Saturday, February 09, 2019

Everything you wanted to know about the Russians, but were afraid to ask

Many years ago, in another century, in what feels like another lifetime (though was merely the 1990s) I used to edit a piano magazine. It was the UK's first independent piano magazine, named Classical Piano, and its creation, lifeblood and later eventual absorption into one of its fast-springing rivals is now ancient history. While there I published an article by a then-youthful Russian pianist, Rustem Hayroudinoff, about what the Russian School really means.

It was one of the most informative and interesting articles we ever ran, I think. So I was more than delighted to log on to Rustem's website and see that he has now revised the article and much expanded it, complete with all mod cons such as recordings from the likes of Rachmaninov, Chaliapin and Neuhaus, to name but three. Rustem is now a professor at the Royal Academy of Music and has made some stunning recordings himself, notably of Rachmaninov.

Here's a taster of the article: 

A great deal of confusion surrounds the term “The Russian Pianistic Tradition”. This phrase has been applied to any successful pianist coming out of Russia - often conjuring up images of fire-eating virtuosi scooping up competition prizes. And very often musicians with aesthetic principles as different as those of, for example, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sviatoslav Richter are mentioned in the same breath as being representatives of the same “great Russian School”. To discover the true meaning of this term, I am going to look at some common features in the pianistic principles of several performers who belonged to this tradition.

Even the most superficial acquaintance with the recording legacy of pianists such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Lhevinne, Josef Hofmann, Vladimir Horowitz and Heinrich Neuhaus reveals that all of these pianists possessed an exquisitely beautiful tone. Their incredible achievements in this area were due to a very conscious cultivation of singing tone and colour on the piano, as the following quotations illustrate.

Josef Lhevinne dedicated a long chapter of his Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing to “the secret of a beautiful tone”, in which he explains how a “ringing, singing” tone is to be achieved: “The main principle at first is to see that the key is touched with as resilient a portion of the finger as possible, if a lovely, ringing, singing tone is desired ... Just a little further back in the first joint of the finger, you will notice that the cushion of flesh is apparently more elastic, less resistant, more springy. Strike the key with this portion of the finger, not on the fingertips as some of the older European methods suggested ...” 

He also emphasises the role that the free wrist and arm play in the production of a good tone: “... the wrist [is] still held very flexible so that the weight of the descending hand and arm carries the key down to key bottom, quite without any sensation of a blow.” And “... when the hand descends, as large a surface of the fingertip as feasible engages the key; and the wrist is so loose that it normally sinks below the level of the keyboard.” 

This last passage holds particular interest because it testifies to the fact that Horowitz’s famous flat finger-low wrist technique was not a mere oddity but an integral part of this same tradition which he took to its extreme in the pursuit of his ideal of a singing tone...

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Lupu's London farewell?

Radu Lupu in rehearsal.
Photo from New York Review of Books,

The chairs were out for the returns queue at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday night. Word was spreading that this might be the last chance for London to hear Radu Lupu play. He has long preferred to avoid the capital's concert halls - whether because of iffy acoustics, acidic critics or other reasons I could not say - and an appearance with the Philharmonia Orchestra and conductor Paavo Järvi for Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto looked almost too good to be true. 

Lupu, 73, is tall and imposing on the platform, yet somewhat frail in gait and balance. His Beethoven came through in parts almost as a memory of the concerto. Yet the unique quality of his playing lies in the touch itself. It's the transparency of tone, the cushioned finesse of it, and the way he turns a phrase that, in a matter of a few notes, suggests a deep, empathetic humanity and a profound love for the music.

He uses a chair rather than a piano stool and sits at the keyboard almost as others might at a desk, as if making notes (in every sense, of course). He's thinking aloud with his hands. His playing is a form of writing, a direct channel from mind and spirit. And it is quiet, fabulously so. Rather than slamming out sounds to reach the back of the auditorium, he pulls the audience in towards him, forcing you to listen.

A few memory lapses were accompanied by a half-humorous dismissive gesture with one hand; and in the final movement's cadenza he wasn't above turning a pause into a joke, catching Järvi's eye as if to say 'OK, wait for it....' Järvi proved the perfect accompanist, deferring to Lupu but keeping everything gently on the rails, perhaps stoking up the orchestral energy if the solo line had wandered into the realms of introspection just before.

One hopes that the suggestion Lupu might be winding up his concert schedule this year is not true, but it wouldn't surprise me if it is. I'm sure I wasn't the only person present who listened to his exquisite encore of Brahms Op.117 No. 1 - the darkest of whispered lullabies - with a fearful lump in the throat.

(Please read this beautiful tribute to him by fellow pianist Kirill Gerstein, which appeared in the New York Review of Books for Lupu's 70th birthday.)

Järvi, having proved himself a master of managing energies, did so again in the second half, with a taut, glistening, impassioned account of the Rachmaninov Symphony No.2. It was the perfect cathartic finale for a rather emotional concert hall, and as an interpretation it had the glorious variety of a great epic narrative: the elemental fire of Tolstoy, the fantastical colours of Bulgakov and the aching passion of Chekhov. The Philharmonia played as if their lives depended on it.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Lupu is playing in London tonight

The legendary Romanian pianist Radu Lupu is performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.4 at the RFH with the Philharmonia, conducted by Paavo Järvi. It's pretty much sold out. But Lupu does not play in London every night. In fact, he hardly ever plays in London. To say this is a rare sighting is not saying enough.

And before you ask, the answer is no, I haven't: he doesn't do interviews. The RFH website says he has not given a press interview for 30 years. The best I can offer you is that he used to play bridge with my former piano teacher back in the 1970s-80s; and I met him once backstage in Lucerne, where he was utterly charming, funny and kind.

All being well, I'll report back.

Enjoy this rare gem meanwhile:

Saturday, February 02, 2019

It was 20 years ago...

This morning I enjoyed a moment of quiet satisfaction, the kind known only to writers of rather obscure biographies. I glanced at my author page on Amazon, as I do about twice a year to see how the books are doing, and noticed something peculiar. My first book, about a then very unusual composer, was published in 1996. It used to have a princely 6 reviews. It now has 5.

It's gone. Yes! GONE! The abusive, mendacious, vicious one-star anonymous review that was the first I ever got on Amazon when it opened its "reader review" facility in 1999, is no longer there - after 20 years.

When that thing initially appeared, it was a heck of a shock - especially as it was pretty obvious to me who'd written it. After all, there was only a handful of people whom I'd told what I wanted the book to do, and who then might have had cause to go online and write an anonymous review saying that it didn't do exactly that. What is this, I thought. Anonymous reviewing? Isn't that just asking for trouble? Isn't it opening the door to all manner of revolting abuse? It makes a mockery of the whole concept of criticism...

In 1999, an abusive review was not a daily occurrence in thousands of writers' lives, but actual news. It was, indeed, such news that the Guardian interviewed me. They put in a photo of the 32-year-old me looking very grumpy (Me: "Do you want me to smile?" Photographer: "NO!") and I think it was Emma Brockes who wrote the feature, which was headed 'Trash your rivals and get away with it'. Then the Times called and asked, in a gentle, confiding tone, "As a matter of interest, who do you think it was?" I told them I wasn't going to say, in case I was wrong.

But that review sat there, and sat there, and sat there. Others appeared, seeming satisfied with the book, which was nice. But Mr One Star still crouched on the site like a sodding great spider, glaring at me with its compound eyes and eight spiky, hairy legs, and there was nothing on earth I could do about it.

Except now, it's gone. It has only taken 20 years.

I like to think about how different the world in general might be today if people had not had anonymity on the internet. Think about it. Just think about it.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Citizen of Nowhere, here

The revival of interest in Mieczyslaw Weinberg's music began with his opera The Passenger a few years back. But now, with the centenary of his birth falling in 2019, the floodgates have opened at last. Next season the Wigmore Hall is hosting a complete cycle of his string quartets. Mirga Grazynite-Tyla has brought his Symphony No.21 (the man was very prolific) to the CBSO this season and, along with Gidon Kremer, has been focusing much attention on him at Symphony Hall. And on Sunday the bass-baritone Mark Glanville and pianist Mark Verter are giving a concert devoted entirely to his songs at the Purcell Room here in London. It is entitled - poignantly and appositely - Citizen of Nowhere.

I went to interview Mark about it and you can read the full story in The JC. Below are some pertinent extracts. Meanwhile: please come and hear them!

The name of Mieczyslaw Weinberg was virtually unknown in western Europe until his opera The Passenger, set partly in Auschwitz, was staged for the first time at the 2010 Bregenz Festival. Since then, championed by prominent musicians across the world, Weinberg has finally made it onto the musical map. 

This prolific and powerful Polish Jewish composer left a vast legacy of music, including 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, 40 film and animation scores, seven operas, copious miscellaneous instrumental and orchestral pieces, and more than 200 solo songs...

Glanville’s concert, pointedly entitled “Citizen of Nowhere”, is a journey through Weinberg’s long, turbulent life. “Obviously the title is a direct reference to Theresa May’s appalling declaration,” says Glanville (the Prime Minister said, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” during a speech at the Conservative Party conference in 2016). “I felt strongly about that,” Glanville says. “It seems to evoke the ‘Rootless Cosmopolitan’ term of Stalin, which was obviously shorthand for ‘Jews’. But if you look at Weinberg’s life, he really was a Citizen of Nowhere...”

Rostropovich plays the amazing Weinberg Cello Concerto (part 1) - please, please listen to this

Weinberg was born in 1919 in Warsaw to Jewish parents from Kishinev (now in Moldova), who had fled after their own parents were slaughtered in the 1905 pogrom in that town. When the Nazis invaded Poland, Weinberg escaped to the Soviet Union: first to Minsk, then to faraway Tashkent. Both his parents and his sister were killed in the Trawniki camp. 

In Tashkent, to which many of Russia’s intellectuals and artistic community had been evacuated, Weinberg married the daughter of the celebrated actor Solomon Mikhoels, and met Dmitri Shostakovich, who became a close friend and urged him to move to Moscow. Weinberg did so in 1943. But in the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’ in February 1953, Mikhoels was murdered and Weinberg, as a close family member, found himself thrown into jail. “He was probably on death row,” says Glanville. “It was only because Stalin died that he was released.” 

Weinberg went on to live a long and fruitful life - he died as recently as 1996. Yet his fate was to remain a perpetual outsider. “The Poles never accepted him as Polish,” says Glanville. “In Russia, he was never Russian. And there is even a weird, bizarre, horrible reverse snobbery to do with the Holocaust and Jewish composers: if you survived, you’re not taken as seriously as the composers who died. It has possibly stood against him, a composer of such genius, that he survived.” 

Glanville has assembled a personal selection of what he sees as some of Weinberg’s very best songs. “To me, they knock Shostakovich’s songs out of the park,” he asserts. Among them are settings of the Polish-Jewish poet Julian Tuwim, the Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi in Russian translation, and some harrowing pieces about the Holocaust. 

They are enormously challenging to perform, Glanville adds. “It’s very demanding music: I have to have a range of about two and a half octaves, because he writes huge stretches for the voice. The piano parts too are very difficult: he’s pushing you, as a musician, to the absolute limits of your ability. He will never compromise. He will write whatever needs to be written to say what he wants to say. He won’t spare you: you do what he needs to do. He has a very authentic voice and I think it’s insulting to see him, as some do, as a B-list Shostakovich. He’s not trying to be anyone but himself.” .....

Mark Glanville and Mark Verter perform Citizen of Nowhere: A Sung Life at the Purcell Room on 3 February. Booking: 020 3879 9555

Here is a conversation with Irina Shostakovich about Weinberg, from the International Weinberg Society, filmed in 2015: