Showing posts with label Rachmaninov. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rachmaninov. Show all posts

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Everything you wanted to know about the Russians, but were afraid to ask

Many years ago, in another century, in what feels like another lifetime (though was merely the 1990s) I used to edit a piano magazine. It was the UK's first independent piano magazine, named Classical Piano, and its creation, lifeblood and later eventual absorption into one of its fast-springing rivals is now ancient history. While there I published an article by a then-youthful Russian pianist, Rustem Hayroudinoff, about what the Russian School really means.

It was one of the most informative and interesting articles we ever ran, I think. So I was more than delighted to log on to Rustem's website and see that he has now revised the article and much expanded it, complete with all mod cons such as recordings from the likes of Rachmaninov, Chaliapin and Neuhaus, to name but three. Rustem is now a professor at the Royal Academy of Music and has made some stunning recordings himself, notably of Rachmaninov.

Here's a taster of the article: 

A great deal of confusion surrounds the term “The Russian Pianistic Tradition”. This phrase has been applied to any successful pianist coming out of Russia - often conjuring up images of fire-eating virtuosi scooping up competition prizes. And very often musicians with aesthetic principles as different as those of, for example, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sviatoslav Richter are mentioned in the same breath as being representatives of the same “great Russian School”. To discover the true meaning of this term, I am going to look at some common features in the pianistic principles of several performers who belonged to this tradition.

Even the most superficial acquaintance with the recording legacy of pianists such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Lhevinne, Josef Hofmann, Vladimir Horowitz and Heinrich Neuhaus reveals that all of these pianists possessed an exquisitely beautiful tone. Their incredible achievements in this area were due to a very conscious cultivation of singing tone and colour on the piano, as the following quotations illustrate.

Josef Lhevinne dedicated a long chapter of his Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing to “the secret of a beautiful tone”, in which he explains how a “ringing, singing” tone is to be achieved: “The main principle at first is to see that the key is touched with as resilient a portion of the finger as possible, if a lovely, ringing, singing tone is desired ... Just a little further back in the first joint of the finger, you will notice that the cushion of flesh is apparently more elastic, less resistant, more springy. Strike the key with this portion of the finger, not on the fingertips as some of the older European methods suggested ...” 

He also emphasises the role that the free wrist and arm play in the production of a good tone: “... the wrist [is] still held very flexible so that the weight of the descending hand and arm carries the key down to key bottom, quite without any sensation of a blow.” And “... when the hand descends, as large a surface of the fingertip as feasible engages the key; and the wrist is so loose that it normally sinks below the level of the keyboard.” 

This last passage holds particular interest because it testifies to the fact that Horowitz’s famous flat finger-low wrist technique was not a mere oddity but an integral part of this same tradition which he took to its extreme in the pursuit of his ideal of a singing tone...

Friday, July 06, 2018

Have some Rachmaninov? Don't mind if I do...

Boris Giltburg had a free evening in London. So he called Stewart French and asked him to film him playing Rachmaninov's Op.39 Etudes-Tableaux overnight. Well, whyever not? Here's the result, which he's just sent me, and there's a blogpost at Gramophone that tells the story.

Thank you, Boris! Sitting down for a good wallow...

Monday, October 06, 2014

Update on Battle of the Rachs...

Interesting info re the spelling of Serge(i) Rachmaninov/ff has been popping into the in-box since my post the other day, so here's what they're saying.

Alexandra Ivanoff, culture journalist and music editor of Time Out, Istanbul, gives her interpretation:

Rachmaninov/off at the piano
"As I understand it from my grandparents, -OFF was their generation's anglicization of the Cyrillic letter B (lower case). The 20th century generations chose the -OV, partly because it's one less letter to deal with.
Also, the Cyrillic B can be pronounced like an f or a v, so it's kind of toss-up - that evidently continues."

My doughty editor at The Arts Desk, ace critic and Russophile David Nice, offers further explanation:

"The solution is simple, though the inconsistency is maddening: both Prokofiev and Rachmaninov were known in France as 'Serge' and with two ffs, the French transcription. They were published by Editions France de Musique which was bought up by Boosey and Hawkes, hence the publisher's insistence...The Rachmaninoff Society insists on this, and the foundation is supporting the concerts... I ALWAYS put v (and one s in Musorgsky, no reason for two in transliteration. And always Ye for the Russian E (ie Yevtushenko, Yesenin, Yevgeny, Yelena...)" 

Critic and author Matthew Rye adds: "I had always understood that the 'ff' was R's own self-spelling when he moved to the US (in the same way that Schoenberg chose to lose his umlaut and added the first 'e', and Rubinstein became Arthur rather than Artur)." 

John Riley says: "Academically it should be Rakhmaninov, but that seems the least popular option."

The discussion has put me in mind of my experience aged 18 in what would now be called a gap-year internship, but was then simply a part-time job in a year out between school and university. (It was paid, too, and we even got luncheon vouchers.) I was lucky enough to be taken on as office junior by a famous musical publication with an eminent editor, whose letters I had to type from audio-recorded dictation - and he had spelling issues that I simply could not fathom. They were far indeed from Music A level. Skryabin, for a start; and I think my fuzzy memory must have blanked out his solution to the -off/-ov issue. The most confusing, though, was Chaikovsky, with no T. The terror that this struck into my heart has never quite left me.

Come to think of it, my own name in its eastern-bloc Cyrillic original would have been best transliterated as DUKHEN. I've evidently been missing a trick. By this token you are now reading...


Saturday, October 04, 2014

Battle of the Rachs?

You'd think Sergei Rachmaninov would be the most peaceable and easy-to-love of all composers. But it's not as simple as all that...

Last night the LPO's Rachmaninoff: Inside Out celebration got off to an astounding start at the Festival Hall. Phenomenal playing in The Isle of the Dead and the Symphonic Dances (let's leave aside the soloist in the original version of the Piano Concerto No.1 for now), with man-of-the-moment Vladimir Jurowski at the helm, fresh from the announcement that he's staying on as principal conductor for another three years. Great audience and much enthusiasm. But immediately we ran into trouble. The series - the biggest-ever celebration of the composer's works with orchestra, involving operas, concertos and lots of different versions of things, and extending across 11 concerts this season - is called RACHMANINOFF: INSIDE OUT. Meanwhile we have all been writing about RACHMANINOV. With a V not a FF. Which is correct?

A flood of responses on Twitter has proved inconclusive, if amusing. A small selection:

"Russian pronunciation would be nearer Rakhmaninav, no? #canofworms" (@DaveGnu)

"He always signed Rachmaninoff" (@chadrbowles)

"Rachmaninov. End ov." (@larkingrumple)

"You should know that Jessica! B&H use OFF, everyone else uses OV." (@PhilLittlemore)

"RachmaninON" (@jules141)

And a quick dip into the video introductions on the LPO website thickens the plot when their presenter names him SERGE Rachmaninov/ff, not SERGEI, which was his name.

Meanwhile, woe betide any concert-goer in London who doesn't like Serge/ei Rachmaninov/off, because over at the Barbican during the course of this season the LSO is busy doing him too, with Gergiev (when he's around - he has quite a busy schedule just now) and pianist Denis Matsuev, who for some reason is their featured artist this autumn.

Didn't someone check the calendars? Or maybe as the LPO is doing RachmaninOFF and the LSO is doing RachmaninOV, no clash was perceived?

Well, whatever you call him, it is high time Mr R was recognised as the first-rate composer he always was - time to shake off the silly old prejudices about tonal music in the 20th century, please - so all this comes not a moment too soon. The more, the merrier.

Here is a very special introduction to the composer as human being, featuring film of Rachmaninoff (sic) himself...

Saturday, April 27, 2013

"Music has a very simple task - to move people"

This is the radio broadcast from Voice of Russia UK in which Rustem Hayroudinoff and I talk to Alice Lagnado for Curtain Up about reaping the rewards of Rachmaninov. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Sunday round-up

The trouble with burning the candle at both ends is that while you're out and about, you're not writing. Therefore JDCMB is a little bit late with what follows.

Leif Ove Andsnes gave the same programme twice at the Wigmore Hall last week; I attended on the second night (11 April). Not sure what's with Beethoven Op.101 this season, but this was the fourth time I've bumped into it since October; this time it joined a mixed programme including Beethoven's Op.54, Bartok's Suite Op 14, an all-too-rare rendition of Liszt's 'Pensées des morts' from the Harmonies poetiques et religieuses and Chopin's C minor Nocturne and Fourth Ballade.

Andsnes has one of the most sheerly beautiful sounds to be found on today's pianistic platforms; a super-cool customer, personable and unpretentious, he plays as if in a trance, cocooned at the piano in a world of his own. There's an almost scary perfection about him - a sole wrong note came almost as a relief, as if to say, "ah, this guy is human after all". Yet it can be flummoxing to hear the rugged Op.101 and the ferocious folksiness of the Bartok sounding as smooth as butter and the Chopin Ballade so precisely navigated that there seemed little time to "stop and smell the flowers". That exquisite moment when Chopin enters an hypnotic state of enchantment - spinning out a few bars of melody over four-against-three ripples in an aural-optical illusion - disappeared into its own notes with no time to catch the light and shine.

Nevertheless, the C minor Nocturne, its melody shaped with microscopically precise sensitivity and beauty, giving way to a mingling of chorale and octave storms that sends the cantilena into a fever of overturned emotion, was perhaps the high point of the concert. A treat and a half to hear such playing at close quarters rather than in the huge RFH.

Sunken Garden, ENO's world premiere from Grawemeyer Award-winning composer Michel van der Aa, took over the Barbican Theatre for a week.

Opera in 3D? Korngold once said, when he went to Hollywood, that some day whole operas might be written for the big screen; and here it was, with knobs on; one such knob being 3D specs that can be worn over your normal specs (v useful). As a 21st-century way of conceiving a musical stage work, mingling live performance with pre-recorded film including holograms of several singers who do not appear in the flesh, but with which the on-stage singers must interact, it's a presentation that needs - and received - the slickest and cleverest of integration in performance.

Responses have ranged from "this is the future", downwards. Several concerns. First of all, this opera has much in common with many "traditional" operas in that its story is so convoluted, and the enunciation of the (amplified) singers so unclear (except for the excellent Roderick Williams) that it was next to impossible to work out what was actually going on. Themes of conscience, cot death, euthanasia, afterlife, Dr Who-like self-projections, mystical oneness with the planet (think parachuting - but why?) - all mingle in David Mitchell's imaginative yet overstuffed libretto. We enter the Sunken Garden - actually the Eden Project - through a door under a motorway and find ourselves in limbo with some lost souls and an evil, or not, mastermind, or... hmm.

While the music undoubtedly has its moments - such as some memorable effects achieved by layering repetitive snatches of film and matching soundtracks - the number one requirement for a successful opera is that the music should be the best bit; the words should provide the runway from which it can take off and fly. Perhaps Sunken Garden's chief problem is that it is so busy dazzling us with its special visual effects that the aural element begins, inadvertently, to take second place. It is all hugely inventive and ground-breaking, significant indeed for the future of opera, yet not wholly successful in its own right.

The following night, Rustem Hayroudinoff played at St John's Smith Square, in an evening that had a fraction of the audience yet twice the impact (at least for us pianophiles). Rarely do you see the entire listening assemblage jump to its feet at the final note. This one did. The Rachmaninov Piano Sonata No.1 is rarely performed - probably because it is too difficult. It's a Faust Symphony for one instrument and ten fingers, and there is more extraordinary music in a single bar of it than in certain entire evenings of...well, you get the idea.

Rachmaninov weaves the work from a range of symbolic leitmotifs for different aspects of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles (helpfully illustrated by Hayroudinoff in his spoken introduction). These pianistic textures would sound as complex on a 100-piece orchestra. As a feat of out-and-out virtuosity it is unremitting, indeed mind-boggling; but to deliver the wild flights of Rachmaninov's imagination with such colour, fidelity, rigour, fire and serious bedazzlement is a phenomenal achievement. Hayroudinoff's performance brought back to life the grand Chaliapin-inflected Russian style, with a depth of perspective in the voicing that was more convincingly 3D than anything we saw in that physically 3D opera.

If someone doesn't frogmarch him into a recording studio and insist that he records this gargantuan piece to add to his impressive roster of benchmark, award-shortlisted Rachmaninov discs, then those of us who were there last Saturday will simply have to throw tantrums until they do. Oh, and he also played some extremely fine Bach and Liszt - the small matter of the Second Partita and the Mephisto Waltz No.1 and more.

What price trouser-pressed perfection? What price technological novelty? All you need is one person, one instrument, music of genius and a performance infused with the fire of absolute inspiration, awareness and understanding. That is worth ten, probably a hundred, of anything else. That's what the musical experience is all about.

And with that little piece of profundity for a Sunday afternoon, I'm off to hear Jonas Kaufmann at the RFH.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Pop goes the Rachmaninov

How do you fill a large hall for 20th-century repertoire? Play Rachmaninov. Composers who lived through these turbulent and violent times but composed in their own styles, rooted in romanticism or not, rather than the supposedly prevailing avant-garde, should be indivisible from our complete artistic picture of their age. Yet it's taken a startling amount of hindsight to reach the idea that someone who died in the 1940s is not "really 19th-century". (Sergei Rachmaninov: 1873-1943.)

These composers - Strauss, Rachmaninov, Korngold, et al - were as much of their specific era in their own ways as anyone else. Well done to The Rest is Noise for taking such a radical step - which should have been obvious years ago, but, well, you know how it goes in this funny little world...

Tonight at the RFH it's Sergei's turn. The fabulous Simon Trpceski plays the Third Piano Concerto and the LPO top it off with the Second Symphony. Yannick Nezet-Seguin is sadly off sick, but Mikhail Agrest has stepped in to save the day. Oh, and it's full (might be some returns, though, from Yannick fans). Yes, 20th-century music is popular when it's allowed in from the cold.

The fact that Rachmaninov is a man for more recent years is all too obvious...

Brief Encounter, 1945

Eric Carmen, 'All By Myself', 1975

Dana, 'Never Gonna Fall In Love Again', 1976

It's also true that the greatest music has something indescructible about it. Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Chopin are just a few of the other towering figures whose works have been set, reset, ripped off, shredded and otherwise bowdlerised, and still survive and often sound as good as ever. That puts Rachmaninov in excellent company.

Try Chopin. Once a Parisian sophisticate, always a Parisian sophisticate.

Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin, 'Jane B', 1969

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The trouble with sparkles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 07, 2011

Friday Historical: Rachmaninov from Goldenweiser & Ginzburg

This is a huge favourite of mine: Alexander Goldenweiser and Grigory Ginzburg play the Valse from Rachmaninov's Suite No.2 for two pianos. I love the laid-back tempo, the subtle rubati, the wealth of detail, the sultry tenor tone when the big tune comes through - and no histrionics or thumping. Just a perfectly-measured mix of musical haute couture with the poetry of partnership.

Goldenweiser, besides being a famous pedagogue and one of the central figures of the fabled 'Russian School' of pianism, was a great friend of Tolstoy's, played to him frequently and kept a notebook about his meetings with the great writer which was eventually published as Close to Tolstoy (if I can track down a copy of this by hook or crook, we'll come back to that later). More about Goldenweiser at the Toccata Classics site, here.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Can't find my Russian dictionary

But need it for an appropriate expletive in response to this alarming story reported by Matthew Guerrieri yesterday, with a link to the Arizona Daily Star which has the details. It seems that Rachmaninov's great-great grandson is planning to have his famous forefather's works rearranged so that they can be re-copyrighted. This is deeply unsettling.

I'm not convinced that Jane Austen's descendents would have been quick to scribble adverbs all over Pride and Prejudice in order to declare it a new work and pull in even more £££s. And can you imagine a member of the Shakespeare clan rewording for similar purposes - "To exist or to exist not, that is the decision..."

Though I'm as prone as any writer to get stewed up about authors' and composers' rights, a sensible line does need to be drawn, doesn't it? Shades of the Hyperion-Lionel Sawkins case...where will the issue go from here?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Prikrastna! E bellissimo!

Blimey! The missing manuscript of Rachmaninov's Second Symphony has turned up, in a Co-op bag. Geoffrey Norris authenticated it and has the story in today's Daily Telegraph. Big thanks to Anna/Robin Hill for the tip-off.

Meanwhile I'm still wiping off smudged mascara after seeing La Boheme at English National Opera last night, in their now classic production, set in the 1950s, by the late Steven Pimlott with the sparkling translation - now viewable in surtitles - by Jeremy Sams. Odd thing about opera (Lieder too, for that matter): it's pure masochism. The more you cry, the better it's been. Hmm. Boheme gets to me every time, but this was simply superb, with ace performances all round, especially from Mary Plazas (Mimi), Peter Auty (Rodolfo), Giselle Allen (Musetta) and Mark Stone (Marcello). Before the show I was too busy talking to our congenial companions for the evening - some of the staff of a new blog sponsored by Sky Arts, ArtsWOM (=Word Of Mouth) - to notice who was conducting, but was very impressed by the pacing, sensitivity and use of silence. It turned out to be Xian Zhang, clearly a maestra to watch out for in future.