Saturday, July 31, 2004

Deconstructing Faure

I've set to work on the piano part of the Faure A major violin sonata. (Yes, Faure does have an acute accent, but my browser can't deal with it.) This was one of the pieces that got me into Faure when I was still a student. I got obsessed with several of Faure's chamber works, one at a time; this one took over from the C minor piano quartet. I was given a recording of it by Thibaut and Cortot and listened to it every day for about two months. Eventually I had to get it out of my system, so - unbeknownst to my piano teacher, who didn't really approve of chamber music - I practised it until blue in the face, then press-ganged an unsuspecting violinist into playing it with me. Sixteen years later, I'm at it again. Tom and I are planning to play it in our next recital, which will be in Borough Bridge, North Yorkshire, later in the autumn.

The A major sonata goes like the wind, or ought to. It surges along on waves of ecstasy and elan. It's Faure in love. Honest to goodness, he was in the full flood of a passionate attachment to Marianne Viardot, daughter of the great opera singer Pauline Viardot, and hoped to marry her. The sonata is dedicated to her violinist brother, Paul. The year the sonata was finished, 1877, Faure finally got Marianne to accept his proposal, but she later broke it off. It seems that his ardour frightened her away.

All of that ardour goes into the A major sonata - a bittersweet irony, too, in that its passion seems to be a ferment of white-hot anticipation for a love which was never to be fulfilled. (Faure was heartbroken after Marianne dumped him, but then discovered that there were plenty of other women in Paris who were more than happy to say yes to many things where he was concerned. After his eventual marriage to Marie Fremiet, he became one of those notorious French charmers who across many generations have misinterpreted Marie-Antoinette as having said 'Let them have their cake and eat it'.)

The task facing me here in 2004 is how to get to grips with the flurry of notes that convey these surges of ecstasy. A glance at the metronome marks nearly gave me a heart attack; fortunately Roy Howat's edition for Peters suggests slightly more humane ones. Amazingly, after 16 years, this piece is still somewhere in my fingers - not like starting from scratch at an age when the brain cells are dying off scarily fast. But there's nothing terribly ecstatic about it at the moment. It's a question of practising those pages of rippling quavers for hours, varying the rhythm to develop control on each note, steadying the pulse with a metronome, trying to keep the left hand quiet and let the right hand sing though not enough to obscure the violin (who will take all the credit as per usual). And so on and so forth. If, somewhere in the heart, Faure's ardour can survive the hard slog, then it can survive anything.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

From Seville to Warsaw in 22 hours

Musically, an intense little patch is going on, so here's an assessment of my weekend.

Saturday I gatecrashed the first night of Carmen at Glyndebourne. It's a revival of David McVicar's production from a couple of years ago, created for von Otter, but now rethought considerably for its new cast. The Guardian's review comments on its naturalism and mentions Zola, and I share Tim Ashley's opinion on a number of its aspects. Rinat Shaham deserves special mention, however, as her Carmen develops as the opera goes along, more than many. When she flounces out of the cigarette factory, plunges her head into a trough of water and then flings back her wet hair in an abrupt fountain to drench her colleagues, she's gorgeous, she's a sexpot and she bears no small resemblance to Carrie in Sex and the City. There's little sense at this point of her power or pride; these appears gradually, as if hewn into her as her self-defence against Don Jose's increasing violence. By the final scene she has grown into a full-blown Carmen - poised and centred, with stubborn integrity and independence, strong enough to stay outside the bullring to face her likely death. As Jose, Paul Charles Clarke is magnificent, both vocally and in characterisation - he seems to be the one stunning everyone, which is why I wanted to give 'Rinni', as they call her at G/b, more of this write-up. Paolo Carignani does some nice things with the score - it's a no-nonsense reading and the up-tempo of the prelude to the final act is wonderfully Spanish - but I did prefer Philippe Jordan last time, as his conducting had an extra edge of thrill about it. Tom & co seem to like this new guy, though.

On Sunday afternoon Rustem Haroudinoff gave his recital for the Chopin Society, which holds its salon concerts at the Sikorski Museum in Kensington, opposite Hyde Park. It's the most extraordinary place. You walk up the stairs towards the concert room only to find yourself faced with suits of armour on the walls; Rustem and the piano were surrounded by Polish military paintings, ancient Polish flags and glass cases full of medals. Had he been playing any of the Chopin Polonaises ('guns buried in roses' - Schumann) this might have been appropriate - as it was, there was a slight sense of political irony about this Russian blowing everyone sky high with his Rachmaninov B flat minor Sonata. I had a strange experience, listening to this piece. I closed my eyes and was somewhere else. I was listening intently to every note, but somehow when I looked out again at the end I didn't quite know where I was. I think this is called 'being transported' and it is rare and special.

A word too for the Chopin Society itself - a delightful bunch of pianistic eccentrics, who announced the incipient event with a speech full of apologies for one thing or another (come on, guys, this is 2004!) and provided the most fabulous spread of sanis, cakes and wine afterwards. They have an excellent programme of monthly recitals - you can hear Benjamin Grosvenor on 5 September (the BBC Young Musician of the Year piano finalist, who may be 12 by then), Artur Pizarro in October and many more. A deeply civilised way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Stop talking and get on with the music

Curious about the Prom the other night - a new John Casken work and Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Ravel G major piano concerto - I thought I'd take the easy option and watch it on BBC4, rather than braving the acoustics at the Albert Hall. Proms on TV have many advantages, one being that with the simultaneous radio broadcast you can hear everything clear as a bell (not always the case in the RAH) and another being that you can see everything too, such as the pianist's hands. But there is one major disadvantage, as I discovered: the way the Beeb likes to have its Proms presented.

I'm not in favour of 'a return to' anything, unlike some of my blogging e-colleagues who seem to think clocks can be turned backwards (they can't; end of story). But I fail to see the advantage of presenting music on TV by having windbags in loud shirts yakking at one another, demonstrating their own superior levels of knowledge and offering opinions and more opinions, all addressed to their fellow windbags rather than the TV audience and, in this case, doing little more than what my analysis teacher at uni used to call 'woffle'. If I was a first-time viewer to music on TV - just supposing I had bought an expensive digital box, found the Prom and thought 'OK, let's give it a try' - I wouldn't even have got as far as the music before switching off. Loud shirts, trendy haircuts and positive spin about painful noises do nobody any favours.

If I was a first-time viewer to this Prom, I'd have wanted to know this kind of thing:

Who is John Casken, what's he done before, what does he looks like, what's so special about him and why should I listen to his music? What should I listen out for if I'm to be helped to enjoy it?

Who was Ravel, when did he live, who did he know, what was his music all about, what did he look like, what kind of guy was he and is this concerto going to be better than the Bolero?

Instead of which, trendy presenter and friends wittered on and on about nothing very much, dropping in tidbits of information that you had to be rather alert to catch...

Particularly noteworthy, or so I'm told, was the interactive audience exchange about the Casken work on the digital text option afterwards. I'd switched off long before, deeply depressed, but my brother told me that, contrary to positive-spinning comments by the on-screen windbags about how the music's pulse pulled you along with it, viewers weren't mincing their words about fingernails on blackboards.

The whole thing should, in any case, have been banned on grounds of cruelty to wind players, who were so exhausted after the Casken marathon that they couldn't cope with the Ravel, let alone The Firebird...

Still, a huge thank-you to the BBC for televising this, which meant that I could watch and listen in the safety of my own home with access to an 'off' button.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Paradise found, in Switzerland

Just back from short, crazy trip to the Verbier Festival, a.k.a. HEAVEN.

I tried to get cynical about Verbier last year. Circus tricks: spot the megastars wandering about ski resort off-season, listen to concerts in a tent where you can't hear anything when it rains - and don't you DARE go through the doorway designated to the sponsors. True. Very true. The megastars do wander about. You can't help but spot them from your cafe or hotel breakfast room or when you're sauntering up and down the main hill. You stumble upon Mischa Maisky reading the daily schedule on the Place Centrale noticeboard, or Pieter Wispelwey in dark glasses heading down to a rehearsal; this morning I ended up having breakfast with the marvellous young pianist Jonathan Biss, a recent interviewee of mine who happened to be staying in the same hotel. It's also true that you can't hear the concerts terribly well when it rains - last night it poured most of the way through the Schumann Piano Quintet played by Andsnes, Znajder, Cerovcek, Imai & Wispelwey. But heck, it was wonderful anyway!!!

So it all feels too good to be true and there must be a catch somewhere. Trouble is, it IS all too good to be true, but so far I haven't quite found the catch. A few possibles regarding aspects of the youth orchestra and of course that tent, but these don't amount to much in the grand scheme of things from the audience's point of view. If your two prime requirements for heaven are the most beautiful mountains and the greatest music, Verbier is for you.

Most stunning of all: Vadim Repin, soloist for Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 on Monday night. That concerto isn't my favourite piece on earth, but I was completely mesmerised by him. I vowed on the spot not to miss any more of his London concerts, because hearing playing of such combined intelligence, power, finesse, magnetism and vitality is rare indeed. He doesn't do the Vengerov showmanship thing, he doesn't do the Josh Bell Learns To Ski knee bends, he doesn't force the tone like some others I could mention; instead he puts everything straight where it ought to be: the music, the instrument, the intensity, the spirit.

I followed this, the next morning, with a trip up the mountain by cable car and a lovely walk at the top, gazing at snowy peaks, listening to silvery cowbells on the local herd and the soft rustle of waterfalls, spotting tiny pink orchids and brilliant blue gentians among the meadows of wild flowers. Mountain walks are shiatsu massage for the soul; over the last few years they have somehow become essential to me. This was my one and only this year, and I appreciated every second of it.

It was tempting simply to miss the plane home and vanish into the mountainside. I failed to work out how to do so in time, however, so here I am at my desk, blogging once again.

Saturday, July 17, 2004


OK, I admit it. I need some advice.

Today I lost something that I really shouldn't have lost. It won't kill me and it won't stop me getting to Verbier on Monday. But it's daft. And it has enough bearing on the world beyond my four walls to make me look a trifle silly. I don't know if it is entirely my own fault or if Tom has been tidying up over-zealously, since I am not a great one for throwing anything away and something appears to have been thrown when it shouldn't have been. Nevertheless...

...I have a problem with piles of paper. They sit on my desk waiting to be organised. Then they transfer to the study rocking chair and thence to the floor. Occasionally I load them, unexplored, into large plastic boxes from Ikea. Meanwhile the CDs are breeding. I honestly think they engage in some form of plastic cell multiplication when my back is turned. As for the magazines, they arrive in a rush once a month; I look through them and try to keep track of the ones that contain my articles and dispose, eventually, of those that don't...eventually......

On TV recently there was a series called 'Life Laundry'. A cheery presenter visited families whose houses had been taken over by their excessive stuff, and helped them to get rid of it. I enjoyed this mainly because I could see that my mess problem isn't so bad that I need to call in the BBC. It was also interesting to discover that most of these families had some kind of past of which they just couldn't let go and which lay at the root of the trouble.

I'm good at living in the present and I do know that it isn't good enough just to clear the study twice a year, once at Christmas and once at - er - some other time as yet to be determined. Yet the task becomes so daunting that I keep putting it off. I'd rather do anything else than face it.

Does anybody have any tips on good psychological tricks to help oneself get organised? If so, please send them my way!