Scarlatti’s 3-minute dash.

Every year a piano competition was held at my school. I never dared enter it, of course, because there was little room for fakers like me who would never have succeeded in fooling the most amateur of judges.

But I enjoyed attending them. Not just for the variety of skills, but as much for the diversity of pieces and the personalities of those who performed them. For all, no doubt, this was the culmination of several months’ work; and yet the approach to their task on the day was often a spectacle in itself.

I recall one hot favourite taking an eternity to settle himself on the stool, constantly adjusting its height and distance from the keyboard, before embarking on a prolonged silence to get himself in the zone for launching into a Beethoven sonata.

A polite invitation by the judge to start was all that was needed to derail the poor scholar and condemn his performance to the merely incredibly impressive, rather than the X factor required to win.

I forget who did win that year, and with what, but the stand-out moment for many of us was when the next competitor, following some twenty minutes of Beethoven, had the temerity to arrive at the piano and finish his piece within a matter of minutes. (I may have the exact details slightly wrong after over 40 years, but that is certainly the gist of it.) For a competition, that takes some chutzpah.  His choice, brilliantly performed, but lacking in sufficient gravitas to earn him credible consideration from the judge, was a sonata by the Italian Baroque composer, Domenico Scarlatti. His dates of 1685-1757 make him a near exact contemporary of the great man himself, J.S.Bach, (1685-1750), although there is no concrete evidence of Bach ever having even heard of the Italian.

Not much is known of Domenico, one of ten children, and the son of a musician, so we won’t tarry on biographical details. He is now most famous for having composed over 500 sonatas for the harpsichord. That’s a fair amount, so unsurprisingly many of them last only a few minutes and in one continuous movement, unlike their Classical equivalents of 50-100 years later.

So there is no need for you to be concerned at the prospect of today’s choice being an entire sonata by Scarlatti, for it lasts barely three minutes, here played by one of the world’s greatest living pianists, the Argentinian Martha Argerich (b.1941). She performs live only rarely these days and in truth has always been something of a recluse, despite her tempestuous and colourful life, but what a gift!

Take this encore as an example of her style. On she bounds, lobbing her hanky into the piano, and then dashes off this sonata K141, then bouncing off the seat before her left hand is off the keyboard. Before doing so, she treats us to three minutes of outrageous virtuosity, with repeated notes and frequent crossovers, at a pace which actually succeeds in bringing out the different discussions in the piece far better than any I have heard taken slower.

It’s hard not to marvel at this, and I hope it will be new to many of you.

 

Crimbo limbo needs music

It’s that time of year, isn’t it?

That lull between the end of one celebration and the beginning of another. The time when many us who do not leg it for faraway climes may move from one bunch of rellies to another; or, having successfully survived that already, just stay put and while away the hours, going on ‘hearty’ yet reluctant walks. Anything, even on-line sales for items we do not need, with the sole purpose of bridging 25th December with the 31st.

There’s the pub, of course. Done that too, a few times.

It’s only the 29th today and now I’m struggling with a protracted break. And if I am, others must be, too. Even the Test match ended the day early. So – what to do?

It’s the fourth day of Christmas. Truly I never thought I would turn to the music of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and even less so, in the spirit of four, to his Four Seasons, a collection of four concertos you may think you know so well as not to hear anything new in them. Much what I  thought until I discovered this.

The redhead Vivaldi was born in Venice, where he spent much of his life composing music for an orphanage. As the first born of nine children, it was the then custom to single him out for the priesthood, a tradition I can be glad has long since gone into abeyance; but as someone who suffered from a mild form of asthma, he managed to discharge his priestly duties only rarely.

His output was indeed substantial, and he was by far the leading Baroque composer of his day. His music had a clear influence on Bach, but a voluminous legacy is not enough to guarantee long term popularity and he died in poverty in Vienna. Stravinsky was perhaps the most outspoken, calling him “greatly overrated – a dull fellow who could compose the same form over and so many times over”.

The house in which he lived has since been replaced by the Hotel Sacher, and I can personally vouch for the excellence of its Sachertorte.

Few would dispute that his Four Seasons comprise his most famous work, but there have been far too many unnecessary attempts to try and jazz them up to make them more accessible than they already are. Since we are in winter now, let us stay on theme and select number 4 by that name, here played in summer yellow by Anne Sophie Mutter. So shut the curtains, light a fire, pour yourselves a drink – and be thankful you are inside to listen to this. Because it’s cold, it really is.

A discovery, I believe, of the somewhat tyrannical and self-important conductor, Herbert von Karajan (don’t waste your time putting his name into my search bar), Mutter is seen here in her signature backless dress, the very embodiment of the German phrase “ein schöner Rücken kann auch entzücken” (translating, without the same rhythm, into “a nice back can also delight”. “A nice rear can also endear” is a version of choice for some, but not here, surely?)

She is a sensational violinist, here playing amongst string instruments and harpsichord only, and the real chill, the chattering of teeth in the bitter cold, is all too clear throughout. It shivers from the start. This is another of those examples where an overfamiliar, certainly overplayed, piece can still spring an unexpected pleasure.

Click below. Now what am going to do until Sunday?

(Spoke too soon – just been informed I’m in charge of games for New Year’s Eve.)

Continue reading “Crimbo limbo needs music”

It’s Christmas – call for Victor!

I have been a little pre-occupied of late, as we have just moved house, so the blog discipline has been found wanting. But it would be wrong to let the festive period pass without a reference to the season in some way, and so here are a few minutes – or more, if you wish –  to sit back with your eyes closed and let out a contented ‘Aaah’.

It is most likely that you will have had your fill of Christmas carols by now, but this brief passage from my great uncle Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony is charm itself. I wrote about Victor, whom I never met on account of his early death at the age of 46 in 1947, in September 2016 (see ‘A bit of Fun’ or Hely-Hutchinson in the Search box). Victor was Director of music at the BBC at the time, and refused to turn on his radiators in his office during a bitter winter, for fear of it setting a bad example in straightened times. He contracted pneumonia and died.

While at the Beeb, Victor was instrumental in establishing the Third Programme, or what we now call Radio 3. He was a talented musician and knew all the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas by heart. Nowadays his compositions are rarely played, but his Carol Symphony always gets a healthy airing at this time of year.

My heart sinks when I see The First Nowell in a carol concert race card: too many verses and a slightly dreary refrain, despite some noble efforts to liven it up with descants. And yet it is by far my favourite passage in Victor’s symphony. I am attaching the whole piece here, just in case you are left with the urge to hear the rest, but for the purpose of this post I want to highlight the few minutes from 12:33.

We all have different visuals when listening to music and whilst I have no wish to influence yours, I am, nevertheless, going to give you a glimpse of mine here.

This is the scene I think Victor sets. A field under a starlit night, introduced with a few bars from The Coventry Carol which, in the minor key, evoke a mysterious mood. There is definitely a sense of something about to happen. But in a few moments, with the key shifting to major, and with the help of the harp, the listener is soon assured that this is a moment not of fear, but of magic, of wonder.

In come the violins with the theme of The First Nowell, soon joined by weightier strings and dancing woodwind, culminating with the brass underlining the emphatic statement “Born is the king of Israel”. It’s a wonderful piece of orchestration. Calm returns with The Coventry Carol and it’s not hard to imagine a group of shepherds rubbing their eyes, each wondering who is going to be the first to ask “Did you see that? Did you see that? 

That’s what comes to my mind, anyway.

If you’ve still got to wrap those presents, or need something uplifting during other countless festive chores, play the whole piece – it’s good, uncomplicated stuff, with moments such as the above, of real charm.

Manuscriptnotes (and its staff of one) wish all its readers a joyous Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RIP Dmitri Hvorostovsky

I am greatly saddened by the death of the Siberian baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. He was just 55.

No, I never met him; but I didn’t meet Claudio Abbado or Seve either, and their deaths had a similar effect. Heroes to me, all of them. It is a sadness compounded by the fact that my impression of Hvorostovsky has been endorsed by all who knew and worked with him. He was blessed with an astonishing, rich, out-of-this-world voice, and a life-affirming personality to go with it.

Ah, that smile. I saw him ‘live’ a few times at Covent Garden, and it was impossible not to be totally captivated by his presence.

I am no obituary writer. His career and roles are covered fully in the press. I was just a mere fan, one of his biggest, and it is desperate to know that I shall not see him perform again.

So forgive me if I am brief. If I take up less of your time in today’s text, listen to these two clips and you’ll see in an instant what I’m finding hard to express. Both show different qualities of the man. One is a Russian folk song, Dark Eyes, which has a cabaret feel to it, by the looks of it an encore to an adoring audience after a concert in Red Square. It gives you some idea of why he was known as ‘the Elvis of the opera world.’ Bit of a hunk behind that lovely sound.

The other is the closing scene of my favourite opera, Tchaikovsky’s  Eugene Onegin. I wrote about this last year, just scroll down to October 2016 in the archives for more background to this piece. The final curtain now adds an extra poignancy.

If there is a better Onegin, I don’t want to know.What a voice. What a voice! What an actor. What a horribly sad and premature loss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The power of 5

It has taken me nearly a week to  realize that I am still in a state of shock.

Last Saturday I attended the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s first visit to the Royal Festival Hall, under their conductor and co-founder Daniel Barenboim. If you want to read an analytical review, you’ve come to the wrong place, there was plenty of press coverage. There will be little that an amateur enthusiast like me can add: and yet I must try, because I can see no other way to help me through what I can only describe as a recovery phase.

What is it about the number 5 when it comes to symphonies? Bruckner, Beethoven, Sibelius, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev, Schubert – all of them seem to have reserved a certain something in their armoury when a fifth symphony loomed. In his 41 symphonies, Mozart is the obvious exception. (Brahms would surely have been on the list – if only he’d got round to writing another after his fourth.)

And Tchaikovsky, whose fifth symphony comprised the second half of last weekend’s concert. You might decide you don’t have the 12 minutes to listen to this final movement, but I am hoping you will trust me that it’s worth it. Take time out; turn up the volume as loud as you dare; sit down; and marvel. It’s bombastic, tumultuous, energetic, at times frenzied. But ultimately it is outright defiant, a triumphant statement of hope over adversity.

The critics in 1888 were almost universal in their disparagement when Tchaikovsky conducted its first performance, which wouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to the composer, for he did himself pronounce it a complete failure.

Audiences today appreciate it as one of his finest works, and on Saturday I was left almost breathless by a performance about which all who were there will one day recall “I was there” and those who were not “will think themselves acursed they were not here”. I cannot remember a live performance of anything which has so consumed me: never in my life have I witnessed such an ovation.

The concert was a tribute to Jacqueline du Pré, who was married to Barenboim until her death almost exactly thirty years ago, and undoubtedly this added an extra dimension to the event. Kian Soltani was the soloist in a mesmerizing account of Richard Strauss’s ‘Don Quixote‘ in the first half. And then he followed an example of something which I’m reliably informed was du Pré’s habit – he joined his fellow musicians to participate in the second half.

You may think this a minor observation, but it was clear to anyone in the hall who’d noticed that his impact was pivotal. Barenboim drove them hard, but in the midst of them all Soltani looked urgently from left to right. “Let’s go for it” was the message in his face, the result a visible, as well as audible, wave through the entire orchestra. The bond was as tight as it possible to be. You could not put a cigarette paper between them.

Stop and think for one moment of the emotions this stirs up in an orchestra made up of Palestinians and Israelis.

In contrast to my comments above, I would recommend you do not let yourself be distracted by the visuals here. Just wallow in these glorious themes and find yourself almost laughing at the demands the composer is making of his players. This is as good a recording  as I can find, but the concert, broadcast on BBC R3 on Monday 29th October, is still available on iPlayer.

Click here for now –

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jacqueline du Pre

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Jacqueline du Pré, one of the world’s most gifted cellists, at the tender age of 42.

To my eternal regret, I never heard her give a live performance, but we are lucky to have been left a host of recordings to appreciate both her musicianship and her zest for her craft. She was cut short in her prime at just 27 by multiple sclerosis. Although not worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence as her in the context of talent, I do, nevertheless, have a complete understanding of what it is like to be denied the sensations and muscle memory in my hands.

The same affliction has caused me to give up the piano, possibly to the relief of many. When I resumed lessons during my lunch hour some 25 years ago, my new teacher asked me to play something to give him an idea what level he was dealing with. I launched into the Pathétique sonata by Beethoven, and was at the point of opening my shoulders after the first page introduction to display my prowess in the Allegro, ma non troppo when he deftly touched me on the elbow with the observation “Mmm…you know, I think you could fool a lot of people you are really quite a good pianist.”

During her brief time at the top, du Pré made a remarkable impact. The memories of those who knew and worked with her tell of a natural, spontaneous gift, but as much, if not more, of a radiant personality that shone in every moment of her playing. Her recording of the famous Elgar Cello Concerto has been the benchmark against which every performance has been measured since.

So it would be plain silly to seek out the many other astonishing recordings just by way of demonstrating the breadth of her talent, and I make no apology for sharing this clip of the second movement from the Elgar. It’s only a few minutes, but you will be entranced by two things: the technique and performance, first; and, as the camera fades, a split second glimpse of that gorgeous smile.

In this recording, she is conducted by her husband, Daniel Barenboim. On the 28th and 29th October, Maestro Barenboim is bringing the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to the Royal Festival Hall in a concert to celebrate her life and raise money for research into MS. An auction of extraordinary lots can be found on http://www.stopmsappeal.com

Events like these, and the progress which has been made over the last 20 years, are grounds for real optimism – and inspiration for young musicians who can hope to avoid the struggles du Pré  endured for fifteen years.

What a loss to music. Had she been ‘lucky’ enough to be diagnosed today, du Pré’s prognosis might have been very different. Watching and listening to this only compounds that loss.

 

Haydn, failsafe dispeller of the blues.

Do you ever turn to music to lift your spirits when you are down? Few of us would question the ability of music to do this, but have you ever stopped to think how or why?

It is more likely that when we are in need of a pick-me-up we will, instead, select music which reflects more closely our frame of mind at the time than actively seek out something to shift us into a different mood: few of us are disciplined enough to make that mental resolve. But if we should overhear something uplifting not necessarily of our choosing, on the radio, for example, we can soon find ourselves transported to a different and happier place.

We know music can do this; it doesn’t much matter why.

Acknowledging that, therefore, means that all we need to know is whose music we need to call upon to effect this shift. Simple enough on the face of it, but the choice can be daunting and almost so overwhelming that we give up trying and resort to the quicker, simpler, option of selecting the melancholy.

To the rescue, one completely reliable, cast-iron default, who will never disappoint: the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), perhaps the most underrated of the greats. When Sir Simon Rattle, the newly appointed music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, was asked which composer he would invite to dinner, his answer was an unhesitating ‘Haydn’; and I’m fairly certain it was one of the world’s leading cellists, Stephen Isserlis, who recently questioned whether Haydn was even capable of writing a sorrowful note.

Haydn, teacher of Mozart and Beethoven, dispels the myth that classical music needs to be serious. The man had a real sense of humour, and his audiences came to know it in his vast output, which included over 50 string quintets and more than 100 symphonies (earning him the nickname of Father of each of these disciplines).

Haydn’s 1st Cello Concerto lay hidden for nearly 200 years when it was conclusively identified as being by his hand in 1961. It is a piece brimming with exuberance. Spare yourself a few minutes to listen to this really spirited last movement, here played by Stephen Isserlis. This is chamber music at its very finest: a ‘can’t-see-the join’ collaboration between soloist and fellow musicians. It can be tempting to take this movement too quickly to demonstrate virtuosity, it is technically very demanding, but to do so is to risk tripping up and losing sight of the melody. No such danger here.

So the next time you’re feeling a little bluesy, know for certain that Haydn is your instant fail-safe remedy. We will visit his music and life again, but try this for starters. It’s fun, pure and simple.