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

Saturday, September 17, 2016

They are going to measure artistic quality. Seriously.

Most perturbed by the revelation that Arts Council England is planning "to impose quantitative measures of artistic quality" upon its National Portfolio Organisations. Here is more information about it on the ACE website.

Here is a clear and detailed report in Arts Professional

The scheme so far has apparently cost more than £700k, and the ACE is said to be pressing ahead with it despite concerns, following the pilot scheme, that it's not guaranteed to deliver in an entirely satisfactory way...

So how is this going to work? ACE site provides us with this.

The core quality metrics
Self, peer and public:
  • Concept: it was an interesting idea
  • Presentation: it was well produced and presented
  • Distinctiveness: it was different from things I’ve experienced before
  • Challenge: it was thought-provoking
  • Captivation: it was absorbing and held my attention
  • Enthusiasm: I would come to something like this again
  • Local impact: it is important that it's happening here
  • Relevance: it has something to say about the world in which we live
  • Rigour: it was well thought through and put together
Self and peer only:
  • Originality: it was ground-breaking
  • Risk: the artists/curators really challenged themselves
  • Excellence: it is one of the best examples of its type that I have seen

Some of these points make more sense in some areas of the performing arts than in others; it would, one surmises, be iffy to apply them en masse not only to theatre and cinema but also to opera and ballet both traditional and contemporary, and to concerts of classical music. One size doesn't fit all. It never did and it never will. 

It's tempting to wonder if this is an unintended consequence of the continuing reduction of space for professional critical assessments of artistic work in the national press - now so marginalised that the majority of cultural work never receives any newspaper assessment at all. The notion of public reviews - the 'everyone is a critic' stance - seems to be progressively devaluing the concept of the alternative: this is because consensus is so rare that once you pass a certain number of reviews everything ends up, on a scale of one to five, averaging around three because some like it, some don't, everyone takes a different view for a different reason and nobody really trusts what other people say in any case. 

This in itself should demonstrate how problematic it is to assess artistic quality in a generalised way.

Let's try out the Core Quality Metrics on an actual classical concert...

Yulianna Avdeeva. Photo: C. Schneider
It so happens that the most recent event I've been to was the debut recital at the Wigmore Hall the other night of Yulianna Avdeeva, the young Russian pianist who won first prize at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 2010 - the year Daniil Trifonov pulled in in third place. Instead of a review, here is an assessment of the evening according to Core Quality Metrics.

CONCEPT: it was an interesting idea
Of course it's interesting to have the winner of the Chopin Competition make her Wigmore debut six years after the event. She is an extremely fine artist and should be far better known than she is.

PRESENTATION: it was well produced and presented
Find me anything at the Wigmore Hall that isn't well produced and presented? It's the Ritz of concert halls. Such things are never in doubt. As for Yulianna, she is a consummate professional, at ease on the stage and in complete control at every turn. (Presentation? I don't know where she got her pewter-coloured shot-silk jacket, but I'd like one too.) 

DISTINCTIVENESS: it was different from things I've experienced before
Yes, because I haven't previously heard Yulianna Avdeeva give a recital at the Wigmore Hall. I'm not sure I've heard those exact pieces played in that exact succession before either. But others might say: well, it's a piano recital, so it's not all that different. To those who love going to piano recitals, it was different for the above reasons. To the non-pianophile bureaucrat, though, would this risk raising puzzlement?

CHALLENGE: it was thought-provoking
That depends purely on the individual listener. Some might experience provoked thoughts such as: here is Bach's English Suite No.2 being played on the modern piano with absolute clarity, great conviction, beautiful rhythmic sense, exquisite sound quality and enthralling virtuosity, so what price those who think it's the wrong instrument, and do those people still even exist? And: here is Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No.8, written towards the end of World War II: it is a massive, nearly symphonic work, full of colour, deeply original and fantastically difficult to perform, and Yulianna is so at one with it and its idiom that she's making me imagine that I am in Moscow looking at Russian modernist art by the likes of Malevich and Goncharova. 

I hope this is what they mean by 'thought-provoking', but it's quite hard to tell. 

CAPTIVATION: it was absorbing and held my attention
Yup. See above.

ENTHUSIASM: I would come to something like this again
Yup. You bet.

LOCAL IMPACT: it's important that it's happening here
We're going round in circles now. Yes, it is important that Yulianna, a top-class musician with a growing international profile, should have a Wigmore Hall debut, here in central London, and that our discerning audience should have a chance to hear her. See above.

RELEVANCE: it has something to say about the world in which we live
This can only mean what you want it to mean. The concert says that people still adore listening to Bach, Chopin and Prokofiev, that some young pianists are as good as ever at playing them, and that the Wigmore Hall is one of the best places to go to listen to them. But what of the mindsets with which people approach this topic? What do we want an artistic event to say about the world in which we live? 

Again, to standardise that expectation would be an unpleasant development. If I come out of the concert without any particular thoughts about the world in which we live, but having had a really great evening nonetheless, isn't that my prerogative as a member of the public? Some people go to arts events precisely to escape having to think about the world in which we live for a couple of blessed hours.

This recital brings us great music, wonderfully played, and people love that. This really ought to be enough. It doesn't tell us whether or not Southern Trains are still on strike, or whether it's a good thing if the third runway at Heathrow gets built, or what's going on now in Syria, and it shouldn't have to do so to be 'relevant'. Music connects people to one another across time and space - listening to Chopin we're in a way communing with the soul of a human being who died in 1849, and the souls of everyone who has played or listened to his music since then. That tells us something about ourselves as human beings at our best, and perhaps that is one of the many things that music is for. Can we hope that this registers as valuable in this 'core quality metric'?

RIGOUR: it was well thought through and put together.

Self and peer only (including this because it's there):

ORIGINALITY: it was ground-breaking
In the sense that it was Yulianna playing in a venue that is new to her, and that venue hosting her for the first time, I guess that's a yes. In terms of musical content, not necessarily; but I don't really care because I enjoyed it so much.

RISK: the artist really challenged herself
And how. People forget what an enormous feat of accomplishment it is to play extremely complex music to a world-class level for a discerning public for about two hours. (Besides, she's hardly going to sit up there and play Chopsticks, is she.)

EXCELLENCE: it was one of the best examples of its type that I have seen
It was bloody excellent. But if every piano recital I attend has to be "one of the best examples of its type that I have seen", I think that would be a problematic way to assess them. This one was indeed top-quality artistry. But I've previously attended plenty of piano recitals that have been most enjoyable, not necessarily "one of the best" of all, yet still worth giving, worth listening to and worth loving. 

Core Quality Metrics as a measurement technique, then, seems a mixed bag. The bits that work would work anyway. The bits that don't work probably never will. And everything, but everything, depends on how the criteria are applied, and by whom, to what - and to which ends, with what effect.

For the moment, one has to try to set aside the unpleasant visions that a quango's "one size fits all" policy conjures up, with all our instinctive shudders about Stalin, Kafka and Orwell, and hope that this latest bizarre algorithmic development may somehow be able to do more good than harm. I can't say I'm holding my breath.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Live-stream for Schiff masterclass today!

Sir András Schiff is giving a masterclass at the Royal College of Music at 3pm this afternoon and if you can't get along 
to hear it, you can watch it on a live stream HERE. The students playing to him include are three of the 
UK's most exciting young talents: Martin James Bartlett, Hin-Yat Tsang and Alexander Ullman.  
(follow this link to the RCM's own site.)

This past week Schiff has been at the Wigmore Hall performing a series of three recitals of Last Works: the late sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, each concert involving no break. "András doesn't like intervals..." announced David King, house manager, from the platform yesterday. Last night's closing concert opened with Mozart's final sonata, full of subtle chromaticism; then the unquiet spirit of Schubert, already half removed from life in his B flat major sonata D960; Haydn's great E flat Sonata, still firmly rooted in earthy humanity and irrepressible joie de vivre; and Beethoven's Op.111, unleashing struggle, mystery, transcendence. And it all sounded pretty different, not least thanks to the piano itself.

The new Bösendorfer 280VC grand
Schiff was playing a brand-new Bösendorfer, the 280VC Vienna Concert Grand; I'm told this particular instrument is only the ninth that has been produced. Everything is new: "Nothing has been left unchallenged," says the company's website. The result felt yesterday like a movable Musikverein on three legs. The piano carries with it a similar ambience to Vienna's great golden hall in the sense of tonal warmth, dynamic range, an intimate atmosphere capable of the grandest scale sounds, a dark and velvety bass and a sustaining tone that cradles the melodic lines and makes them shine. I hope to have the chance to get up close and personal with one of these magnificent creations before too long. 

Between pieces our pianist did not leave the stage. Two hours without a break might seem intense, yet the only pauses found Schiff leaning gently on the piano with arms outstretched as if unifying spiritually with it before the first notes. The tone he found for each composer was subtly distinctive: the Schubert rounded and transparent, the Mozart singer-like, the Beethoven travelling to the extremes at the bottom of the keys yet without a hint of harshness. For us in the audience, the total effect rather resembled a guided meditation; you are drawn in to the concentration and the stillness, lifted out of all other concerns and immersed body, mind and soul. Schiff's recitals are the closest we can experience to music as spiritual practice - and they are all the more valuable for that.

Anyway, don't forget to come back at 3pm. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

So what's it really like to perform at the Wigmore Hall?

Viv and muggins, delivering
What's it like to perform at the Wigmore Hall? I doubt I'd ever have found out if I'd kept on with my piano studies...but in one of those weird twists of fate I found myself up there yesterday, with wonderful Viv, presenting Alicia's Gift: the Concert of the Novel to an extremely well-sold auditorium, full of people aged from what looked like 3 to 93, who listened attentively, applauded Viv's playing with great enthusiasm, and laughed at the jokes.

It's the musical equivalent of...having tea at the Ritz. You're in there with the ghosts of the finest music-making in the history of London. In the Green Room you're surrounded by the dedicated photographs of musicians who have been there over the past 115 years, from Edwin Fischer, Daniel Barenboim, Jessye Norman, Christa Ludwig, to Stephen Hough, Angela Hewitt and - the final photo you see just before you walk on to the platform - András Schiff standing beside a bust of Beethoven.

Viv McLean in rehearsal yesterday
The platform itself, under the famous cupola depicting the Soul of Music, feels protected, intimate and reassuring, bathed in golden light. It's neither slippery nor intimidating, and from the front of the stage the hall looks smaller than it really is, rather than bigger, so you feel safe and happy. The Steinway we met there yesterday was new just over a year ago and if you're me - playing it for three minutes at the very end of the concert - it's like taking a ride in the most luxurious car you could imagine, only far better; one of those pianos where you only have to think of what you want it to do and out it comes. If you're Viv, of course, it's even better.

Nor can you imagine a more helpful team of people. There's even someone whose job it is to look after the performers backstage - not that Viv and I need a great deal of looking after, as we always bring our own gf chocolate muffins etc, but it's nice to be offered tea, and there's a quiet room upstairs where Viv was able to go for a pre-concert snooze.

It's scary. You bet it's scary. I don't usually suffer nerves for our narrated concerts - only a little bit for the duet at the end - but when you're sitting on a stage and you can almost see Jelly d'Arányi three feet away playing Tzigane, and you can picture your parents up there in the balcony where they always used to sit, waving and being proud, and you're remembering all the hundreds of times you've been in there listening to the great and good, but now you have to deliver, that's another matter. Even so - what an unimaginable treat it was to do so.

We had a lively panel discussion in the Bechstein Room downstairs after the performance: cellist Guy Johnston, pianist and Chet's head of keyboard Murray McLachlan and RNCM artistic director Michelle Castelletti joined me to talk about what makes a prodigy, what special challenges face them and what the peaks and pitfalls of prodigydom can bring. Excellent questions from a capacity audience, especially three young musicians in their teens whose eager participation made the whole event extra rewarding.

Things we learned that are to the advantage of this concert project as a whole:
• Age range of audience is basically unlimited and this is quite valuable;
• Format with discussion to follow works brilliantly;
• It may be a newish and unfamiliar way to listen to music, but people do seem to like it, so if you are a promoter who hesitates to give something different a whirl, don't be scared. Apart from anything else, it's stuffed with absolutely wonderful music.

Dearest Wigmore, THANK YOU.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Dates for the diary...

It's a busy little patch, this, so here's what's coming up.

• On Saturday afternoon, 20 Feb, Viv and I are performing ALICIA'S GIFT at the Wigmore Hall, 2pm. The concert is an hour long and at 3.30pm I'm chairing a panel discussion about child prodigies, with Murray McLachlan (head of keyboard at Chetham's), Michelle Castelletti (artistic director of the RNCM) and Guy Johnston (cellist par excellence). Tickets are going fast - and you need to book separately for the two events - so do grab 'em now. Here's the link.

• At fairly short notice, thanks to an heroic effort on the part of the Ealing Autummn Festival's devoted artistic director, Gillian Spragg, a performance of my play A Walk through the End of Time is being given in Ealing on 5 March, together with the complete Quartet for the End of Time by Messiaen. It takes place at Christ the Saviour Parish Church, New Broadway, Ealing, London W5 2XA (a few minutes walk from Ealing Broadway tube) and starts at 7pm. The actors Caroline Dooley and David Webb present a rehearsed reading of the play and the Messiaen Quartet features a group of local celebrity musicians from Ealing: Colin Bradbury (clarinet), Richard George (violin), Adrian Bradbury (cello) and Gillian herself on piano. Details here and booking through Eventbrite here.

Ghost Variations is steaming on apace and I am delighted that we'll give the first public presentation about the book, with words and music, at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, Covent Garden, on 21 March. Viv (piano) and David Le Page (violin) join me to play music associated with Jelly d'Arányi, including Ravel's Tzigane and music by Bartók, Brahms and...Schumann. I'll be introducing the topic and reading some extracts from the novel. Admission is FREE, but you need to book a place in advance. The plan at the moment is for the book to be released in July. Meanwhile I am desperately trying to get the manuscript brushed up properly for the editor to tackle with red pen in March.

Back to the desk...

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Booking is now OPEN for OUR WIGMORE HALL GIG

A tastefully sepia adaptation of Alicia's Gift's cover
Thrilling stuff for me and my wonderful pianist colleague Viv McLean: we are performing ALICIA'S GIFT: THE CONCERT OF THE NOVEL at the mighty and marvellous Wigmore Hall, on 20 February at 2pm. You can find all the programme details and online booking here.

The seriously scary thing about this is that the final number in the concert is actually a duet, so this means I have to play the piano in the bloomin' Wigmore Hall and even if it is three minutes of slow and gorgeous Ravel it's still...a bit terrifying. But hey.

This version of the concert lasts one hour and it will be followed at 3.30pm by a panel discussion, which I'll chair, on the topic of child prodigies - which is what the novel is all about. On our panel are Murray McLachlan, head of keyboard at Chetham's School of Music; Michelle Castelletti, artistic director of the Royal Northern College of Music; and Guy Johnston, cellist par excellence, who was something of a child prodigy himself. Book for the panel discussion here.

Alicia's Gift explores what the presence of a child prodigy can do to a family, and what a misguided family can do to a child prodigy's talent. And that is not always a pretty or painless tale. The novel is therefore not suitable for children, but the concert (mostly) is, and has often been enjoyed by those aged 10 upwards.

Alicia's Gift is published by Hodder and can be found as an e-book or paperback here.

Here's what's in the concert...

  • Viv McLean  piano
  • Jessica Duchen  narrator
Author Jessica Duchen and pianist Viv McLean unite to tell the story of a child prodigy pianist trying to grow up, exploring her talent’s effect on her family and her family’s effect on her talent. 
Jessica’s readings from her novel Alicia’s Gift alternate with Viv’s performances of the relevant music to create a compelling joint narrative in words and music.
    • Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)
          • Ballade No. 3 in A flat major Op. 47
    • Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
        • Estampes
          • Jardins sous la pluie
    • Fryderyk Chopin
          • Etude in C minor Op. 25 No. 12
    • Enrique Granados (1867-1916)
        • Goyescas
          • Quejas, o La maja y el ruiseñor
    • George Gershwin (1898-1937)
          • Rhapsody in Blue
    • Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
          • Sonatine
        • Ma mère l'oye
          • Le jardin féerique. Lent et grave

    Wednesday, July 22, 2015

    Wigmore debut for remarkable young composer-pianist

    I was sent a CD by the young Israeli pianist and composer Matan Porat to review a couple of years ago and was mightily impressed (I called his playing "cool-tempered, intelligent and sophisticated"). The other day I heard - just one week before the event, of course - that he is making his Wigmore Hall debut on Sunday (26th). I can't go, annoyingly, but asked him for an e-interview. Here he is. 

    Matan, where did you grow up, what is your background and how did you start to play?

    I grew up in a non-musical family. My mother loves music and as a toddler I learned to listen to LPs on my own, and was fascinated for hours from music by Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler. My parents bought me small musical toys and I used to sing and play all day long. One day I came across a piano, and it was clear for me that is the instrument I want to play, as it provided instant gratification and had the possibility of imitating a whole orchestra. 

    I started both piano and composition at the age of six. For a very long time, until I was 18, I was mostly interested in composition and improvisation, and piano studies were secondary. 

    Which musicians and teachers have been most important to your development? 

    All had changed when I entered the Tel-Aviv university. Initially, I wanted to study only composition, but my teacher advised me to apply also for the piano department. I had the immense luck to study with a fantastic teacher, Emanuel Krasovsky, who saw immediately the big potential I had and together we were able to accomplish many things, despite the fact my first public concert was when I was over 18.

    Over the years I was privileged to work with some great artists who greatly inspired me, such as András Schiff, Daniel Barenboim and Richard Goode. 

    Among my "regular" teachers, I have learned most from my first teacher, Emanuel Krasovsky, and my last teacher, Murray Perahia. 

    How do you combine your joint activities as composer and pianist? And does understanding the composition process make a difference to how you approach the music that you perform?

    It is essential for me to do both professions at the highest level possible, and each year it becomes a greater and greater challenge as my concert schedule is always growing and I need to find time to write my commissions. As it is impossible for me to compose in months I have lots of concerts or on tour, I find each year at least two months where I do not perform, and that is when I compose. 

    Although the two professions are very different from each other, as a pianist I feel my approach to music is closer to a composer approach- I am always interested in form and harmony and never found myself interested in other performers, or "superficial" performance aspects (i.e. octaves, scales, etc.).

    As a composer, I am more empathic towards performers, as I know hard it is to play, and I'm always making sure I do not create unnecessary difficulties. 

    What ideas and motivations inspire you as a composer?  
    As a composer, my ideas come from various different sources- together with musical inspirations, I am often inspired by films, paintings, books and poetry. Once an idea is planted, all I need is to concentrate and develop it. But to reach that initial idea can take a long time...

    Please tell us about your programme for the Wigmore concert.
    For my Wigmore recital I wanted to pick three very different, though wonderful works: Ligeti's Musica Ricercata, which is one of the composer's early works from the 50s, and in which he has already found his unique voice, departing from the language of Bartok and of eastern-European music. These 11 bagatelles are each constructed from an added tone: the first uses only 2 notes, the second 3, the third 4, and so on until the last piece which uses the full 12 notes. 

    The second piece which I will present is Rameau's Nouvelle Suite en La. Naturally, Rameau is a harpsichord composer and many of the ornaments are better suited for harpsichord than for the modern piano. However, I find that rather than imitating the harpsichord, it is rather convincing to play it in a modern tradition, and even at times to use (God forbids!) the pedal. These wonderful dances include a harmonically daring Sarabande and the famous and virtuosic closing Gavotte et Doubles. 

    I don't think it is needed to introduce Schubert's A Major sonata D959, the one before last sonata and one of the last pieces which he wrote. I feel very close to Schubert's music, and this sonata is one of my favourites among his pieces. 

    Coming from the Middle East, do you feel music can be a positive force for change and reconciliation there? 
    I do believe music, or any form of art for that matter, has no nationality or boundaries and is stronger than any political thought, regime or power. It has always been that way and will always remain independent. 

    Tuesday, July 14, 2015

    Kaufmann concert fracas goes to the Old Bailey

    A row at the Wigmore Hall, of all places, has ended up going to court at the Old Bailey, the Telegraph reports. A disabled concert-goer, Alison Harvey, was allegedly rammed with her own wheelchair and was "sent sprawling" when she asked a man who was standing in her pre-booked space to move. 
    Harvey is reported as telling the court: "I couldn't believe this from a normal person at Wigmore Hall, a place where it's so old fashioned, I regarded it as like a home. It's somewhere you just feel totally safe and lovely - it's always been a joy to be there."
    The concert in question was the jam-packed song recital by Jonas Kaufmann on 4 January. 

    Full story here.

    Friday, January 23, 2015

    Next few days...

    Tomorrow (24th) I am at the Richmondshire Subscription Concerts in North Yorkshire for a welcome reunion with Bradley Creswick (violin) and Margaret Fingerhut (piano) in Hungarian Dances, the Concert of the Novel. Do come along for Gypsy-style virtuoso thrills, gorgeous repertoire and a roller-coaster narrative from the book. Here's the link:

    On Monday evening (26th) I'm doing a pre-concert talk at the Wigmore Hall at 6.15pm about MOZART. The Hagen Quartet are continuing their Mozart Odysseyand Monday's concert features the second three of his "Haydn" Quartets. Talking about Mozart quartets at the Wigmore is a kind of a scary thing to do, so please join us in the Bechstein Room and smile - it will help.

    On Wednesday evening (28th) I'm in Birmingham to introduce Korngold's Symphony in F sharp at Symphony Hall. The CBSO will be playing it in the second half of the concert, conducted by that Korngold aficionado par excellence, Michael Seal.

    Busy. Backson.

    Friday, January 09, 2015

    At the feet of guess who...

    I'm officially on holiday - a long way off, somewhere hot and sunny that involves hammocks, trees and the sound of the sea. But there's WiFi, so I can still offer you, belatedly, some impressions of the two gentlemen above, whom I was fortunate to hear at Wigmore Hall last Sunday, at an extremely welcome last minute.

    Yes, Der Jonas was back in our top Lieder hall, and there are few finer places in which to appreciate his remarkable qualities at close quarters, within a warm acoustic magnifying glass. Here, even from the back row, the ambience and sound quality are intimate enough to let us hear a degree of nuance that might not come over to the same extent in a larger, more impersonal space.

    An all-Schumann first half from two highly sophisticated German musicians could scarcely be bettered. First of all, the partnership between Kaufmann and Deutsch - Jonas's Lieder Svengali - is something quite exceptional. The voice and the piano are so attuned to one another as to fuse into an indivisible sound, just as an orchestra at its best becomes a single entity. To call Deutsch an accompanist would be not just invidious, but unthinkable. They opened with five of the too-rarely heard Kerner Lieder, topped by 'Stille Tränen' - one of Schumann's most devastating songs, laden with the burdens of depression and intense longing, to say nothing of the glories of its melody. Kaufmann built up to this song as the climax it needs to be - and can hardly help being, given its quality - and unleashed the full power of his exceptional dynamic control.

    Some musicians' sounds, whether they are singers, violinists, pianists or anything else, strike us at what certain New Age types would call the Chakra points. The vibrations might strike us primarily at the top of the head, between the eyebrows, around the solar plexus, clean in the stomach or guts, and probably one or two other spots as well - but whichever is the case, it becomes irresistible, setting off goose-bumps in some cases, tears in others, or simply the sense of rising far from everyday predictability into something rare, more sensitive, more extraordinary, that carries us with it to some measure of the beyond. Suffice it to say that this song did that.

    Dichterliebe - the ultimate Schumann cycle, to many - is a work much maligned and misinterpreted, despite its phenomenal beauty and the perfectionism of its writing. This is not Schubert; far from the innocence and tragedy of Die schöne Müllerin and the desperation of Winterreise, this is Schumann's take on a love story - won, then lost - as portrayed by the poet Heinrich Heine, master of double-edged irony. Some suggest, oddly, that Schumann ignored Heine's detachment and cynicism. Yet the composer was a highly literary individual, one as adept (or nearly) with words as he was with music, constantly inspired by the poetry and novels of German romanticism at its peak. Kaufmann and Deutsch's Dichterliebe was as much Heine as it was Schumann; Kaufmann's gifts as storyteller were to the fore, backed by the refulgent tones of Deutsch's pianism; this was delicate, close-sketched life-drawing, leaving an emotional impact as subtle as the poet deserves - not head-butting indulgence, but something far more nuanced and colourful.

    After the interval came the Wagner Wesendonck Lieder, Kaufmann bringing to the world of solo song the composer with whom he is perhaps most strongly associated. Studies for Tristan? If the third and fifth songs are indeed, Kaufmann will (hopefully) be a Tristan to be reckoned with if/when he gets round to singing the role. For the time being, this was a Wagner incarnation as rare and insightful as the Dichterliebe was to Schumann: a fresh, convincing and unexpected take that made complete musical and poetic sense. These songs, usually larger than life with a mezzo and an orchestra, became intimate and transparent, but in a world of their own, distinct from the Schumann; Kaufmann's perfect Siegmund tone shone at its steel-and-caramel best.

    For Liszt's three Petrarch Sonnet settings - oddly, better known in their solo piano versions -  Kaufmann turned Italian. Like a religious convert who becomes more zealous than those born into a faith, he can sometimes seem more Italian than the Italians. The sound of the words becomes not only the inspiration for the music - instead, the words are the music, the latter simply a manifestation of a soundworld that is already there in Petrarch's dazzling love poems. If Dichterliebe was a set of keenly observed charcoal sketches, the Sonnets were as gigantic and perfectly wrought as Michelangelo sculptures. Petrarch gives his all in these poems, Liszt follows suit and Kaufmann and Deutsch delivered in kind. One encore - Schumann's 'Mondnacht' - quietened down to an exquisitely controlled, half-lit cantilena in which - as often through the evening - you couldn't help wondering when he manages to breathe.

    Most Jonas concerts involve a substantial quantity of encores, but this one didn't. Whether that was because it was a huge programme and he is saving himself for the small matter of Andrea Chénier rehearsals at the ROH, or because the audience mostly didn't stand up, then started to make its way out while he was taking curtain calls, is hard to say. The Wigmore is the finest concert hall in London by a long chalk, but it is a notoriously difficult place in which to get up and yell and cheer, which is what we'd have liked to do and which is what this performance deserved. Not wishing to embarrass my colleagues in Critics' Corner, I resisted the temptation. What a pity one feels one has to. I've seen a place as staid as Vienna's Musikverein go totally, utterly bananas over a Jonas-and-Helmut recital and the fact that that didn't happen in London says more about us than it does about them.

    Saturday, January 03, 2015


    I'm doing a pre-concert talk at the Wigmore Hall on 26 January about three of Mozart's greatest string quartets, the last half of the six he dedicated to Haydn, which the Hagen Quartet will be performing that night. I've been swotting. And it's heaven.

    If you listen to only one piece today, make it this: the slow movement of the C major Quartet K465, the 'Dissonance'. Here's the Ebène Quartet playing it. I find it deeply saddening that there are thousands, millions, of people in western 'democracies' who will go through their entire lives without hearing music of such phenomenal beauty because they've been taught to imagine that it is 'not for them'.

    If you have never heard this piece before, I hope your day is lit from within by it. And if you know it well - likewise. Then please sit one person down and get them to listen to it too.

    Tuesday, December 30, 2014

    Concerts? Remember those? Get down the Wiggy tonight, then

    Christmas: the kiss of death, if you're a musician. Or a music-lover, for that matter. Nothing but Messiahs and Nutcrackers being wheeled out all over again as far as the ear can hear. After you've been around for a few decades, you may start wanting to scream at the sound of that celesta. Maybe escapism is the reason so many of us eat and drink ourselves into a stupor over the days of festivities. By 30 December, enough, already.

    Thank you to all those doughty musicians who brave the seasonal wheeliebin to remind us that life goes on. At the Wigmore Hall tonight the smiley, gleamy-toned Australian pianist Piers Lane is doing a recital that is refreshingly free from anything topical. The first half is Rachmaninov and the second is Schubert, culminating with the great A major Sonata D959. Do please try to tear yourselves away from the overload and hear some really wonderful piano playing. Book here.

    A few other chippings of gold amid the general plastic recycling have come from the Royal Ballet, which gave Alice's Adventures in Wonderland instead of The Nutcracker this time, and BBC4, which made the Christmas ballet treat The Winter's Tale - an absolute glory of a full-length story ballet, choreographed this year by Christopher Wheeldon, which needs to be seen by lots and lots of people. It is not exactly seasonal, despite the title; instead, it's a very grown-up and brilliantly imagined balletic translation of Shakespeare's play, with a specially composed score by Joby Talbot and featuring astounding performances from Edward Watson and Lauren Cuthbertson as Leontes and Hermione, and Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae as Perdita and Florizel. (You can catch it on the iPlayer for another 25 days if you missed it.)

    Last but not least, do catch Fascinating Aida's brilliant show Charm Offensive at the Queen Elizabeth Hall during the first two weeks of January. Here's a taster, which I've been attempting to bear in mind this past week (honest, guv).

    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:

    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.