Showing posts with label Beethoven. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Beethoven. Show all posts

Thursday, February 21, 2019

In which all paths lead to Beethoven 7

I've been reading an interesting book, which I'm reviewing for BBC Music Magazine. It's Good Music: What It Is and Who Gets to Decide, by the American academic John J Sheinbaum. Among many things it does is to articulate a shake-up in the deep-seated ways we tend to think about the music we listen to. Is the idea of "greatness" all-encompassing in our musical judgments? If so, why? Does it have to be? Do we listen to music because it is empirically "great" in some way - or because we think it is because others have judged it to be? And not to other things because they are...not? It's a chewy, academic read, but deep within the texts and analyses are some intriguing ideas and a good few home truths. It's got me thinking...


Good Music

WHAT IT IS AND WHO GETS TO DECIDE

Good Music

69
320 pages | 2 halftones, 25 musical examples, 8 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2019
Over the past two centuries Western culture has largely valorized a particular kind of “good” music—highly serious, wondrously deep, stylistically authentic, heroically created, and strikingly original—and, at the same time, has marginalized music that does not live up to those ideals.

In Good Music, John J. Sheinbaum explores these traditional models for valuing music. By engaging examples such as Handel oratorios, Beethoven and Mahler symphonies, jazz improvisations, Bruce Springsteen, and prog rock, he argues that metaphors of perfection do justice to neither the perceived strengths nor the assumed weaknesses of the music in question. Instead, he proposes an alternative model of appreciation where abstract notions of virtue need not dictate our understanding. Good music can, with pride, be playful rather than serious, diverse rather than unified, engaging to both body and mind, in dialogue with manifold styles and genres, and collaborative to the core. We can widen the scope of what music we value and reconsider the conventional rituals surrounding it, while retaining the joys of making music, listening closely, and caring passionately.






























The same could be said of how we listen to performers. Is hero-worship the only way forward? What about collaboration? Do we have to listen to a performer only because he or she is "the best"? Is the whole idea of "greatness" a hangover from 19th-century thought processes in which the god-given gift was a cause for marvel and we had, post-Liszt, to sit in worshipful attendance?

It's good to question things. It's great. It's essential. We should never simply accept a status quo because it's a status quo - it's only by probing interrogation that we can work out what the heck is going on inside our own heads, as well as in the world around us. Then, maybe, just maybe, we can make some progress.

My starting point today, though, is Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, because it's my personal nomination for Greatest Symphony Ever. I adore its every note. And it's thought, by most and sundry, to be great...

There's a paradox to solve, meanwhile. On the one hand, if greatness is not a criterion for listening to someone or something, how do we decide what to hear? We could eliminate all the artists who indulge in individual behaviour we disapprove of. We might look, for example, for dead composers who lived a blameless life, maintaining in the 18th or 19th centuries all the standards we expect in the 21st - no extra-marital affairs, no lying or cheating, donating half your income to charity, adopting as many stray dogs as you can fit into your home, no holidays (or just non-extravagant camping), being a wonderful mum or dad or wanting to be one, supporting mild, centrishly-progressive politics, standing up heroically to extremism and enduring great torment for the sake of the Truth. Er, you get the idea. We would have very, very quiet concert halls. Though actually, we might hear some Beethoven, who had high principles and massive struggles and if he didn't always get things right, it was not for want of trying. We'd hear a lot of... his Symphony No.7 in particular because it has no political connotations and isn't programmatic and always resists any and all attempts to make it hackneyed, because it's an absolutely great piece.

That method is not much of a solution. We'd be very bored very quickly. What about performers? Here it's already not always "greatness" that determines who is heard the most, or applauded the most. Other matters often decide who gets the concerts (but let's not go there just now). If it's up to us to choose, we might pick others to listen to, for other reasons. Some of my favourite memories of piano recitals involve intimate performances of really interesting repertoire by performers known to a niche public, but little further - an all-Fauré recital by the marvellous Grant Johannesen at St John's Smith Square springs to mind, for example. I'd say that was 'great' playing. So it is about greatness, but not always greatness in the widely assumed forms.





But there's no doubt about it when you do hear a really great performance. I heard one last week - Benjamin Grosvenor playing Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1 in its chamber form, with the Doric Quartet - reviewed in The Arts Desk. And certain orchestral concerts have stayed with me for decades: Solti's Mahler 5, for instance, back in the late 1980s (mind-blowing to my student self), or Rattle conducting Debussy's La mer with the Berlin Philharmonic. And Andris Nelsons in Birmingham conducting...Beethoven's Symphony No.7.

Sir Georg Solti - mind-blowing Mahler
Once you've heard such a performance, it sets the bar high. Most of us want to seek out "great" performances because of how we find ourselves responding to them. They set our blood afire, our pulse racing, our imagination spinning, our emotions atingle, and they leave us glad to be alive and thrilled that we could experience this. And if, having experienced that, you then hear something that doesn't do it, you might leave thinking "why bother?".

Do we have to apply the "why bother" scenario to repertoire too? If we did, it would be...boring. Wouldn't it? Some pieces of music I've heard so often that I literally don't mind if I don't encounter them again for 20 years (Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony tops the list, even though I adore Tchaikovsky). The notion that "greatness is everything" seems to have struck out, for far too long, composers of a second or even third rank who wrote music that is interesting, moving, worthwhile, but just not quite as good as ...Beethoven 7. Korngold's Violin Concerto wasn't performed in the UK until about 1984 and it's become a concert favourite not because it's as great as Beethoven 7 (not even I would suggest that), but because it is nevertheless beautiful and fun, violinists love playing it and audiences enjoy listening to it. Plain old enjoyment has a place.

Speaking of enjoyment, just have a look at, and listen to, what Kirill Petrenko can do with...Beethoven 7 at the great Berlin Philharmonic.



Back to Korngold for a moment. We had to be familiar with that concerto before it could catch on, not to mention dealing with the Hollywood stereotyping that worked against it for so many years. Familiarity has a huge place in what we think we know, if that doesn't sound too paradoxical - and sadly, so does prejudice ("film music is second rate", "ballet music is piffling", "Mendelssohn is too glib", etc), though few like to admit this.

Moreover, take our friend Mikolajus Čiurlionis. I went to Birmingham last Saturday to hear Mirga conduct The Sea (I haven't reviewed it because the artist Norman Perryman is a very old friend and I have one of his paintings; indeed, the background image on this blog is his doing). But I can't help noticing that apparently part of the puzzled reactions that have drifted around in that concert's wake was the unfamiliarity of this tone poem. Most people there had never heard it before. OK, so it was the UK premiere.

This Čiurlionis piece is not difficult listening, though. It's much of its time: there's a pantheistic, nature-worship side to it, a hint of Strauss in Alpine Symphony mode, a nod towards Scriabinesque grandiloquence, a whisper of Debussy, whose La mer might easily spring to mind. It's one long movement, about 35 minutes, beautifully coloured with clear, ambery orchestration, and it leaves you stirred, rather than shaken. Yet it wasn't wholly unfamiliar to me by the time I hopped on the train to Symphony Hall, because there are at least three versions of it available to listen to freely on Youtube and I'd availed myself of this. It's not impossible that that was why I didn't feel I had to concentrate on every bar, wondering what was coming next and whether or not it was a "great" piece, but instead I could simply enjoy the organic whole made by the music and painting together. I'm fond of ballet, as you know, and this is not so different. If you can watch dancing while enjoying the music, why not painting? The supposedly different mediums create one whole, a gesamtkunstwerk. So really, the notion that you can't concentrate on two things at once doesn't hold all that much sea-water.



And if it's not "great music", so what? It's a window into another corner of the musical world, a voice that is strong and pleasing. It's enjoyable, different and memorable, it broadens our experience and it makes us think. Is that not something worthwhile? Or does it have to be ...Beethoven 7 every single time? Look, you might not want to marry someone, but you can enjoy a conversation with him or her over a coffee, and even if you decide he's not your ideal date and you leave it there, you might hear something, learn something, have a laugh together. Social life would be pretty dull if you never just went for a cuppa with an occasional pal.

by Čiurlionis
The Virtual Reality exhibit in the foyer, incidentally, took things further still. It was essentially an animation of Čiurlionis's own paintings. It was tucked away in the foyer bar and it took me a while to find it, but then I had a go on it and it was gorgeous. You're absorbed into a magical world, a little bit like Nicholas Roerich's paintings, if more evanescent, even ineffable. Roerich, a mystical philosopher as well as artist, was the designer of the original Rite of Spring for Diaghilev and worked on the scenario with (or possibly for) Stravinsky, and I think he and Čiurlionis had much in common - or would have had if the unfortunate Čiurlionis had lived beyond the age of 35. Coming back to the reality of central Birmingham on a Saturday night (don't even ask) from being surrounded by fields of flowers and a boat ride along a glowing shore is a bit of a jolt. I hope this beautiful creation might be more widely available to view soon.

The natural end point of rejecting a piece of music because it's not 100% perfect is that you end up playing "Mornington Crescent" (the spoof game in the radio show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue) with Beethoven 7. It goes like this. The Sea is not Strauss's Alpine Symphony. Why do The Sea when you can do the Alpine Symphony? But then, the Alpine Symphony is not regarded by some as a "great" work, but as an OK one by a composer who arguably did better with other pieces. Why do the Alpine Symphony when you can do Ein Heldenleben...yet again? But why do Strauss, then, when you can do Beethoven, who was greater than Strauss, the greatest of them all? Why do Ein Heldenleben when you can do...Beethoven 7?


The London Underground. Mornington Crescent is on the Northern Line (the black line) just north of the city centre.


Yes, all roads lead to Beethoven 7. And I love Beethoven 7 and I do think it's probably the best symphony ever composed. But I also have soft spots for about 3000 other pieces and would welcome, for instance, the chance to hear contemporary works like John Adams's Harmonielehre more often, let alone an occasional work by César Franck, André Messager or Lowell Liebermann - for any of which, guess where you mostly have to go? The ballet. (This season the Royal Ballet is doing both The Two Pigeons and Frankenstein, so you can hear Messager and Liebermann within a few weeks of each other.)

If you prefer to end every journey at Mornington Crescent, then by all means do - but now and then it really doesn't hurt to get off the train at Kennington instead and explore south of the river. If we only listened to the familiar and the "great", then we'd never hear anything we hadn't heard it before - and without new music, or indeed music that is new to us, the art form would just dry up and die. That Mornington Crescent lark could be fatal.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Are symphonies from memory bad news for pianists?


Aurora plays from memory. (Photo: auroraorchestra.com)

If you want music to lift you clean out of your chair, go and hear the Aurora Orchestra play a symphony from memory.

The opening concert of their season, on Sunday afternoon, entitled Smoke and Mirrors, found them at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, delivering a theatrically staged event – in the first half of which, through clouds of dry ice, the brilliant singer Marcus Farnsworth travelled from Schubert's Der Wanderer to HK Gruber's Frankenstein!!. A narrated link described an erupting volcano, the skies that it darkened in 1816 and some glimpses of Mary Shelley and friends writing ghost stories by the lake. This storytelling's ability to immerse us in the world and the legacy of early romanticism proved vivid and atmospheric; Aurora has Kate Wakeling as writer in residence, and I assume she penned this dramatic casing. (You can find her work in their season programme - not marketing blurb but actual short stories, literary and most attractive.)

All this was tremendous fun. No musician escaped this little production of Frankenstein!! without having to don a silly hat or find a hobby horse ogling at her, and conductor Nicholas Collon had to turn into Superman, with cloak and red lycra underpants. Frankenstein!!, if you haven't heard it, is a bit like Kurt Weill mixed with Monty Python on speed. It's totally wonderful and completely bonkers.

But after the interval came Aurora's famous speciality, a symphony performed from memory, and it was Beethoven's Fifth. Whatever this concert's conceptual presentation, this was the absolute real deal.

Do you think you know this piece? You might find yourself reassessing that notion at such a performance. Even the arrangement of the orchestral forces is theatrical - the contrabassoon entering after the slow movement to sit with the double basses, and the piccolo standing prominently beside the timpani, her interjections in the finale all the more noticeable as a result. The finale is all Handel and Haydn to begin - this was a composer who surely knew his Zadok the Priest and his Creation's Sunrise episode - with a hefty dose of Mozart's Papageno in the coda, which is one big Haydneque joke (the never-ending movement idea later taken up by Dudley Moore, of course). The slow movement - to which Collon brought a lot of con moto, increasing the challenges for the already virtuosic string players - is a close sibling of the variations in the Appassionata, Op. 109 and Op. 111 piano sonatas, the note-values dividing more and more. 

Should one have noticed all this before? Assuredly yes (if you're a critic, at least). The thing is, when one aspect of what you're hearing makes you hear something in a new way, the brain starts connecting in new ways too, and you start questioning and listening differently and noticing all manner of things that you might simply have taken for granted.

No chance of taking anything for granted with this lot. The whole thing flew. At the end the packed audience - young, on average, and maybe not just because this was 4pm on a Sunday afternoon - got up and yelled. Aurora hasn't only pushed the envelope. It's an orchestral rock star.

My question is: if these were the self-same musicians, knowing the music every bit as well, but sitting down and using the music, would it sound the same? Unless we make them do that, one  can't say, of course. I've long been a little bit skeptical about all this, mainly because I was a pianist myself and pianists have been cursed with the necessity of memorisation since the beginning of piano-time, or at least since Clara Schumann and Liszt. No wonder people tend to think we are nutty and antisocial - we are always busy, stressing out something chronic in the practice rooms, trying to learn things from memory! In recent years, more and more pianists have started to think life is just too short and have been playing from a score, often on an iPad, and I've been fully in favour of this. Because they're right: life IS too short...

And yet...


If you've ever played in an orchestra, can you imagine learning a whole symphony from memory, standing up (unless you're a cello, bass or that contrabassoon), interacting with your fellow musicians, having to concentrate even more than you would be at the best of times, having to know not only what you are playing but what everyone else is playing too and how it all fits together, and being able to see everyone else because you're not having to stare at the music? I can only imagine what a certain orchestra I know well would say if asked to do all this, and I reckon it wouldn't be a pretty form of words. But these results are transformative. There's an equality between sections, a sense of everyone interacting the way they would in chamber music. It's not only a question of breathing as one entity, becoming one big animal with lots of paws, as a great symphony orchestra with top conductor can. It's a level of concentration and communication that pulls in the audience to be part of it too.

Pianist with music and iPad. (photo: cmuse.org)
So what are the implications for pianists? If you're playing solo, then there's only one of you and you don't have to choose between staring at the music or indulging in actual interaction with your colleagues and the conductor. If you're playing Bach fugues or Messiaen or Ligeti and suchlike, I wouldn't blame you one little bit for plumping for the old iPad. It won't serve as a barrier between you and anyone else and it will ease your mind and your nerves, which can only be a good thing. 

But the big irony is that for pianists, the convention is to memorise solo works and play chamber music from the score (indeed, the pianist is usually the only one who has the full score in front of him/her). While the set-up of the chamber music circuit would probably make this idea deeply impractical, I can't help thinking it should be the other way around. It's in chamber music that memorisation would be most useful to all concerned, facilitating that interaction. That's not to say it doesn't work as things are. It's just that in an ideal world.....

Well, we don't have an ideal world, in any way, shape or form. But Aurora shows that with enough vision, ambition and determination, transformative experiences are still possible. Bravi tutti.




Friday, September 14, 2018

Being joyous, outside parliament?

In these febrile times, I think it takes some courage to march around Westminster singing and playing the Ode to Joy. This is precisely what two brave Simons - baritone Simon Wallfisch and violinist Simon Hewitt Jones - and their friends have been doing on a regular basis for months and months and months. They are spreading togetherness and, well, joy, they say, to help heal this divided nation.

Given the grim future that's at stake for every one of us if the government pushes ahead with "hard Brexit", we should all go and join in!

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Next to Beethoven, Louise Farrenc

There's a plethora of terrific concerts on 8 March, International Women's Day. Actually we're splendidly spoilt for choice this year! In the Barbican's offering, Laurence Equilbey conducts her own Insula Orchestra - resident at La Seine Musicale in Paris - in the UK premiere of the Symphony No.3 by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875), with Beethoven's Triple Concerto in the first half starring Natalie Clein (cello), Alice Sara Ott (piano) and Alexandra Conunova (violin). I asked Laurence why she's putting Farrenc side by side with Beethoven, and plenty more besides...

Equilbey in action

Your London concert is on International Women’s Day. This annual event has gained prominence at an extraordinary speed over the past few years. Why do you think it’s important to mark it?

There is definitely a greater appetite from audiences to hear music from female composers of the past than there has been previously, and when is a greater opportunity to celebrate this than on International Women’s Day! However International Women’s Day is not the only day that Insula orchestra will be celebrating female composers. In upcoming programmes we will be performing Fanny Mendelssohn’s Hero et Leander, and Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and I would love to tackle the work of even more rarely performed female composers, like Clemence de Grandval.

 For those who haven’t yet heard of Louise Farrenc, please tell us a bit more about her. What appeals to you in her music? Why should we all come along and discover her?

I love to always keep an ear out for rare and undervalued works. I discovered the work of Louise Farrenc a few years ago, but I wanted to wait for the perfect moment to perform her Symphony no.3, as it is her finest work. This symphony has been immaculately constructed, and uses fascinating rhythmic motifs, very powerful orchestration, and has beautiful melodic themes which I think are evocative of Mendelssohn (Felix!). It definitely deserves to be a mainstay in the performance canon.

The concert has three female soloists in the Beethoven Triple Concerto and a symphony by Louise Farrenc. How did you decide on the pieces and the performers? 

Symphony no.3 was actually premiered alongside Beethoven’s 5th, so I wanted to be paired with Beethoven again. I think these works not only enhance each other, but help to complete a broader understanding of 19th century musical life in Paris. Farrenc and Beethoven are also linked in other ways, as they shared a teacher, Antoine Reicha.

Laurence Equilbey at La Seine Musicale
Photo: Julien Benhamou
It was not a case of gender with the three female soloists – Alexandra Conunova, Natalie Clein and Alice Sara Ott. All three are simply superb musicians who are at the top of their game.

 How and why did you start your own orchestra? What is its mission statement, and why?

Insula orchestra is resident at La Seine Musicale, and we performed the inaguaral concert there in 2017. The venue also provided the inspiration for the name ‘Insula’, the latin for ‘island’, as La Seine Musicale is located on Ile Seguin, just a few miles downstream from Paris. The Insula cortex is also the part of the brain linked to emotion.

Starting a new orchestra like Insula orchestra and having a fantastic new venue like La Seine Musicale gives us the perfect opportunity to approach classical music from a fresh perspective. We have the freedom to take risks, and our ethos is to preserve a place of artistic experimentation, innovation and openness. We have plans to incorporate visual arts, theatre, and technology in many exciting ways.

What are your views generally on the issues facing women in the music business, especially conductors and composers? Have we put up with sexism and discouragement on the grounds of gender for too long? Do you think the situation is improving now?

There are definitely prejudices against women in the music business that have existed for a long time, but we should celebrate that now we have some opportunities to finally enjoy the work of long neglected female composers, like Louise Farrenc. One must not forget however that there are many forgotten composers who were neglected due to racial bias or their social situation, not just due to their gender.

For performers, conductors, soloists, stage designers, the path is a hard one, and there is a need to take some specific measures for more inclusive programme ideas.

What further measures can be taken to aid this process? 

We can make amends to these women, and in turn benefit female composers of the future, by first and foremost exploring their music. For performers, the French government has proposed quota objectives to fill. I also read recently that UK festivals are taking actions to achieve greater gender equality on the stage. It is very important that culture opens itself up to women.

The new concert hall in Paris on the Seine is the second important music venue to open in the French capital in the past few years, the other obviously being the Philharmonie. But London is still struggling to build its first since the 1980s. Why do we need new, proper concert halls in this day and age? 

 At La Seine Musicale we have been very lucky to have the support and commitment of our local government, Departement des Hauts de Seine. In that area of Paris there was previously no big concert hall which could be used for staged projects, with all the modern technical equipment. La Seine Musicale was an unprecedented investment in the musical sector, so we can only hope that similar opportunities will arise in London. Having said this, the Barbican’s willingness to welcome Insula orchestra and our ethos is hugely encouraging.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Beethoven, Shakespeare and Murray Perahia

Murray Perahia's recording of the Beethoven sonatas 'Hammerklavier' Op.106 and 'Moonlight' Op.27 No.2 is just out - sadly too late for my #hammerklavier roundup, but worth waiting for - and full of his extraordinary, empathetic musicianship. I wrote the booklet notes, based on an interview with the great American pianist at his London home, some extracts of which are featured in the trailer below from DG. And if there is anything more astounding than sitting in Perahia's music room while he plays Bach, it is being there while he plays this.

Moreover, his insights into the motivations behind the 'Moonlight' Sonata are absolutely remarkable. Here we find an Aeolian harp - or what Beethoven's idea of one may have been - and some imaginative associations with nothing less than Romeo and Juliet.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Five alternatives to Mrs Bach

The fuss over the Mrs Bach and the cello suites film is getting up my nose, and not in a good way. Of course it makes a good story. But do we really need more tales about women in music who didn't really do things, when there are so many who did, provenly so, but are not recognised for it?

When women musicians make it onto the silver screen, they tend to be there for the wrong reasons: for writing their man's music, which they clearly didn't; for having married Schumann; for being sister to an irritating prodigy (take a bow, Nannerl), or for people having released recordings under their name that they didn't actually make (three cheers for Ms Hatto?).

Still, the film studios clearly prefer the fanciful, so here are a few ideas for my next novel...

Cosima Wagner: true author of Parsifal?
1. An EU directive enforces the opening of the last Bayreuth archive. It reveals that Cosima wrote Parsifal.

2. Beethoven was great at the piano, but wanted everyone to think he could write for the orchestra as well. He paid a very accomplished lady to write nine symphonies for him and planted references to an "Immortal Beloved" in his letters to throw everyone off the scent.

3.  Emma Bardac's letters emerge from the Bibliothèque National explaining that she was not only lover to Fauré and wife to Debussy, but put them both through certain kinds of intimate therapy that unleashed suppressed emotions in their music.

4. Jenny Lind turns out to have inspired not only Felix Mendelssohn with great passion, but Fanny Mendelssohn as well.

5. Tchaikovsky's remains are disinterred for research into whether he was poisoned. The coffin contains the skeleton of a woman.


...Meanwhile I'm off to Presteigne for a lovely Alicia's Gift concert with piano darling Viv McLean at the Assembly Rooms, tomorrow (2 Nov) at 3pm. Do come along if you're in the area. Info here.


Friday, September 27, 2013

Beethovenfest Bonn 2: Ludwig Lives!


Bonn is roughly the size of Cardiff in terms of population (about 350,000). Yet the musical riches within this pleasant and manageable Rhineland city have to be seen to be believed. 

The day before my pilgrimage to the house where Schumann died, I visited the one where Beethoven was born, only a short pootle away in the town centre. Here you can see two of Beethoven's pianos, his viola (yes, Beethoven was a viola player - get used to it...), his ear trumpets, his conversation books, his spectacles, his magnificent walnut-veneered writing desk - which Stefan Zweig later owned for a while - and the Heiligenstadt Testament, among many other exhibits; and I can thoroughly recommend the detailed audioguide. 

But the Bonn Beethovenhaus is much more than a shrine to the great Ludwig. It's a vital centre for musicological research, on the one hand, and a fine location for concerts, on the other; and it owns a raft of terrifically important manuscripts, notably that of the Diabelli Variations, acquired from a private collection after numerous fundraising concerts by the likes of Andras Schiff and others; there's a magnificent digital archive of huge value to scholars, yet also online resources to help introduce children to Ludwig's world. Do go onto the site and have a good old explore.

All of this was possible because I had to go and interview Andras, who has a big birthday coming up and needs writing about, but isn't in London again until well after my deadlines have passed. He is currently in the middle of a series of Beethoven sonata recitals in the Bonn Beethovenfest; I was fortunate enough to arrive in time for the programme that involves the Op.31s and the 'Waldstein'.

Listening to Andras play Bach or Schubert has often seemed the aural equivalent of swimming in Walchensee: you're immersed in cool, soothing, pure waters that run very deep indeed. Yet over the past decade his Beethoven journey has opened up new pianistic vistas: a different variety of deep heat, if you like, with a phosphorescent edge that makes the soundworlds of Op.31 No.2 in D minor or the mighty 'Waldstein' shimmer in a visionary way, while Op.31 Nos 1 and 3 bounced and swung with humour and clarity. Bonn's Beethovenhalle - a sizeable Rhineside creation from the 1950s - was packed to the nines and provided a standing ovation. The next morning we talked for two hours (pic above) about matters musical, technical and Beethovenian. Beethoven, Andras says, has given him new courage. More of this in the official outlets in the months ahead.

Huge thanks to the Beethovenfest for making this remarkable 36-hour trip possible. Really have bought the t-shirt - a purple one with a Beethoven portrait and the words LUDWIG LIVES, in which you might someday spot me jogging around Richmond Park. Prost!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Look who I'm off to see tomorrow



OK, it's not much to do with Schubert, the trip tomorrow. It's the Beethovenfest in Bonn and Andras will be playing a programme of sonatas including the D minor Op.31 No.2 and the 'Waldstein'. I haven't been to Bonn before and am a little excited at the prospect of seeing Beethoven's birthplace and also - unexpectedly, as I didn't know until yesterday that it existed - a Schumannhaus museum at the former asylum in Endenich (a suburb of Bonn), which is where our unlucky and much-loved Robert died in 1856. With Andras I'll be talking Beethoven, Bach, Bartok and big birthdays.

Meanwhile, enjoy his beautiful film about Schubert.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Friday Historical: Beethoven's Triple in Moscow, 1970

Heads up, first, to a feisty performance of this extraordinary piece at St George's Hanover Square yesterday. The Orpheus Foundation's mission is to help young musicians bridge the gap between finishing college and finding their way into the profession by providing orchestral performing experience with the Orpheus Sinfonia. Yesterday their cello soloist was one of their increasing number of success stories: born in Belorus, Aleksei Kiseliov played with the ensemble for several years and, besides winning a number of prizes, he has now been appointed principal cello of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Beethoven's Triple Concerto features a virtually irrational workout for the cello, which has to undertake all manner of stratospherical pyrotechnics, but Aleksei stayed cool as can be, maintaining exquisitely beautiful tone throughout. Expert contributions, too, from his fellow soloists - the fine young violinist Benjamin Baker and our neighbour-in-SW-London Anthony Hewitt, who was in volcanically eloquent mode at the piano.

Since giving that talk a couple of weeks ago, I've been preoccupied with Beethoven. It's too easy to take him for granted. Rather than musing at length, though, let's hear some...

So here are the Triple's second and third movements, played live in Moscow in 1970 by David Oistrakh (violin), Sviatoslav Richter (piano) and Mstislav Rostropovich in "that" cello part. Kirill Kondrashin conducts the Moscow Philharmonic in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Beethoven: Strength, Inspiration, Revolution!


There've been a few enquiries about my pre-concert talk for the CBSO & Andris Nelsons's Beethoven cycle in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on 20 and 21 March. Here's the complete text, plus a recording of the movement I took apart via a surprise analogy that worked even better than I'd expected when I started preparing it...


BEETHOVEN, MUSIC AND REVOLUTION


Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and a very warm welcome to Symphony Hall for the continuation of Andris Nelsons and the CBSO’s Beethoven cycle. 

We’ve got to symphonies numbers 6 and 7 today and it’s a very great pleasure for me to be here to introduce them, as they happen to be my personal favourites of the nine. The sixth is, of course, the ‘Pastoral’ symphony and the seventh was once described by Wagner as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’ – though the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham had to put his own slant on that. He said, “well, what can you do with it, it’s like a load of yaks jumping about.” 

As Elvis Costello once said, talking about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s essentially intangible - but what I’d like to do today is to try to burrow into some of those intangible connections to consider how Beethoven can seem to convey to us the deepest associations between the processes of music and the processes of life and of living. And this might help to show why we think of him as a revolutionary, producing music that inspires idealism the way few others could dream of. 

Daniel Barenboim often says that music is like God because you can’t describe it – you can only describe the effect that it has. There’s no music more associated with Barenboim than Beethoven. Last year you might have caught the series he performed at the Proms with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of the complete Beethoven symphonies. At the end of the Ninth Symphony he zipped off to the Olympic Stadium and took part in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 games – he was one of eight great humanitarians who carried in the Olympic flag together (pictured). They were dressed all in white, and shortly afterwards I interviewed him and he said he’d felt like a carnation. Barenboim has written and spoken extensively on the links between musical expression and life itself, and of music’s role in society as an art that can encapsulate the deepest and most universal of human processes. His book Everything is Connected is all about this. 

Barenboim says that “Beethoven’s music is universal – it speaks to all people”. The question is, why? How can it be that pieces written for a western classical orchestra some two hundred years ago can communicate so vividly with such a range of people today? And this music really does. 

A few years ago I went to the West Bank to report on some music education projects. Together with some musician friends, I had lunch in Hebron [pictured right - a snap of Hebron from the trip] with an amazing Palestinian lady named Sharifa, who showed us around the historic mosque where the tomb of the Patriarchs is located. Sharifa is an absolute indomitable battle-axe. She has to struggle daily with many very difficult situations. But she has extraordinary spirit and an irrepressible sparkle. Her English was good, but not perfect, and at one point we were trying to explain to her the word “inspiration”. And when she understood, she straight away asked the violinist who was with us to play some Beethoven. She loves Beethoven: she says he gives her strength. She was born and raised far from the music of the western classical tradition in a terribly troubled spot of the Middle East – but to her, Beethoven was the absolute definition of the word ‘inspiration’.

We hear frequently that Beethoven is “revolutionary”. But I wonder why he strikes us that way. His inner strength, of course, is unmistakeable. We know that in 1802 he went through a tremendous personal crisis while he was living in Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna. He had to face the fact that he was losing his hearing, and for a man who lives body, heart and soul for music, this was the worst thing that life could do to him. In his most famous document, the Heiligenstadt Testament – part will, part explanation, that he wrote for his two brothers – he said: “Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and well-nigh caused me to put an end to my life. Art! art alone deterred me. Ah! how could I possibly leave the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?”. 

But Beethoven’s essential strength, the revolutionary quality, if you like, is not really biographical, at least not solely. Yes, he had huge personal battles to overcome and much tragedy in his life. His ideals are certainly reflected in his works, in some more directly than others. His only opera, Fidelio, for instance, is about a devoted wife who disguises herself as a man to infiltrate a political prison and save her husband from its dungeon. But Beethoven doesn’t ever seem to have been involved with politics beyond his intellectual interest. And of course his deafness, which set in when he was only about 28, would probably have prevented him getting involved even if he had wished to. He had great social and political ideals, though, and he certainly felt the injustices of the world: he was a cantankerous, troubled individual, yet one who, under that facade, felt an enormous compassion towards humanity. 

I heard a theory recently – from the great pianist Murray Perahia – that the real meaning of the so-called ‘Moonlight’ sonata may be something beyond our usual assumption that the publisher added the title for effect. Instead, it’s possible that this heading refers to the so-called ‘children of moonlight’, a term that described the spirits of the unfortunate, the outcasts, people who were denied the sunlight of the Enlightenment – hence the polarity of sun and moon. These spirits would sing of their suffering to the world through the medium of the Aeolian harp, which is played by the wind. Apparently there is good circumstantial evidence to support the theory and it is much in tune with Beethoven’s spirit, to say nothing of the concept fitting the music to perfection. 

So perhaps there Beethoven could consciously have matched image to musical content. But what about the subconsciously revolutionary qualities in the music of his symphonies? And why can they seem revolutionary even to us today? In Beethoven’s time, this music would have sounded not just new, but shockingly new. The overt sense of conflict, the struggle between primal, motivic themes vying for supremacy, sparks flying through the extremities of his contrasts, all that would have sounded incredibly radical around the turn of the 18th into the 19th century. Beethoven was not remotely easy listening for those accustomed to graceful minuets in the background to accompany their dinner. And especially not just after the French Revolution.

But now? We’ve had Mahler, we’ve had Schoenberg, we’ve had Stravinsky, we’ve had, for goodness sake, Stockhausen and Boulez and John Cage. Why does Beethoven still inspire feelings of idealism, and even of political idealism, to ears and minds that have been exposed to so much else?

There are several levels to this. For a start, tonight’s two symphonies are totally different from one another; each is unique. But then, so is every other Beethoven symphony. And so is every single one of his 32 piano sonatas and each of his string quartets. And so on. Beethoven doesn’t repeat himself – the structures of no two works are exactly the same, and each one has not only an individual form but an individual soundworld, an atmosphere that is entirely its own.  

For instance, No.6 is the only Beethoven symphony in five movements and the only one in which three of the movements run through without a break. As for the individual soundworld, the spread-out, lyrical, tranquil melodies of the Sixth Symphony could scarcely be further away from the elemental punch and drive of the Seventh. This sense of constant reinvention, the need to push the boundaries further and further, is just one reason to consider Beethoven not only an innovator but, beyond that, a revolutionary. (And luckily we don't need Fantasia's Pastoral Symphony animation, pictured right, to push its own boundaries any further in this case...)

Now, there wasn’t so much that was new about the idea of a Pastoral Symphony by 1808. Or so you might think. Yet the way Beethoven approaches the idea is entirely new. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is probably the work’s most famous forerunner. Vivaldi gave us an extremely pictorial set of concertos with direct sonic depictions of birds twittering in spring, the rain driving down in the summer storm, the skaters weaving around on the ice in winter. Then there was Haydn, with his oratorios The Creation and The Seasons; yet he largely serves his texts: the musical pictures are developed to match the images that the singers evoke.

Beethoven’s difference is that although the symphony may sound pictorial, that isn’t the point of it. Beethoven wanted to evoke not images, but the feelings associated with them.  He provided a brief guide for the programme at the world premiere, with the words: “Pastoral Symphony, more an expression of feeling than painting.” This puts him in a musically pioneering strand with the world of romanticism, where feeling was at the forefront. Yet it’s almost as if he looks forward by about a hundred years towards the symbolist movement, in which emotion and image are completely fused and nothing can be taken at face value. 

I think this was true, in a different way, for Beethoven. For instance, he used to take long walks on which he’d jot down themes he thought of, some inspired by nature - and in 1803, scribbling a melody suggested by the sight of a river, he wrote "The greater the river, the more grave the tone." Those words could suggest that he’s not thinking of what he sees, but of what more that image suggests to him in terms of association, and metaphor, and his emotional response to that.

But there are processes inside the fabric of the music itself that while entirely abstract can still produce some startling results when you look at them in detail. To me, the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony represents a special summit of achievement. I’d like to draw on Barenboim’s idea that the processes of life and music are connected to show you why I think this music strikes us as revolutionary, at that deep, abstract level. As Barenboim says, we can’t describe music itself; we can only describe the effect that it has, and what I’d like to describe is the effect on us of Beethoven’s music’s inner processes and how they can well be said to mirror the processes of human thought, interaction and society.

So I’m going to talk us through the second movement of Beethoven Seven with a few images in mind suggested by a story that obviously has nothing to do with its creation - but that mirrors something about the way its extraordinary structure operates and the impression it makes on us. 

On 1 December 1955, an African-American woman named Rosa Parks was on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The town buses practised racial segregation. The driver told Rosa Parks to give up her seat to a white passenger. Rosa Parks refused. This one simple gesture against an enormous human injustice snowballed and eventually led to her becoming an icon of resistance to racial segregation and an important symbol of the American civil rights movement. 

 It started as one person making one small gesture. But it sprang out of a situation of bleak injustice, and one basic, fundamental thought. A situation as bleak as Beethoven’s first chord and a thought about human rights – segregation is wrong - that is as primal as the rhythm Beethoven sets up for his main theme.


The very first chord progression when those low strings come in is tonic to dominant, dominant to tonic. It’s the most fundamental harmonic progression you can get. The theme is scarcely a melody – it is a motif, a rhythm, strong and memorable and simple, and it is fundamental to the whole movement. 

Next, Beethoven begins to bring in the other sections of the orchestra one by one: voice after voice takes up the motif. The voices that have already sung it move on to a counter-melody, a more elaborate thought that illuminates the basic thought by the way it sounds together with it. Others are taking notice, recognising, adding their voices, joining in. The idea is growing in sophistication.

The movement – a good word for it - continues to grow. The thoughts become more elaborate, further voices are drawn in from different parts of the orchestra, or different parts of society if you like, and the rhythm begins to move on too: to the basic pulse we now add a doubling of pace in the lower instruments and gradually the woodwind sidle in almost without us noticing. And, of course, a big crescendo, a great groundswell of support, is beginning.

Now triplets come into the accompaniment so you get a two against three rhythmic effect that sets up a sense of differing forces in friction against one another, adding even more to the tension. The woodwind and brass are making their presences felt, so the central motif assumes the character of a fanfare, and the drums come in as well, but not always at the obvious moments – this adds to the unsettling effect of this growth. It is unpredictable, you don’t know where it’s going to go. Yet still, the entire orchestra is united in proclaiming a fundamental truth and its consequences, with everyone pulling together, which is the only way people can rise up and effect a revolution...

Ah – what happened? The movement ran out of steam. A decrescendo and it’s come to a halt. What now? An idealist is needed, with a new sense of direction. A Martin Luther King, perhaps, with a dream of a better world, powered by the underlying motif that segregation is wrong. Beethoven’s motif, the essential idea, is very much present now as a pulse, a heartbeat, underneath the lyrical melody that now begins. Other voices echo the song of the clarinet – and all the time there’s that tension in the background of that three against two rhythm.

It should be as simple as a major scale down and up. But it isn’t. There’s an interruption, an obstacle, and now what happens? Back comes the melody that started as counterpoint to the first idea; now there’s a new counterpoint against this one, and faster still than triplets, as if to say it’s going to be more complicated than we thought. And the fundamental theme is almost buried in the form of quiet pizzicato under the complication of what it’s spawned, as the strings keep on discussing and bickering, as strings tend to, while the woodwind try to preserve a trajectory of eloquence.

Of course someone has to come along and explore the small print. The legalities, the intellectualisation of the nature of that injustice. In music, that means we have to have a fugue. New motifs and counterpoints and off-beat rhythms complicate matters considerably...as we know, the lawyers always win.

...Now the original idea returns in a strong statement, together with its ideal-world dream and an argument – a tug-of-war between major and minor – that presents a continuing struggle, a perpetuated situation with nobody ready to give in. "We can change this!" "No you can’t!" In human terms it’s at this point that sometimes people get shot for their ideas.

So what’s happened to our basic idea? It seems to be pushed out into a corner – on upper woodwind, surreptitious, then passed down, whispered along from section to section, suppressed, through the lower woodwind until it reaches pizzicato. It’s going underground. The theme seems to have lost the battle. But that doesn’t change the truth of it. And in the last bars a resurgence is promised and left hanging in mid air: it will return. The human condition is the same, injustice remains injustice, and likewise, the final chord is the same as the one at the start.
 
This is the most extraordinary structure. Beethoven builds up a great climax near the beginning, then deconstructs it, suppresses it, yet proves that those ideas must ferment and rise again. 

You can take this idea or leave it - I offer it to you as one possible way of looking at the matter, and just one of many different ways. But to me, it seems to work. 

And this, I believe, is how Beethoven helps us all to change the world.