Tuesday, December 02, 2014

When Edward met Gabriel

I spent a very pleasant evening yesterday addressing the London branch of the Elgar Society - a remarkable collection of knowledgeable enthusiasts who meet regularly in Harley Street for lectures and studies of their chosen composer. Membership is highly recommended! People from all walks of life, many with fascinating backgrounds, are drawn together by their love of the great man's music, and I was invited to come along and give the Christmas talk as "something a little different". I went down memory lane a little way, exploring Elgar's impact on my life for, sort of, ever.

One matter we revisited was that of "Windflower" and the Violin Concerto; and it was also a fine opportunity to draw attention to the closer-than-expected links between Elgar and Fauré. Interesting to think that had the publisher's series elected to count Elgar as a 20th-century composer, I might have ended up writing about him instead of, or as well as, his fabulous French colleague, who lived through a decade less of the century. Here is a brief taster from last night.


Fauré and Elgar had the same British patron, the banker Leo Frank Schuster, who was responsible for Fauré having a strong reputation in certain educated circles of Britain, rather to the composer’s own astonishment - though nevertheless not to the full extent that he deserved, as Elgar recognised. On one occasion in 1908 Fauré came to England to hear the rehearsal for the London premiere of Elgar’s First Symphony and Schuster held a dinner party for both composers together, which must have been a fine moustache-fest. 

They had much in common besides those moustaches, silver hair and dark eyes: an elegant sensibility, an unfailing instinct for songful melody, an intimacy of expression and a very rich, flexible harmonic language, which Fauré took considerably further; and each enjoyed an unexpected "Indian summer" of composition in which they produced some of their finest works. They also both had a great fondness for younger women, but thereby hangs many other tales: notably a Vera for Elgar and a Marguerite for Fauré...
Elgar held Fauré in very considerable esteem. After the French composer died, Elgar wrote to Schuster: “He was such a real gentleman – the highest type of Frenchman and I admire him greatly. His chamber music never had a chance here…I feel that it was held up, to our loss. As far as I resent anything – which is not far – I resent such neglect.” There’s no record, unfortunately, of what Fauré had thought of Elgar. But there are passages of Faure in which one can detect a real convergence of style.
I think that what the two shared in musical terms was actually the influence of Schumann. If you take this slow movement from Fauré’s Piano Quintet No.1, written in 1905, you can detect very Schumannesque qualities in the off-beat rhythms and the kind of textures and polyphonies he employs; it’s as if he’s passed Schumann through a prism and turned him inside out.
Or the beginning of the Piano Quintet No.2, written in 1921 during his "Indian summer", features the kind of long-breathed melodies with plunging sighs that we find so often in Elgar but that can be traced straight back to Schumann. First, think of the slow movement of Schumann's Symphony No.2.

Then try the Fauré quintet...
Now, here’s the beginning of Elgar’s string quartet, written just three years earlier in 1918 – a very different piece, but it is nevertheless fascinating to hear the two composers back to back, which doesn’t happen very often. You can detect some of the same kinds of gestures and the underlying harmonic instability that both are evoking, as if the ground under their feet is no longer so solid.


If you want to explore the other artistic relationship here in more depth - that between the music of Schumann and Fauré - do try to come to the Aspect Foundation's concert at the 20th Century Theatre, 291 Westbourne Grove, London W11 2QA,  on Thursday. This intriguing organisation - which puts on lecture-recitals with knobs on, featuring top-quality artists - has an evening devoted to the idea of 'Schumann and Fauré: Kindred Spirits', starring our violinist colleague Philippe Graffin, pianist Alasdair Beatson, violist David Adams and cellist David Waterman. More info & booking here.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Muse for the day

An extremely moving day yesterday at the Andrzej Panufnik centenary event at Kings Place. Billed as "A family celebration", it centred on performances of music by both Panufnik père and fille - these days, indeed, we hear much more of Roxanna's music than we do of her father's. This occasion, with two chamber music concerts, a film followed by a discussion and finally a Warsaw Cabaret, is the latest - and London's last, as far as I'm aware - contribution to the centenary. (Unfortunately I was only able to attend part of the event due to Elgar talk preparations for tonight, but am happy to declare myself blown away by the playing of the Brodsky Quartet and moved to tears by the film and the words of Camilla Panufnik, Andrzej's widow.)

Two very different personalities emerge, hearing Andrzej and Roxanna's works side by side, yet there are qualities in common: both love to use crunchy harmonies in which major and minor meet and greet, and there's a delicacy, a finesse, to the sound - the musical equivalent, if you like, of a shiny surface, gloss rather than matt. Roxanna's music, though, sounds free-spirited; she always leaves room for humour, or lament, or an exploration of far-off lands. Andrzej's does not.

His works are impeccable: never a note too many or too few, the architecture perfectly circumscribed, the rigour vigilant and the core strong. Yet Panufnik senior is much of his era in that his own life and music, through coincidence of time and place of birth, was circumscribed first by soviet politics and subsequently by what does emerge as an atmosphere of cultural fascism in the west. Perhaps I'm imagining it, or projecting, but his sense of vigilance over each phrase makes one feel that, when finally free from the control of others, he exerted supreme control over his own self. The structures are perfect, the substance within them almost fiercely austere.

He underwent a dramatic escape from Poland in 1954, climbing out of a toilet window to give his minders the slip while on a concert tour to Switzerland, fleeing to the airport and boarding a plane to London. In the film My Father, the Iron Curtain and Me, Jem Panufnik, Andrzej's son, retraces his father's steps and ponders on their different lives and musics (Jem makes club music and art). Imagine reaching a point when you can no longer function in your home country because everything you say is twisted to support a regime you loathe, in which music true to your own spirit is forbidden because everything must support the state, and having lost your entire family to wartime tragedy - and then losing a baby daughter as well. Driven to the point where if you don't leave, you will assuredly crack. And arriving in the longed-for west, only to find that your music is not performed because it is the wrong kind of music - it is not serialist, therefore not approved. And some luminaries you had met when they visited your old country refuse to acknowledge you because they wish to be friendly to those regimes, but not to those who abandon them (apparently Stalin termed these champagne communists of the west "useful idiots").

Panufnik was far from alone among composers in suffering this history of the double-whammy: political exile from one country followed by cultural exile within another.

It's not easy to keep alive the work of a composer after his death, but perhaps the centenary events this year will mark a return to the concert hall for Panufnik's streamlined, distinctive and unfailingly imaginative works. Poland has been doing much to rehabilitate his works and reputation; a performance by the LSO in the beautiful new concert hall of Katowice apparently brought the house down. Now we need his adopted home to do likewise. Hearing his works again has certainly been a highlight of my year. One hopes they are now here to stay.

Read and listen to more about Andrzej here: http://panufnik.com
Read and listen to more about Roxanna here: http://www.roxannapanufnik.com

Meanwhile: I'm off to the Elgar Society tonight to talk about how another composer's spirit has touched my own life so many ways.

Friday, November 28, 2014

TOMORROW on Radio 3 'CD Review'

Off to BBC Broadcasting House bright and early tomorrow morning (Saturday 29th) to take part in Radio 3's 'CD Review'. I'll be in discussion with presenter Andrew McGregor and the distinguished pianist Roger Vignoles, featuring a round-up of five new piano discs. We'll be on about 10.15am - live in the studio!

The discs we are discussing are:

Bach: English Suites Nos 1, 3 and 5
Piotr Anderszewski

Bach: French Overture, Italian Concerto, Aria Variata, Concerto in D minor after Marcello (it's the Oboe Concerto)
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Beethoven: Sonatas Op.106 (Hammerklavier) and Op. 27 No.2 (Moonlight), plus two pieces from The Ruins of Athens trsc A.Bax
Alessio Bax

Haydn: Piano Sonatas No 59 in E flat major, No.38 in F major, No.47 in B minor, No.39 in D major
Denis Kozhukhin

Beethoven: Piano Sonata in G major, Op.31 No.3; 'Eroica' Variations
Schubert: 16 German Dances from Op.33; 'Wanderer' Fantasy
Aaron Pilsan

Do tune in. There's some good 'uns.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Speaking of women in music...

...here is the video of the conference about inequalities in classical music, held at King's College, London, a few weeks ago. The panel includes academics Christina Scharf and Anna Bull, conductor Alice Farnham, Beverley Mason and myself, and the music is provided by an extraordinary young musician whom you should hear if you haven't already, Ayanna Witter-Johnson - cellist, singer, composer and more. Her song about her mother was so touching that it had us all in pieces. Under the title "What lies beneath?" we each spoke on the topic of inequality as we have perceived, researched or experienced it and offer some thoughts about what to do about it.

Meanwhile, there is some sign that the groundswell of consciousness-raising on this topic is having an effect on programming, and sometimes in the most positive and interesting ways. Next year's Brighton Early Music Festival is presenting the first opera ever written by a woman - La liberazione di Ruggiero, by Francesca Caccini. They're getting it crowd-funded and you can support their efforts here. Meanwhile the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival) is also doing Caccini and Barbara Strozzi, alongside lads like Monteverdi and Rameau.

Saturday, November 22, 2014


John Adams's The Gospel According to the Other Mary opened in its first-ever full staging at ENO last night. I was mesmerised and mind-blown. Here's  my review... 

There is something extraordinary about seeing a composer taking a bow for a really fantastic new(ish) piece in front of a standing ovation. It doesn't happen very often, and when it does, it's a privilege to be there.

Dear ENO, why, oh WHY were the dancers not honoured with biographies in the programmes? A lot of us are really cross about this. They were marvellous. They deserve equal billing.

Anyhow, go and see it. There are only 5 more performances. Book here.

And here's an introduction on film.