Wednesday, January 08, 2014

High Five to LondonJazz! A guest post from its founder...

Delighted to hand over a guest spot today to my friend and former student-of-sorts (!), Sebastian Scotney, whose runaway blog success story, LondonJazz, celebrates its fifth birthday tomorrow. Here he is, along with his chosen video to mark the occasion! JD

I attended one of Jessica Duchen's writing courses and found it empowering. A few months later I started a blog about the London jazz scene.  Five years on, writing about and trying to encourage more coverage of the scene has brought me where I want to be: closer to the music.
The scene in London is lively, there are always new discoveries to be made. I get nice roles, such as being asked to compere the Whirlwind Recordings Festival at Kings Place in October.

Jess, you will be asking where the women are? This video is of the launch  the debut album at that festival by Shetlands-born saxophonist/composer Rachael Cohen, a real rising star. Having done the introductions, I was sitting in the front row, alongside her proud parents.

You get an idea of the freshness, inventiveness  and fluency of Rachael's improvising after 3:05

Sebastian Scotney

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Road rage?

My Amati column this week tackles a few niggles about musicians' schedules and aspirations, and conversely, what we tend to expect of them...

Friday, January 03, 2014

Dangerous living, with JS Bach

I've long been an admirer of the extraordinary South African pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar, whose recordings of Bach and Mozart in particular have struck me as profound, original, fresh, thought-provoking and utterly authentic in terms of the spirit of the music. Among his many roles, he teaches at the Royal Academy of Music and Benjamin Grosvenor has often cited him as a vital mentor. Daniel-Ben has just recorded the Bach 48 Preludes and Fugues (out now on Avie) and a few weeks ago he performed them whole at Kings Place. I asked him for an e-interview about this, but he wanted to wait - sensibly enough - until that particular hurdle was out of the way. Here is our resulting Q&A.

JD: Daniel-Ben, most of us have enough trouble playing just one fugue, let alone 48 of them plus preludes. How does it feel to perform them - the prospect beforehand, the sustaining of energy through the concert and then the aftermath?

DBP: There are some things that will never become easy and this is one of them. My recent concerts at King’s Place in London were a new experience for me – I had never played the two books back to back on consecutive evenings. I think it is impossible to completely banish worrying about a memory slip somewhere along the line no matter how ‘in the bones’ the music sits, but the bigger challenge for me was to make peace with living dangerously in other ways too: sustaining the greatest possible variety of pacing, dynamics, phrasing, pedalling and touch throughout the 96 pieces (sometimes at physical extremes) to really make palpable the encyclopaedically inclusive nature of the work to an audience – its diversity of characterisations, of emotions, atmospheres and colours, of musical ideas – in a truly pianistic way.

That means leaving very little room for ‘digging in’ for security, for putting up safety nets by defaulting to moderate tempi or comfortable tonal calibrations wherever difficulties present themselves. Living with that level of risk can be frightening but the rewards when things go well are so much finer! I have no idea whether I was successful on this occasion, but I certainly enjoyed working at it – and would love to perform the cycle again!

JD: How would you describe your approach to Bach performance? Do you think it's necessary to adhere to traditions or do you prefer to free yourself of all preconceptions about the music?

DBP: I do not think one could safely make any rules about Bach performance (or any other for that manner) - that is, as long as you think that playing piano is, at its best, an artistic endeavour! Good artists have always confounded or subverted given expectations. How one frees oneself from the sense of adhering to a set of conventions or commonly accepted mores is a complex issue though. It is almost inconceivable to me that, doing something as intricate and beautiful as playing the piano, one could NOT be deeply interested in the work of eminent exponents present and past (imagine a chess player who claims to be uninterested in the great matches of the grand masters!). Exploring the expressive means and ideas of these artists in some detail, one inevitably ends up having to face the anxieties and challenges of influence. Finding a playful freedom and a fresh sense of the intuitive beyond that remains the ultimate goal but getting there is an often arduous process. So, in short I would say I am less interested in the dictates of particular traditions than I am in the highly personal playing of some of the great exponents of those traditions, and the specifics of that. I think at this point in pianistic history it becomes possible to see the two things as separate to a certain degree.

JD: Some might argue against playing Bach on the modern piano. What would you say in favour of it?

DBP: See my answer above! Playing the music on the ‘wrong’ instrument, if it happens to be the queen of instruments – an instrument which has a reputation above any other for successful transcription and transformation, even transubstantiation (!), and can perhaps boast a more illustrious roster of great practitioners than any other (save the voice) – opens up a set of artistic possibilities quite distinct from those open to musicians playing on instruments of Bach’s day. The sensitive pianist does not merely take into account the instruments and practices of the late baroque but also of subsequent eras. This becomes a rather wonderful way of engaging, through Bach’s rich scores, with all sorts of histories and thus with that which remains timelessly human in the music. In any case those who still argue against playing Bach on the piano can only do so on grounds of personal taste. The whole ‘hardware’ debate is in fact one that is really quite a bit in the past, and as far as I am concerned came to decisive end with the priorities outlined in Laurence Dreyfus’s “Early Music Defended Against Its Devotees”. Those who still think there is an intellectually coherent argument contra playing Bach on the piano are simply horribly behind the times!

JD: We understand you've recorded the 48 - and we look forward to hearing it. What was it like, doing that? Are you a Glenn Gould in the studio, seeking perfection, or do you prefer to record each piece in a single take?
DBP: I love recording above anything else and I love editing my own recordings. I have to start with a very clear idea of what I want to achieve which normally entails a framework within which I play as spontaneously as possible. I record many possibilities within that set of clearly defined parameters and ‘harnessing points’, and decide later how I would like to use them, after listening to how things come across on tape. It is therefore incredibly important to me to edit my own recordings! Few people realise just what a difference the choice of takes, and the exact point where an edit is made, can effect. A lot of recordings end up almost as much the artistic work of the producers and editors as of the players! Editing my own work means my recordings are entirely composed of my own musical decisions. As far as long takes and short takes are concerned, I do both depending on what’s required and depending on the conditions under which I work on a particular day. It all depends on what is more likely to yield the kind of result one is after.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

A lost generation - and some that need finding

As the commemorations of the World War I centenary begin, music is very much part of the equation. Radio 3 is starting a new series entitled Music on the Brink on 5 January, looking at the music of five crucial cities at the time of the war's outbreak. 

This article appeared in short form in the Independent a week or two ago, but what follows here is my longer original: an introduction to the effect of the "Great War" on the composers who had to participate in it, those who lived and those who died. Some are household names, but others can benefit from the chance of rediscovery that this year may bring.

We already had FS Kelly's deeply moving Elegy for Strings for Remembrance Day, so to start let's hear Jelly d'Aranyi (violin) and Ethel Hobday (piano) playing his Serenade Op.7.

The composer and poet Ivor Gurney once wrote: “Despairing work is the noblest refuge among other despairs”. During commemorations for the centenary of World War I this year, Gurney’s music will be much to the fore, together with that of a generation of composers who, if they survived, found themselves indelibly scarred by their wartime experiences. Their responses were extraordinarily varied. Far from being a catalogue of gloom, their works reflect everything from mourning to pacifism, from iconoclasm to wry humour and escapism. 
Gurney’s history is as emblematic as it is tragic, and his songs as beautiful as his poetry. Always prone to depression, he had suffered a breakdown while still a student; but after serving in the war, in which he suffered a shoulder wound in 1917 and gassing only months afterwards, he was diagnosed with “deferred shell-shock”. He spent his later years in and out of mental institutions. Later this year there'll be a Radio 3 Composer of the Week series devoted to his compositions.

Among the most familiar of his contemporaries is Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was 41 on the outbreak of war, but served first as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, later as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He weathered considerable horrors with greater than average strength, though later suffered deafness thought to have been caused by noise damage from gunfire. His Pastoral Symphony – light years from Beethoven’s – references not idealised country scenes, but the fields of northern France. It incubated, he recalled, “when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset.” A trumpet cadenza captures the sound he heard of a bugler practising yet hitting the wrong note.

Other survivors were less well adjusted. EJ Moeran was a case in point. He was 19 in 1914 and spent much of the war as a despatch rider until being wounded at Bullecourt in 1917. Not only his psyche but also the progress of his career was overturned; it was soon hampered further by mental instability and alcoholism. He was just beginning to achieve real recognition when the outbreak of World War II intervened. Fortunately his concertos for cello and for violin have recently been enjoying a resurgence of popularity thanks to new recordings respectively by the cellist Guy Johnston and violinist Tasmin Little. Here's the second movement of his Serenade:

Many composers were less fortunate still. George Butterworth died in the Battle of the Somme, aged 31. A friend of Vaughan Williams and fellow collector of folksongs, his most celebrated work is the song cycle A Shropshire Lad, exquisitely evocative settings of AE Housman, as well as an idyllic work for orchestra, The Banks of Green Willow

A less famed loss at the Somme was the Australian composer Frederick Septimus Kelly, who had survived Gallipoli and was also a rowing champion, having won a gold medal in the 1908 Olympic Games. Recently the director of the Canberra Festival, Christopher Latham, has unearthed a violin sonata that Kelly penned on the boat home from Gallipoli, intending it for the violinist Jelly d’Arányi – also a vital inspiration to Ravel, Vaughan Williams and Bartók – whom he was widely expected to marry. It is a relatively carefree-sounding piece – as if imagining its strains in the trenches had offered a means of mental escape. 

Many who did not see action found their attitudes to life and music transformed nonetheless. Frank Bridge espoused strong pacifist views; the impact of the war induced him to transform his hitherto romantic style into near-expressionism – for instance, in an uncompromising piano sonata dedicated to the memory of the composer Ernest Bristow Farrar, who was killed in action. Bridge’s student Benjamin Britten was later to echo his pacifist outlook; and Farrar’s young pupil Gerald Finzi was deeply affected by his mentor’s death, which contributed to shaping his distinctly dark view of life.

Across the Channel, Claude Debussy was dying of cancer; he did not live to see the conflict’s end. He came to view composition as an act of resistance and patriotism. “I want to work not so much for myself, but to give proof, however small...that not even 30 million ‘boches’ can destroy French thought," he declared. His last works are three instrumental sonatas that show not a hint of the turbulence around him, signed ‘Claude Debussy, musicien français’. 

Maurice Ravel became a driver of ambulances at Verdun. In his piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin each movement is dedicated to a different fallen friend. He, though, resisted the drift towards nationalism: “It would be dangerous for French composers to ignore systematically the works of their foreign colleagues, and thus form themselves into a sort of national coterie: our musical art...would soon degenerate and become isolated by its own academic formulas,” he wrote. But his La Valse is often seen as an unwitting evocation of the world of the Viennese waltz imploding in cataclysm.

This is the piano version, played by Yuja Wang at Verbier:

The composers of Vienna itself responded to the war in manners ranging from the personal to the outright political. Franz Lehár, that supreme composer of operetta, produced a tone poem for tenor and orchestra entitled Fever, portraying the memories of a soldier in shell-shock. At the other extreme, the youthful Erich Wolfgang Korngold became musical director of a regiment, for which he composed a military march. When his commanding officer complained that it was too fast, he quipped: “This is for the retreat.” 

For Arnold Schoenberg, who undertook military service aged 42, the war symbolised – at first – an attack on the reactionary musical world, especially that of France: “Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God,” he wrote in 1914. But German musical losses were intense, too: just one example was the immensely gifted Rudi Stephan, whose opera Die ersten Menschen was only premiered five years after his death on the Galician front. 

While surviving composers processed their experiences through their art in many different ways, an overarching result became clear. The war had produced such trauma and disillusionment that the only way forward was to sweep away the past and find a new, sometimes revolutionary approach for the future. The scene was set for a fresh century of music, rising from the ashes of the old one.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014


Happy New Year from JDCMB here in London.

In 2014 this blog marks its 10th anniversary. On 4 March 2004 I set out to investigate what these new-fangled things called blogs were and found, five minutes later, that I had one; and decided, two minutes after that, that I'd use it and see what happened. So here we are.

Ten years on, most things of real value seem to be in a state of slow-motion collapse. My wish for today is that 2014 will be the year we find exciting and positive ways to reconfigure them. We're still here, and it's up to us.

A few points for readers new to JDCMB:


ABOUT ME: I am a writer with a musical slant, based in London, UK. I contribute music journalism to publications including The Independent, BBC Music Magazine, Opera News and others. I've written a bunch of novels, biographies of Fauré and Korngold, some plays, and words for musical setting, and I write and perform scripts for narrated words&music concerts. I give pre-concert talks and sometimes do things on Radio 3. I play the piano and I still love music.

ABOUT THIS BLOG: JDCMB is a celebration of music and words, aiming to inform and entertain. Occasional tubs are thumped, but I don't do rabble rousing and I sometimes try to puncture some of the inflated idiocy around us.

We like: genuine artistry, enthusiasm, humour, music education for all, historical recordings and the bolstering of the soul; and we enjoy going off the wall from time to time (eg the annual Ginger Stripe Awards, presented by Solti, my ginger cat). We don't like: commercialism, populism, sexism, racism, bullying, cruelty or carnage.

The gluten-free reference in the sub-head has a double-meaning. I've had to go GF since a patch of vicious stress relating to a dalek invasion stymied my digestive system; and eliminating avoidable stress has meant getting rid of the comments boxes. As for the sugar and spice, we would like to invent a sarcasm font and one for irony, too.

You can follow this blog via email - please sign up in the sidebar box (I don't see the email addresses, btw - it's all automated). I usually post links on Facebook and Twitter. If you need to write to me, please use my public Facebook page. Please don't send me unsolicited CDs, as I can't promise to review them. If you wish to buy an advert, you are welcome to do so, whether as a display ad or in the Solti Sponsorship Scheme.

Here's to a great year of music ahead!