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

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Russian into London: a fabulous violinist makes her debut

I’ve just had a terrific Skype chat with the young Russian violinist Alena Baeva, ahead of her London debut at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday. She and I have a little Schumann-related project together in June in Oxford and it’s splendid to get to know her. Here she is, talking about her turbulent background in central Asia, her first-rate musical training, her passion for historical recordings and all we can learn from them, and a few particularly wonderful concertos…






JD: Alena, you’ve recently been playing a very special piece in Katowice to mark 100 years of Polish independence… 

AB: It was a major event for me because I’d wanted to play the Karlowicz Concerto for a long time. It’s hardly played anywhere but Poland, which is a pity because it’s a great piece. It’s quite difficult! Someone brought it for me to play in a masterclass in Poland and I was fascinated. I’m happy we did it this summer. 


JD: Where are you from and where did you grow up? 

AB: That’s the most difficult question! I can’t say one place I’m from. I was born in Kyrgistan, by chance because my parents’ parents were sent to work there - they were sent to random places in the Soviet Union. I lived in my grandmother’s small house with a garden the first five years, which was a very happy time. Then civil war broke there and I remember we were hiding underneath the storage in the basement. I don’t remember many things about it, but my dad, when there was the first possibility to take a plane, he sent us to Almaty in Kazakhstan because his mother lived there at the time. We came to her because we had no other place to live and we were there for another five years. I started to learn the violin there. 

Almaty is a very special place for me, because I was at an important age when you start to discover the world around you. People there are so warm, so nice and so kind. I missed this a lot when we moved to Moscow when I was 10. The violin was going so well and I needed some education to go and study somewhere so my parents chose Moscow because of great Soviet school of playing. I entered the Central Music School, which was a big contrast. Moscow is somehow more than a metropolis. 


JD: Who was your main teacher?

AB: I was studying from the age of 10 with Eduard Grach, an accomplished violin player and student of Yampolsky – a great, great school. I continued studying with him at the Moscow Conservatory, so it was for 12 years! When I was 16-17, I started to seek some other ideas and influences too. It was thanks to Mstislav Rostropovich, who supported talented children in Moscow. He had a foundation and he sent me to Paris to study. This was a whole big change because it was too late to enter the Conservatoire, but his French friends organised private lessons. I lived in the house of his good friends who are fantastic people and became my French family. It was so enriching just to be with them and discover this great country and great culture. I was staying several months of the year and it was in Chartres, a fantastic place with a rose garden, just in front of the cathedral - a dream! Now I appreciate it even more than I did before.

I had lessons there with Boris Garlitsky, a Russian violinist who had moved more than 20 years before to Europe and became a very European style of musician - it was so helpful to study Mozart and Brahms with him. It was such a change from old-style Russian School teaching with big sound, big vibrato and big emotion all the time. It was quite opposite, what I learned from Boris, so that was very important for me. And going to concerts and exhibitions, I fell in love with everything French! I connected to the French language and the French style of life - they can enjoy life so well, better than many people… 


JD: And you’ve settled eventually in Luxembourg?

AB: I really wanted to move to a French-speaking place! So I ended up here eight years ago. It’s easy to remember because it was three weeks before giving birth to my daughter. I didn’t really care about what was a good moment to move, I just kept going! She is eight now and my son is ten. It’s a very good base - calm, beautiful, central and efficient. The airport and train station are very close, especially compared to Moscow, where the way to the airport takes longer than the flight! 


JD: Which violinists have you most admired? 

AB: It was changing all the time, I had my favourites every month! Most things I discovered on CDs at the time because there was no Youtube and not many people used to come to play concerts in Moscow. I remember my father presented me with a Michael Rabin box of CDs: that was fantastic - he’s not as known as he deserved to be. I was in love with Menuhin for a long time. And what is most important, I think, is the variety of expression, the different languages performers and composers speak to us: it’s impossible to be stuck with something. Like life itself, it continues and changes. 




JD: You’re quite a recording buff?

AB: I am lucky to know a great collector of old 78s in Paris who happens to be my ex-uncle-in-law. He’s a fantastic person and every time I go to Paris I try to see him and listen because there are such treasures, unknown and unpublished recordings. One of many impressions I had was from the Casals Festival in Prades: a live performance of Christian Ferras playing Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in the church and you can hear a thunderstorm outside. The C major fugue – I never heard anything like that on the violin! 


JD: This Wednesday, 5 December, you have your debut with the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski, playing Tchaikovsky...

AB: I’m so much looking forward to that! I learned the concerto when I was 14 and since then I have played it regularly, as it is one of the best concertos ever written for violinists, one of the most masterful and perfect pieces. With Vladimir Jurowski it’s a very special story because we met first several years ago when we worked on the Strauss concerto, which was v interesting. Then we played Tchaikovsky in Moscow and we had three hours of rehearsal with orchestra which is itself a luxury, but especially for this concerto and the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. It was the way only Vladimir can make it: totally different way than what I was doing before, and it was incredible to feel these new connections which make the phrases and the whole mood sound totally different. I like very much his idea of this concerto, which is that it’s not so heavy, as stuffed and middle of 20thcentury in style. It’s closer to Mendelssohn. That’s exactly what I feel about this piece too - it’s very light. The second movement is very intimate, but not going too deep. It all finds resolution in the tempos we take & the accents we try to make. So I very much look forward to discovering it with LPO. 


JD: What’s your violin?

AB: A Guarneri del Gesù, a wonderful instrument of 1738, and it’s a whole new world to discover. It’s very interesting to see how much you can observe and learn from the instrument - I still don’t understand how that works. I was playing a modern instrument previously, also a wonderful instrument which got lots of compliments and I really enjoyed playing it. But the Guarneri somehow has something bigger. It’s really a mystery how time and the violinists who have played it before do change it. This violin was discovered relatively recently and has not had many owners, but still it’s very rich. It is lent to me by a private sponsor who wished to stay anonymous - he’s a fantastic person and I’m grateful to get to know him. 


JD: You’re working a lot with the pianist Vadym Kholodenko?

AB: His playing is very special for me. We were in the conservatory studying at almost the same time and for our first sonata together he suggested Beethoven No. 10, one of the most complex sonatas ever written! I learned so much from him, first of all because he’s a great musician and for a teenage violinist when we started to play it was very important, because violinists especially in the early years are obsessed with practising and have to invest so much time… so this was a whole new world. We’ve played together for more than 12 years already. 



JD: In June, you and I are working together - hooray! We’re doing a concert with the Oxford Philharmonic called The Ghosts of War, in which I’ll narrate the story of Jelly d’Arányi and you are the soloist in the Schumann Violin Concerto. Tell us about the concerto - what’s it like to perform? How do people respond to it?

AB: Since I first played the Schumann, I’ve tried to schedule it everywhere I can, which was not as simple as with Tchaikovsky! But I’m playing it several times before Oxford and I’m very much looking forward to that. 

The most common answer when I suggest programming the concerto is ‘Oh, the public doesn’t like it so much’… but that’s absolutely not true, because also important is the way it’s played, because it is so personal and so intimate. 

There are some most precious moments in the concerto - the second movement I adore, and going up to the third movement, it’s absolute magic. I think the fact that it’s not being accepted as it deserves to be is just because it’s not being heard much. That’s the only reason. It can be difficult to find the balance with the tempi, but it is possible. I’m convinced that at that time performances involved much more natural changes of rubato and a much more natural flow which makes much more sense in the finale and in Schumann in general. Of course he was improvising a lot, but I don’t think we should consider his pieces improvisations, especially the later ones: it’s very well thought and well shaped music, and he managed to find such a spare means of expression to express so much emotion. It’s a miracle. 


JD: The metronome marks are quite controversial…

AB: The finale makes sense when you swing it a little bit. Obviously it’s a polonaise, but it makes most sense when you don’t play it too strictly, in terms of movement. And of course I think it should be natural: if something is written unplayable, you can take it and bring sense to it, and that’s how I’m trying to manage this concerto. I think the tempi should be taken into consideration, but you can also change the tempo within the movement. If you listen to how Auer played this melody of Tchaikovsky… the old recordings were so much more free - it was like talking, like a conversation. I also heard a CD included in a book called How to Play Brahms, which had recordings of Brahms symphonies, the same excerpts with the same Berlin orchestra every 10 years - from the 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s, and it’s absolutely shocking how much it changed. The early recordings had a flow like a flock of birds flying - it’s hypnotising, this feeling of time. Gradually over the decades it was more and more squared within time and slowed down. This can give us a thought about how to better play it. And before, the composers were so much more open to the performers… 


JD: Alena, thank you so much for making time to talk. See you on Wednesday, and toitoitoi!

5 DECEMBER, 7:30 PM, ​ ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL, LONDON
Weber Overture, Der Freischütz
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto
Bruckner Symphony No. 2 (1877 revised version)

Vladimir Jurowski conductor
Alena Baeva violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Tchaikovsky wears Prada

I'm back from my travels and have hit the ground running - notably to the Barbican last night for a stunning concert by the Filarmonica della Scala and Riccardo Chailly with Benjamin Grosvenor as piano soloist, and this morning to Cobham to give a coffee-talk in the library (hence only posting this mid-afternoon).

I've reviewed the Milanese concert for The Arts Desk:

Chailly at La Scala.
Photo: Brescia e Amisano, Teatro della Scala
You could probably guess from the assembling audience that the orchestra making its Barbican debut last night came from Milan. That many mink coats rarely congregate in a London concert hall. And under the baton of Riccardo Chailly, its music director, the Filarmonica della Scala – vastly more than the house band of Italy’s most famous opera house – delivered an evening of luxurious sophistication, dressing over-familiar repertoire in haute couture that made some otherwise much-maligned masterpieces shine out like Cinderella on her way to the ball...

Read the rest here.  And I promise never, ever to grumble about Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony again.

More Tchaikovsky: if you're following my Swan Lakeian progress, you'll enjoy an article which was absolute treat for me to write. For the Royal Opera House Magazine I visited the Royal Ballet offices and talked to director Kevin O'Hare, choreographer Liam Scarlett and designer John Macfarlane about the new production of the ballet, the first the company has created for around 30 years. They've now put the piece on the website, so here it is.

Marianela Nuñez & Vadim Muntagirov in their new Swan Lake costumes
Photo: Bill Cooper, (c) ROH 2017
Challenges for a ballet company can scarcely be greater than staging a new production of Swan Lake. It’s everyone’s idea of the perfect classical ballet, almost ubiquitously familiar, along with its glorious Tchaikovsky score, and perhaps the bigger the ballet company, the bigger the challenge becomes. Now The Royal Ballet is about to unveil an ambitious new version of the story of Prince Siegfried and Odette, the doomed swan princess, from choreographer Liam Scarlett – its first for 30 years. 
‘We want it to feel like a big, opulent Swan Lake that could only be by The Royal Ballet,’ says The Royal Ballet’s director Kevin O’Hare. The corps de ballet of swans will wear tutus, not the longskirted dresses they were previously assigned – another feature that hints at the classic status O’Hare is hoping for. ‘I think everyone deserves a chance to take a fresh look at the great classics,’ he comments. ‘Of course there’s an emotional wrench in saying goodbye to Anthony Dowell’s production, as so many of our dancers have grown up on it or performed in it as children. But it’s important to refresh things every so often. This production has been a long time in the making and we’re very excited about it.’...
The rest is here.

And meanwhile the funding for Meeting Odette has now reached a very hopeful 59 per cent thanks to some extraordinarily generous pledges this week for which I am profoundly grateful (you can, of course, place your own pledge here and help to make the book happen).


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Nutcracker, Alexandra, Lindsey and I

Alexandra Dariescu and friend. Photo: Andrew Mason

At last I can spill the beans about something utterly lovely.

Pianist Alexandra Dariescu's cutting-edge digital animation performance, The Nutcracker and I, is premiered tonight at Milton Court

Alex has made a CD version of the project - but since you can't put digital animation on a CD, she wanted a narration, a scripted version to replace the visuals. So she asked me to write it for her. 

The story also appears in the CD booklet, with the digital animations by Yeast Culture translated into illustrations by Adam Smith. The script has been recorded by the TV presenter Lindsey Russell (I haven't heard it yet - hopefully will soon!). Release date is 27 April on Signum Records, and there may be advance copies floating around at Milton Court this evening.

The project reimagines the classic ballet's tale of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince with Alex herself as the main character, a little girl longing to fulfil her dream of becoming a pianist. Alex plays extracts from Tchaikovsky's ballet music in transcriptions by luminaries including Mikhail Pletnev and Percy Grainger, and the ballerina Desirée Ballantyne performs the role of Clara, interacting on stage with digitally animated characters. 

Alex conceived The Nutcracker and I as an alternative performance format in the hope of attracting audiences who mightn't normally think of attending a piano recital. It has sparked a huge amount of interest. Tonight's premiere at 6pm sold out in one day when they announced it, and demand was such that they've added a repeat performance at 8pm. They'll be taking it on tour in 2018.

I'm thrilled to have had a small part in this. It's been a huge amount of fun and we hope everyone is going to love it - and that we can inspire you and, crucially, your children to think big and dare to dream!

And now: off to the premiere!

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Tchaikovsky, spades and stalkers...

I had a chat with director David Alden about The Queen of Spades at ENO for The Independent (opening night was yesterday). He revealed that Tchaikovsky was no stranger himself to the sort of stalking that Lisa experiences from Hermann...



Few operas can boast a libretto based on a literary masterpiece that is also a psychological thriller. Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, after Alexander Pushkin’s short story, is the exception – and its gripping tale, focusing on a crazed anti-hero, presents a peach of a challenge for any opera company. English National Opera is about to stage its first production of the work in some 20 years with the American director David Alden at its helm. After his enduring success for ENO with Britten’s Peter Grimes, expectations run high.

The opera’s protagonist, Hermann, believes that if he can discover the secret of the “three cards” it will transform his life. He courts the unfortunate Lisa to gain access to her grandmother, an elderly Countess who guards the crucial gambling formula; tragedy ensues as his obsession spirals out of control.

“It’s not easy to stage,” Alden confirms. “It’s a very big piece, it’s quite a monstrous, gigantic panorama, and to keep refocusing it requires a difficult balance between its elements.”

Despite its scale and depth, The Queen of Spades is often overshadowed by Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, also based on Pushkin, which preceded it by a decade. No less compelling, though, are the driven, haunted qualities of his music for Hermann and Lisa and the care and delight with which he created Mozartian pastiche to evoke the Countess’s memories of the court of Catherine the Great.

The score’s special intensity, Alden points out, may have been turbo-charged by a frightening situation that would have led Tchaikovsky to identify with the confused and increasingly desperate Lisa. Some years earlier, the composer had married, most ill-advisedly, a young woman named Antonina Milyukova who had pursued him by letter. He was gay; she was mentally unstable; disaster ensued. “He had got her out of his life, but she returned and started to make trouble for him,” Alden says. “She flipped over something petty and started threatening to expose him. He fled to Italy in order to write this piece.”

Hermann is in love, at a distance, with Lisa; he pursues her like a stalker, uses her blatantly to access the Countess, and finally drives her to suicide. His obsession transfers to the old Countess and her secret of the three cards. “It’s very Freudian,” Alden suggests. “There’s a triangle of him and the two women, and it turns out the real erotic zinger of the opera is between him and the Countess: his horror of her, his desire for her and the cards.” The setting of St Petersburg becomes virtually a character in its own right, “an aristocratic milieu with decadence and corruption only just under the surface”.

It sounds all too contemporary – but the psychological element remains timeless and universal. “It is very non-literal,” Alden says, of his new production. “It’s a weird, beautiful, dreamy thing.”

The Queen of Spades, English National Opera, from 6 June. Box office: 020 7845 9300


Friday, May 08, 2015

SWINE LAKE #2

As the UK wakes up to the unexpected election result of an actual, if small, Tory majority, another majority of sorts - those of the artistically inclined people in my social media feeds - are pondering ways to leave the country. Front-runner destinations include Germany, Sweden and Iceland.

So where did it all go wrong?

Time to have a quick look at the power of myth and the lessons we can learn from it. The wound foisted on us by a betrayal is an almost incomparably strong force embedded in the depths of human nature. So the people we feel betrayed us before are paying the price. It's all in the myths.

Try this (with apologies to Petipa/Ivanov and Tchaikovsky).


SWINE LAKE #2

Once upon a time, there was a handsome politician who was standing for parliament. He went out campaigning by the lake and met a swan who unexpectedly transformed into a beautiful girl. He fell in love with her at once and she loved him too. He promised her everything: true love, compassion, empathy, heath care, arts funding. She promised to vote for him and love him forever if he'd break the spell that kept her doomed to daily metamorphosis into something she was not. He fell on one knee and vowed.

But the next night, at the election ball, there arrived a seductive, spellbinding beauty: a rich and privileged princess with amazing technique. She could pull off all the fancy tricks - the balances, the leaps, the mind-control, the 32 fouettés - and she promised him, besides her body if he wanted it, a huge quantity of private money for his campaign, and for himself beyond that. All was lost. He forgot his promise, or perhaps - taken in by the princess's resemblance to his swan girl - believed that he was indeed renewing it. The moment he vowed allegiance to the newcomer, the weeping swan girl was revealed, wringing her wings in despair out in the cold beyond the window.

When the prince realised his mistake, too late, he ran away to the lake to find his beloved and throw himself at her feet with an abject and public apology, to be printed in all the papers. But it was too late. His betrayal was absolute. You promised to save me. You promised to love me forever. You betrayed me. We are both doomed. The swan girl threw herself into the lake and drowned. He leapt in after her and drowned too. There could be no coming back after such a betrayal.

The imposter princess with all the money was left in charge.


Friday, October 03, 2014

October: sounds from another world

This is the Russian pianist Lev Oborin playing 'October - Autumn Song' from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons, filmed in 1971. It's mesmerisingly wonderful. Sounds - and images - from another world altogether...



This remarkable piano cycle - still desperately underrated - was commissioned by the editor of a Russian magazine named Nuvellist: one piece was printed in each monthly issue through 1876. What a good idea - how about the editor of a monthly culture journal commissioning one of our leading composers to write something similar? Come on guys, what are you waiting for?

Here is some more info about Oborin, courtesy of the Fryderyk Chopin Information Centre, Poland:

Lev Oborin – 1st Prize winner, 1st International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw (1927). Lev Oborin was born into a middle class family. His father was a rail transport engineer and his mother a lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine at the Moscow University. Due to his father’s frequent relocations Lev Oborin’s early childhood was spent in several cities, including Homel’, Vitebsk, Orsha and Minsk.
In 1914, when the Oborin family settled in Moscow, the talented son, who had long desired to take up an instrument, was sent to music school. As a result of the rapid development of his talent it was decided that the boy be moved to the Gnessin Music College to study with Professor Elena Gnessina. A former student of Ferruccio Busoni, she taught him a modern approach to the piano according to the teaching of her master. Results quickly followed.
Alongside his piano studies, Oborin took composition lessons with Alexander Grechaninov, with admirable results. In this manner, Elena Gnessina wanted to give Oborin an alternative track for developing his musical abilities, should his career in piano be hindered by his somewhat weak hands.
In spring 1921, Lev Oborin graduated from the Gnessin Music College, playing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B flat minor and Chopin’s Impromptu in C sharp minor, Balakirev’s The Lark paraphrase on Glinka’s song, and Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor.
That same year (1921) Oborin enrolled for the Moscow Conservatoire at two departments – piano and composition. His teachers for piano and composition respectively were Konstantin Igumnov and Georgy Catoire. After Catoire’s death Oborin continued his composition studies with Nikolai Miaskovsky. He also took conducting classes with Konstantin Saradzhev, and occasional teaching from Bruno Walter and Hermann Abendroth who travelled to Moscow for concerts. It is from student days that Oborin’s friendship with Dmitri Kabalevsky, Vissarion Shebalin and Dmitri Shostakovich originated.
Oborin started performing in public while studying at the Conservatoire. He completed his piano studies in 1926, graduating with honours with his name being inscribed in gold letters on a white marble plate in the lobby of the Small Hall of the Conservatoire. For his graduation concert, he played Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, Prokofiev’s 3rd Concerto in C major and some other works. In autumn 1926, he gave a sensational performance of Prokofiev’s Concerto in C major with Moscow’s highly praised ‘Persimfans’ Orchestra (short for “Piervyj simfonicheskii ansambl byez dirizhora”, or “First symphonic orchestra with no conductor”).
In December 1926, the announcement for the 1st International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw reached Moscow. Igumnov immediately thought of his student Oborin. Since Oborin did not have the repertoire required by the competition rules ready, he mastered all the works in a month and played them at a concert at the Great Hall of the Conservatoire on 14th January 1927. Unfortunately he managed only to play Chopin’s Concerto in F minor with orchestra, having to leave for Warsaw the following week.
Oborin’s performance at the competition was a triumph – he received the 1st Prize. Professor Stanisław Niewiadomski wrote in the Warsaw press:
“The first place among yesterday’s candidates was taken by Lev Oborin […]. The general level of playing was of the highest order […]. For the Slav listener Oborin’s poetic, touching simplicity, highly spiritual understanding of Chopin’s music, modesty and spiritual purity of his performing art are uplifting […]. Each piece from the beginning to the end had a proper plan, intelligible and appropriate to the content of the work and spirit of the author. In a word, we are standing on real art territory.”
And famous Polish poet and writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz thus wrote on Oborin’s playing:
“With his driving energy, youthful unevenness, phenomenal musicality, and technical bravura, Oborin appears as some fantastic musician from E. T. A. Hoffmann’s stories. Like the Pied Piper he has captivated the Warsaw audience […], which has exploded with hysteria hearing the young Russian […]. Oborin’s success took on acute symptoms of psychosis.”
Audiences throughout Poland keen to hear the young pianist, he went on a country-wide tour playing in Warsaw, Łódź, Cracow, Poznań and Vilnius. He also appeared several times in Germany.
After returning to Moscow, Oborin quickly completed his post-graduate studies with Konstantin Igumnov and started teaching at the Moscow Conservatoire (1928). Until 1945 he performed exclusively within Russia. In 1935 he played for the first time with David Oistrakh, marking the beginning of a long-term musical partnership. In 1936 he gave the first performance of Aram Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, beginning a series of first performances of modern composers’ works, including Shebalin, Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. Between 1941 and 1963, Oborin together with violinist David Oistrakh and cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky formed a world-famous chamber trio.
After World War II, Oborin played in Poland (1949,1950,1955), many European countries, Japan, and the USA (1963).
As a piano teacher Oborin worked with many distinguished pianists, including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mikhail Voskresensky, Dmitri Sakharov, Alexander Bakhchiev and Andrei Egorov.
Oborin sat in the juries of the 4th and 5th International Chopin Competitions in Warsaw, as well as competitions in Moscow, Lisbon, Paris, Leeds and Zwickau.
His rich discography includes piano concertos by Balanchivadze, Beethoven, Mozart, Rachmaninov and Khachaturian, solo works by Beethoven, Borodin, Brahms, Glena, Debussy, Liszt, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Scribing, Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Schumann, and chamber works by Bach, Beethoven (complete recording of violin sonatas with David Oistrakh), Haydn, Greg, Dona, Mendelssohn, Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Svetlana, Taney, Franck, Tchaikovsky and Schubert.
Stanisław Dybowski

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.