human on the grandest scale. All of this Schiff is ready for in a way that few others can match. Sensibly, he waited until his fifties to tackle the complete Beethovens and his tone has deepened, strengthened and broadened to encompass the sonatas' demands. There's seriousness of purpose yet no portentousness in this playing; a powerful spirituality matches a deep affection, and respect is gently tempered with character-enhancing flexibility.

In Op.90 Schiff brought out the tense, unresolvable dialogue of the terse first movement and the Schubertian expansiveness of the songful second (cue a sense that this is where Schubert's D959 finale came from); for Op.101 the contrasts of counterpoint and recitative bounced and sparked off one another. This exquisite work was one of Wagner's favourites, incidentally. Though it seemed out of vogue for a while, I've heard at least two other pianists perform it just in the past few months, and good it is to see it returning in force.

Even a pianist who can memorise and whirl through the complete Bach 48 will admit that the 'Hammerklavier' is a tough call, but in Schiff's hands it is, first and last, all about counterpoint; and it's also a sonata that exists, metaphorically speaking, not in three but eleven dimensions, allowing us to time-travel through the parallel universes of musical creation in a matter of moments. The first movement and scherzo had a fiery, elemental energy that never scorched or scarred the grass beneath the feet; the adagio was a monumental exploration, with many questions and the tragedy invoked of few answers; and the vast final fugue...well, any hats in the hall were duly doffed. 

And for the whole sonata you listen in awe as the history of music flashes in front of your ears, feeding in and out: Bach's immeasurable treasure in The Art of Fugue, Brahms's Piano Sonata No.1 and Symphony No.4, Liszt's spiritual questing, Schumann's close-knitted multilayers and wondrous battiness, Wagner's Parsifal (yes), entire structures of Mahler, and the thorniest moments of Schoenberg, everything seems to spring from this mighty well that is the deep, nourishing and insatiable fount of Beethoven's genius.

Odd to think that the word 'Beethoven' apparently means 'beetroot field'. There's an example for the wonders of human potential.

The clarity of Schiff's touch was enhanced by the olde-worlde tone of his ex-Backhaus Bechstein (coming home to what used, of course, to be the Bechstein Hall before British Deutschophobia around the First World War forced a name change to Wigmore). It's a strong, beautiful old piano, with that woody, characterful Bechstein sound (I wrote about it rather fulsomely after the Lucerne concert in November) that offers a distinctive personality in virtually every octave; over the course of the cycle in many cities Schiff has fused his vision with the instrument's tone and brings out the best in it.

Oh yes, and Op.109. A chance to relax in its intimacy, ineffability and transparency after the rigours of the 'Hammerklavier'; yet the wonder remains undiminished as the variations - close indeed in spirit to Schiff's beloved Goldberg Variations - gradually unfold from simple sarabande to floods of dazzling stardust, before enwrapping them again in an almost matter-of-fact recapitulation. As if to say, "Now you know what's hidden inside this modest exterior, you'll never look at anything in quite the same way again."

Here is Andras himself, talking about the 'Hammerklavier' at the Wigmore Hall in his lecture series there (2004-6).




Saturday, January 26, 2013

Trifonov plays 'Widmung'

Here's a little something to remind us what it's all about: Daniil Trifonov, live at the Wigmore Hall in 2011, playing Liszt's transcription of Schumann's 'Widmung' ('Dedication').


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sicilian Star Saves the Day

[Attenzione! Tenor rave alert. Yes, another one...but please don't look away this time. You want to know about this guy.]


Yesterday our dear Fabio Armiliato was in hotter water than I'd thought. He was ill and didn't make it to the Wigmore after all. Cue a Rosenblatt Recitals call to a particular favourite of theirs who's done two of these very special concerts before, but isn't a household name among British opera buffs, never having sung in a British opera house (to the best of our knowledge) and certainly not at the Royal Opera House. He's a Sicilian bel canto tenor with no hair and an earring and his name is Antonino Siragusa.  Above, in L'Elisir d'amore with Patrizia Ciofi...

He zipped over from Italy sometime around midday and is off to Japan this morning. And, wowing the hall with Italian songs in the first half and a range of magnificent virtuoso arias in the second, he won himself a standing ovation.

We thought about going backstage to spirit him off to Covent Garden, where we would have him sing "Ah, mes amis" from the rooftops, and we'd chain ourselves to the railings and wave placards until someone there books him. He sings pretty much everywhere else - the Met, Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, La Scala, Barcelona, Vienna, Tokyo (here's his current schedule). But not here. This is very odd.

He isn't your typical Wigmore performer. Unfazed by the last-minute gig, the hallowed space or anyone in it, he worked the hall with sunny mien, jokes, poise and evident delight. The little "Wiggy" is an interesting acoustic for big operatic voices - at first you think it's going to be way too loud - but once you've acclimatised, it's a treat to be at close quarters with the knock-em-dead high notes and the pianissimo serenades alike.

This voice is at the higher, stronger end of bel canto. He may not have the honeyed heavenliness of Florez, but his vivid, bright personality owns a sound to match, with an edge of stainless steel about it. He is a Rigoletto Duke, a Count Almaviva and a Guillaume Tell Arnoldo, to say nothing of Tonio from La fille du regiment - after keeping up the thrill for a whole evening, it then takes a special confidence and security in technique to wander on and ring out those nine  jackpots as your final encore.

The programme in some ways could have looked topsy-turvy - the Tosti Neapolitan-type songs, de Curtis's 'Non ti scordar di me', 'Granada' and so forth took up the first half, while 'Una furtiva lagrima' opened part 2 the way he meant to go on. It worked, though; and maybe it makes sense to warm everyone up with the seductive stuff before moving on to the operatic numbers.

'Firenze' from Gianni Schicchi suited him from shiny crown to toe, as did the one French number of the evening, 'Ah! leve toi soleil' from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. (And how nice to learn that Flotow's Martha involves a heroine in disguise going to, er, Richmond - my neck of the woods.) Lovely, convincing characterisation; communicative diction - the programme notes contained short synopses but no translations, given the shortness of notice, and you don't need them if you can hear the words and all their emotions; it was all well chosen and wonderfully performed. [Above: portrait by Javier del Real.]

The pianist, the doughty Marco Boemi, who played brilliantly at short notice and received much grinning praise from his singer along the way, announced he was taking a break for the penultimate aria, 'Se il mio nome saper voi bramate' from Il barbiere di Siviglia - Siragusa strolled back in carrying a guitar and accompanied himself through Almaviva's serenade. 'Asile hereditaire' from Guillaume Tell finished the programme, but we didn't want to let him go, and along came the encores...

My Italophile pal was so overcome that she asked to be introduced to Ian Rosenblatt and gave him a very big hug.You've brought us so much joy by putting on this concert, she declared. She's right. This series is what enlightened philanthropy is really all about. And fortunately, with Sky Arts now on board to broadcast the Rosenblatt Recitals, there'll be a chance for many, many more to sample the joy of great singing close to.

Let's hope that Covent Garden wakes up sometime soon and brings Siragusa in from the cold.





Monday, January 14, 2013

Fabio Armiliato gets into hot water


Fabio Armiliato is the tenor in Woody Allen's shower - in To Rome with Love. UPDATE, 10.30am: Tonight he should have been in the Rosenblatt Recital Series, singing Italian verismo and more, though this time minus the soap bubbles, but we've just heard he's off sick. Antonino Siragusa will replace him.

In today's Independent, Fabio Armiliato tells me what it was like to work with Woody...
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/when-a-wet-tenor-wowed-woody-allen-8449579.html

Monday, November 26, 2012

On fire at the Lucerne Piano Festival

How I wish that that title were metaphoric, but for once, dear readers, it isn't.

There I am in the foyer of one of those beautiful hotels with the piano bars, leafing through a newspaper and leaning against a convenient ledge while waiting for a jam session to start in which the likes of Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Simon Mulligan and friends are to play the night away. And I smell burning. And my back begins to feel hot. For there, behind me, is a candle, and it may be Christmas and it may be pretty, but it's nevertheless a naked flame and it has set light to my inexpensive yet smart and brand-new black lace jacket, and another 30 seconds and JD will be toast. With rapid brain-to-hand connections honed by typing and piano-playing (or in this case schnozz-to-hand connections, perhaps) I manage to whip off the jacket and save myself and the smartest hotel in Lucerne from spontaneous combustion.

All's well that ends well. The jacket is a write-off, but I escaped with only a whisker of a singe, if a bit shaken. Missed the jam session and slunk back to my own hotel for camomile tea and a stiff whisky. It's not a bad place to slink back to.


video


The jazz element is one of the nicest things about the piano festival. You find scenes like this - Jan Eschke in the KKL foyer entertaining the concert-goers at a scarlet Steinway created specially for the festival...








 Or this - Simon Mulligan in residence for Saturday afternoon at the Schweizerhof:

The big concerts, meanwhile, went on on Saturday night with Jean-Yves Thibaudet in the Ravel Left Hand Piano Concerto, partnered by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Bernard Haitink. The maestro gave us some gorgeous Mozart in the second half: the G minor Symphony No.40 with judicious tempi, beautiful long phrases and plenty of heart. Ravel, though, didn't seem quite their thang, emerging a bit ploddy and metronomic, while the inimitable Jean-Yves did his very best to insert some sparkled into the proceedings beyond his trademark diamante belt. I am still cross about missing his jazzathon - he can do a mean Bill Evans turn when he wants to.

Last but by no means least, possibly the most gorgeous piano recital I have heard all year. Andras Schiff is very busy with Beethoven at the moment, and having missed his Wigmore Hall recital last week, it was a treat to hear him in the much larger KKL with its warm and exquisite acoustic. His programme included the sonatas from Opp.14 to 28 - all of them - and involved the special atmosphere that Andras's mega-traversals of repertoire tend to have, plus some.

This total-immersion experience is a little like a meditation. Instead of grabbing us, shocking us and bashing the hell out of the instrument, as some pianists do, Andras leads us into another world through silken beauty of sound, absolute love for every note and a temperate attention to the purity of the music. The hall lights are darkened and he plays under a spotlight - a very good idea, since it stops the audience rustling pages as they try to read the programme mid-flow.

He is currently touring with a Bechstein of 1921 that was used often by Wilhelm Backhaus - implicitly aligning himself not so much with the "HIP" movement as the "Golden Age" of pianism. In my case, of course, he's preaching to the converted by choosing a Bechstein. I grew up with one, then bought a new one about eight years ago. I love the character of the Bechstein sound, the woody plangency of the tone, the distinctive nature of the different registers. Andras himself has perhaps the most recognisable personal sound of any pianist working today - it isn't comparable to any other pianist I've heard, other than recordings of Bartok himself. Over the years it has grown and evolved to suit Beethoven every bit as well as Bach - and it is difficult to imagine a more ideal vehicle for it than this instrument. This playing was not like Beethoven that you'll hear from anyone else - and it is revelatory, allowing those underrated  Op.14s, Op.22 and Op.26 to glow as the masterpieces they are by stripping them to their essence and, with total empathy, focusing on nothing but that. I could have listened to him forever.

I urge you to seek out this unique artist and hear him at every possible opportunity. He plays a lot - and here in London, I fear that it has perhaps been too easy to take his presence for granted. Tonight he is playing the same programme as in Lucerne, this time at the Wigmore Hall.

Here's his American website and schedule; and the UK one.

And here he is talking about Op.111. You can hear all his lectures on the Beethoven sonatas via The Guardian, by following these links.



Saturday, April 07, 2012

Vengerov rides again



(Above: Maxim Vengerov plays and talks on BBC Radio 3's In Tune the day before his Wigmore comeback concert...don't miss it, even if you missed the concert.)

Being Maxim Vengerov at the Wigmore Hall the other night must have been rather like being Barack Obama winning the US election. The weight of expectation had to be all but inhuman. Vengerov's comeback concert - to which his appearance as stand-in for Martha Argerich  two weeks ago was an unexpected warm-up - couldn't have announced more clearly that the violinist means business. It is some six years since an injury grounded him. Since then, he's discovered life beyond four strings and a bow, from conducting to dancing the tango. He's taken up a new post as Menuhin Professor at the Royal Academy of Music and he has recently married Olga, sister of the violinist Ilya Gringolts. The couple now have a baby daughter.

It's a long way from prime prodigy to professor and proud papa; and even if Vengerov didn't exactly need to grow up - we'll never forget his magnificent performances in his teens and twenties - then he has certainly matured. The showmanship has by no means vanished, as his encores, Brahms's Hungarian Dance No.1 and the Wieniawski Scherzo Tarantelle, proved (so why did the dear old Wigmore audience get up and start going? I reckon he'd have been ready to keep playing for a good while longer...). But the bulk of the recital was weighty fiddle fare: the Bach D minor Partita, the Handel D major Sonata and Beethoven's 'Kreutzer' Sonata, which Vengerov is privileged to play on the 'Kreutzer' Stradivarius. Kreutzer himself never played that sonata; that was his loss.

Vengerov switched bows for the second half. Not that it was possible to see, from the murky depths of the Wigmore Critics' Cattery, the precise nature of the bow he used for the Bach and Handel - it seemed pointier, and the sound it produced was more forced and less lovely. With the D minor Partita, though, Vengerov reclaimed the stage on which he first stormed London. From long, stark note number one, delivered with head raised and turned away from the instrument, the space was his, the sound all his own; the music unfolded like a water garden uncurling its wonders from within. The Chaconne was as muscular and idealised as a Michelangelo sculpture.

Joined by his regular duo partner, Itamar Golan, Vengerov created a different soundworld for the Handel: this was genial music-making for friends, in contrast to the inward soliloquies on which we seem to eavesdrop in solo Bach. Delicious with piano accompaniment, drawn with soft and deft strokes, tastefully decorated, it conjured a sepia-toned environment that didn't project outwards so much as invite us all in.

But it was the Beethoven that stole the show. Vengerov and Golan never played safe, working at tempi on the edge of the possible in that crazy first movement development, with dynamics that blazed, and electricity that flared, flickered and illuminated by turns. Uniting a composer's inner ethos with the nature of the physical sound has become something of an under-rated art, but that's what they did: the eloquent richness of Vengerov's tone and its soaring conviction was Beethoven, with all his idealism and defiance alive and well. That's the mysticism of which music and its finest exponents are capable. And as an address from a newly returned president in a musical White House, it couldn't have been more inspiring.

The concert was recorded for BBC Radio 3 and I think it is going out on 29 April. Also projected for the Wigmore Live record label.

Bravo, Maxim! It's good to have you back.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Newsround: The Long Road to Parsifal

My Internet is back, so very quickly, before it vanishes again, here's a little newsround.

BATONFLIPPER'S BIG BREAK


Don't miss this blog by conductor Michael Seal, who tweets as @batonflipper, about how Andris Nelsons dropped out of the CBSO tour and he had to step in at an astounding 20 minutes' notice. There followed a massive programme with Jonas Kaufmann singing the Kindertotenlieder. By all accounts Michael did magnificently. Is this his big break? Let's hope so. Interesting, too, to hear about how Der Jonas responded when a member of the audience shouted at him after his first song to step forward because they couldn't see him...

THE RETURN OF MAXIM VENGEROV


He's been around, but not playing the violin: an injury has kept him away from the fiddle on a sort of enforced sabbatical. But now he's back at last. Maxim Vengerov is on In Tune on BBC Radio 3 today, playing and talking, sometime after 4.30pm. Tomorrow he'll be giving his first Wigmore Hall recital for around 20 years, with Itamar Golan at the piano. I was at that last one, and I will never, ever forget it. He was 14 and there, on stage, was a spotty schoolboy playing for all the world like Jascha Heifetz. I am sure everything will be different now - have the intervening decades mellowed him, or will he be that same virtuoso daredevil? It's a comparatively restrained programme: Handel, Bach and Beethoven - but of course music doesn't get any greater than the Bach D minor Partita and the Beethoven 'Kreutzer'. Go, Maxim, go!

WHERE'S TOMCAT?

He's here:



That, in case you wondered, is a view from the pit at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich, where our Tomcat is currently working, having taken extra time away from London. His own enforced sabbatical (rather different from Vengerov's) has done him the power of good - and the particular ironic trajectory by which this Buxton-raised son of German-Jewish refugees from Berlin fetches up in Munich, playing Wagner's Parsifal at Easter, is something that you couldn't make up. The orchestra is fabulous, he says, with no weak links; it functions with plenty of space, great facilities, grown-up attitudes and, not least, crack football teams for both sexes. Right now he's being shown the town by Wilhelm Furtwangler's great-grandson, who happened to be sitting next to him on the plane.