Friday, October 29, 2004

Unheard melodies...

Apologies for rather quiet week for blogging, or lack of... It's a busy time of year, however, for CD issues and consequently for reviews. An extraordinary number of new releases come out around now in order to be In Time For Christmas. And Christmas has a lot to answer for. That's another story, however. Meanwhile, I've been extremely taken with the latest CD by the Swiss/French flautist Emmanuel Pahud, which is a disc for all seasons.

The disc includes, however, only one original piece for flute and piano, Widor's Suite Op.43. The rest is Franck and Strauss - their violin sonatas, transcribed for the flute. I've often been wary of such inter-instrument transfers, but here it not only makes perfect sense but sounds phenomenal. Violinists might even be jealous, especially as Pahud plays the Strauss Sonata with all the passion of one of Strauss's amazing soprano heroines - the breathing and phrasing are pure opera. I've never been convinced by the Strauss as a violin sonata, but here, in Pahud's own transcription, it seems to take off as never before. Eat your heart out, Marie-Therese.

In the light of this, I've begun to think that over-fussiness about instruments being 'correct' or 'original' can lead to missed opportunities and a general narrowness of outlook. Bach, after all, could write exactly the same piece for one single violin as for full orchestra, choir and organ (best known as the opening movement of the E major partita). And anyone who has heard Myra Hess or Dinu Lipatti playing the former's piano transcription of 'Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring' would be likely to take it to a desert island for a reminder of the meaning of life.

But isn't all music a transcription to a certain extent - a transcription, for the composer, of what he or she hears inside and has, somehow, to get out?...Who knows whether what reached Brahms's manuscript paper was exactly what he had imagined, or whether something was lost in translation from mind to hand? However amazing music sounds to us, perhaps it would have sounded less good to the composer compared to the first concept of the sound inside his/her head? As Keats said, 'Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter...'

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Why info matters

Greg Sandow has this on creating the 'concert companion' - rather like an audio guide for going around art exhibitions.

I'm always amazed by the number of people in the musical sphere who think that knowing something about the music's background and structure can add nothing to one's enjoyment, or who think alternatively that only the most specialised academic labels will do for such matters. In the art world, audio guides are taken for granted. You'd be surprised to turn up at an exhibition, pay for your ticket and not be offered one. And would you try to put together a bookshelf together without reading the instructions? (well...)

In music, even top orchestras still sometimes print dry, useless, outdated programme notes, some concerts provide none at all - it costs money to print them - and many recitalists are still scared witless by the idea of talking to their audiences. What in heaven's name is so alarming to the establishment about accessible, non-patronising background notes? And what's so alarming to a musician about saying a few words before you play? It's nowhere near as frightening as playing the piano!

Seriously, though, an audio-guide 'concert companion' sounds like an exceptionally useful tool. I wonder how long it'll take British orchestras to catch up with the idea. Sweepstake, anyone? I say five years. Ten if we get a Tory government next.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

End games

To the Festival Hall last night to hear Stephen Kovacevich playing Beethoven (Op.31 No.2 and Op.109) and Schubert (B flat D960). Glorious, soul-enriching music-making: intimacy, inspiration and gentle philosophy that didn't shout at the back row but instead pulled the attention quietly in towards the platform.

But one major bugbear: a small number of people insisted on clapping a) before the last chord of Op.109 had died away, before Stephen had even lifted his hands from the keyboard, and b) after the first movement of the Schubert B flat.

I don't care if this sounds 'elitist' (the most dangerous and misused word of the English language over the last decade). If you clap between movements in a work which your programme clearly tells you has four of them, you are stupid. But if you break the magic spell of music before the artist does, you are an insensitive, moronic idiot. You are wrecking the experience for everyone in the hall, including the musicians themselves. Music isn't only about sound. It is equally about silence and its magic lies in its use of silence - during, before, after and in between.

After a post-recital drink in the People's Palace, my friends and I came downstairs to find the pianist in the foyer, happily munching his way through the world's best-earned Big Mac. Stephen, we said, how do YOU feel when people clap in the wrong places? He told us that it didn't worry him so much after the first movement of the Schubert, but at the almost-end of the Beethoven sonata it made him absolutely furious. You might expect it to be more bothersome between movements, but no: it's the quality of silent rapture that carries a work away back into the ether that is most precious and vulnerable.

Can't halls bear to make announcements about this? Yesterday we had to sit through a five-minute speech about fundraising before they let Stephen onto the platform (any thoughts of donating money to the South Bank Centre must have evaporated instantly). Why could they not add, 'Make sure your mobile phones are dead and please do not applaud until the music has come to a complete stop...'?



Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Asking for trouble

If you name your cat after a fierce Hungarian conductor, you can bet he'll get into trouble. Solti appeared this morning with a cat war wound on his face and had to be taken to the vet to have the abcess lanced. Now he looks like an extra-mean feline Long John Silver, minus parrot (wouldn't put it past him to catch one, though).

Tom is currently in Brazil with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (he normally plays for the London Philharmonic, but these things happen sometimes). He reports that Sao Paolo in the rain looks like Manchester, Rio has great food, and Leonidas Kavakos, who's the soloist for Berg and Sibelius violin concertos, is one of the three top fiddlers on earth.

I've adored everything I've heard Kavakos play, and I find it most encouraging to reflect that here is someone who matches none of the International Star stereotypes yet knocks the spots off the majority of those that do. He's Greek. He has a moustache. He wears glasses. He is (I think) about 40. He doesn't have to be photographed in jeans or hugging wolves. It's not just technique, it's what you choose to do with that technique. This man doesn't only have a fiddle - he has a brain. And also, I think, a sense of humour. Read my review of his Ravel and Enescu CD on ECM here (scroll down to January 2004).

Incidentally, in case anyone is wondering why I have a violin fetish despite being a pianist, it all goes back to when I fell in love with my violin teacher in 1984...Talk about asking for trouble.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Latest violin epiphany

A friend recently lent us a DVD of a violinist whom we knew by name but nothing more. We sat transfixed, watching the film of him playing Sibelius in the mid 1950s. This man has a sound that can slice through your abdomen like the world's finest butterknife; the intensity is heartbreaking, the consistency silky and substantial from foreground to background, the integrity total. We read the booklet and first discovered he was born in 1933 - a moment of excitement realising that he could, should, still be alive - until a paragraph later came the shock that he committed suicide at the age of 49.

Little clue is given to his character, his motivation, his problems. All that remains is the testimony of his musicianship. I sent off at once for a set in the EMI 'Les introuvables' series (EMI being EMI, you have to get it from France, but that's easy with It arrived yesterday, including two different recordings of the Faure A major sonata made a few years apart - the first as tender and delicate as a mountain stream, the other smouldering and sparking like a volcano, yet each perfect in its own way - but they are almost upstaged by his account of Faure's Second Sonata in E minor, which is often thought 'difficult' yet which he lights up with visionary luminescence, generous tone and intuitively perfect phrasing. One senses from such white-hot playing that for this person life and music were serious matters - that perhaps his sensitivity and personal standards were too high to allow him to deal with reality.

His name is Christian Ferras.

This is the DVD. This is the CD set.

Meanwhile, Alex Ross has the most eloquent words about Korngold I've seen in a long time here.