20 April 2013

Prodigal Pianists


Pianists are not my strong suit.  Despite the fact that every year I am surrounded by discs of pianists vying to get on the short-list for the Instrumental category in the Gramophone Awards, I very much regret to say that I find it difficult to tell one from another.  True, I am as quick to spot outstanding playing as the next man (or woman), can tell a good performance from a mediocre one, and have a level of sensitivity which brings about a fit of near nausea whenever I hear a bad one.  But while I recognise all of this, in a blind tasting I can never, in a million years, recognise one pianist from another.  I do hear a certain hardness of tone and almost aggressive edge if I know it’s Mitsuko Uchida, I recognise the flamboyance of Lang Lang when I see him credited with the playing and salute the intense musicianship of Alfred Brendel whenever I hear a recording of him.  But I doubt very much whether I would recognise any of these pianists if I did not already know it was them playing.  When the cry went out amongst Gramophone reviewers a few years back asking if any of us had inadvertently acclaimed Joyce Hatto as the greatest pianist of the century when, it transpired, her playing was largely a figment of her husband’s imagination, I had no qualms.  I would never have confused her with anyone else simply because I wouldn’t have recognised anyone else’s playing in the first place.

I am sure that there are those who, on hearing a single chord or a nuance in Chopin or Liszt, will immediately identify the pianist.  But I’m not one.  The thing is, I listen to music and not to a performer and, as a result, have a remarkable ear for the former and a non-existent one for the latter.  Even with my own instrument (the organ) I can no more tell whether it’s Thomas Trotter or John Scott, Cameron Carpenter or Carlo Curley, Jennifer Bate or Gillian Weir.  I very much prefer the playing of Nicholas Kynaston to that of Wolfgang Rübsam, but I would not immediately recognise either without the aid of a concert programme or record sleeve.

And because I cannot readily recognise individual performers from sound alone, I do not always understand those who rave about their particular heroes.  So when a subscriber to this blog writes to express her profound admiration for the pianist Dmitri Sgouros, I am fascinated.  She asks if I could use what influence I have to secure a performance by Sgouros in Asia.  I might beg and beg for certain works to be performed – please, please, please can the SSO perform Stanford’s Seventh Symphony or the HKPhil do Martin’s Golgotha, might not somebody schedule Bossi’s superb Organ Concerto into a season calendar or do the original version of Copland’s First Symphony? – but I never feel that strongly about performers.  Nevertheless I owe it to my readership to do what I can so, never having myself heard of Sgouros, I decide to see what I can find out.

Being away from home at the moment, so with no access to my books, magazines or recordings I resort to a Google search.  And what do I find out?  “Is Dmitri Sgouros the worst pianist ever?” (on www.pianostreet.com).  That can’t be ignored, so I follow the link and read one of those mind-numbingly pointless and self-indulgent forum discussions which includes such gems as “ok his technique is fabulous - but his musicality is non-existant” and “ok - but hes total crap” (what is it about online forums which attracts the illiterate and the grammatically-challenged?).  Not much help there.  Back to Google.

"Sgouros plays with technical command, rich piano sound, strong rhythm, power, and musical authority.”  Ah, that’s more like it (although I wonder what the alternative to “rich piano sound” is?  Perhaps “poor violin sound”??).  However, this adulatory quote appears on www.sgouros-pianist.com, so we could expect the man himself to cherry pick the comments he adds to his homepage.  But look deeper and we see that, while this quote is attributed to Harold C Schonberg, no less, it is not cited; I wonder whether Schonberg, in his dotage, uttered those words when pushed into a corner to say something nice.  All critics have been in that position and prayed fervently that our words would never be recorded.  So let’s search on.

“Dmitri Sgouros is an amazing 13-year-old - a genuine prodigy. His playing has a youthful spring to it - a dextrous contrapuntal command and elasticity, and more than a touch of poetry”.  That is to be found on the New York Times website itself, so would seem a legitimate support of my correspondent’s admiration.  Except that the review was written in 1982, and if you read on you see that not all is sweetness and light; “Yet he is still an immature artist. He often overestimated his virtuosity and played certain passages at such a speed as to render them blurred and meaningless. He also suffers from an occasional lack of structural focus, and treats his showpieces as if they are hurdles on an obstacle course. But there was no reason for such a lengthy and tortuous concert in the first place, except to present this likable, sweet-faced child as the pianistic equivalent of a decathalon runner”.  Not so good after all.  But, as I say, that was in 1982.  There must be a more recent quote.

Frustrated at finding anything recent or impartial I resort to YouTube where, below indifferent and forgettable performances, I discover an interview with the man himself.  It includes the following gem: Interviewer; “Do you do much cooking?”, DS: “No, but I know how to eat”.  Music doesn’t feature prominently in this interview, but a comment from a passing loony suggests; "he's only able to play the piano because otherwise he's not good for anything else".  Out of desperation I decide to listen for myself, but all the recordings go back six years or more.  I eventually find what seems to be the most recent solo recording, tagged as having been uploaded “two years ago”. 

Oddly we see him in an aircraft museum surrounded by Luftwaffe gems of the 1940s.  By one of these is situated a piano (the heading suggests it is a Harpsichord – how bad can things get on YouTube?) and we see a blurry figure playing some Bach surrounded by curious onlookers.  But can we hear it?  No.  There is music being played but a German voice-over comprehensively obscures it.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iE7M2ZgbRg) What is more serious, however, is that when we do see Sgouros in relative close-up, this is by no means a man of 45 but a young lad in his teens.  Forcing me to the inevitable conclusion that Dmitri Sgouros is a classic example of that all-too-common phenomenon; the burnt-out prodigy promoted way beyond his abilities. 

Do let me know if the impression derived wholly from an Internet search is wrong?

13 April 2013

Critics In Residence

Various art galleries and institutions retain the services of an occasional Critic-In-Residence to offer informed educational support to those who wish to enrich their understanding of the visual arts, but I have not previously come across a similar position within a musical organisation.  True, in 2011 the Cleveland Orchestra appointed Enrique Fernandez as its Critic-in-Residence.  His job was to write a blog commenting on, rather than offering criticism of, their performances while the orchestra itself was in residence at the Arsht Center in Miami.  As such Fernandez was a critic and he was in residence, but he was more an Observer-in-Residence than a Critic-in-Residence.

Given the over-riding need for a critic to be impartial, perhaps the very concept of a Critic-In-Residence is flawed.  When it was launched the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra flew in a London-based critic in the hope that he would send back home glowing reports of a fine new orchestra breaking on to the world scene.  He did (and, to be honest, he could not have done otherwise; this was a brilliant new orchestra on the world scene - a fundamental fact with which no serious person could disagree), but his comments were undermined by the fact that he was paid to do that very thing by the orchestra itself.  I, myself, have been in a similar position, and in recent months there has been some discussion in the pages of the UK press about the validity of music - and in particular opera - critics who have accepted travel and accommodation from those who are the subject of their criticism.  We can all boast (and justifiably so) that despite the financial incentives we remain impartial; but do the public really believe that?  Is not a critic immediately compromised by such an association.  Whenever I comment on the Malaysian Philharmonic I am immediately accused of bias (a suggestion that they might not be as great as they once were invariably encourages a certain lady within the hallowed walls of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur to write anonymously that I should shut up as my views are worthless); and perhaps I am, although I try so hard not to be.

For my part, I make a point of remaining detached from those who I review or who I am likely to review; I do not see how it is possible to remain wholly impartial when you have built up friendly relations with the subject of your criticism.  Not for me the rush backstage or the patient wait by the stage door for the artist to emerge in order to seek out some inside and privileged information on the performance.  I am there to be an informed member of the audience and to base my opinion on what everyone else hears; not to show superiority or voice the performer's views by association.  Others do that, and are quite comfortable with it: I cannot, so I slip quietly into the background and try to remain anonymous.

So when I was invited to become a Critic-In-Residence for a Hong Kong organisation, my immediate reaction was to refuse.  However, more details were provided and I began to see that this might be quite interesting.  Eventually I accepted, and having recently completed my first (and hopefully not my last) week "in residence", I see that this has been a very worthwhile and valuable experience not just for all concerned but for the artistic environment in Hong Kong generally.

It was neither an orchestra nor a concert-promoting organisation which ran this innovative project, but an educational institution allied with an arts magazine; the latter keen to improve the standard of its published criticism, the former keen to encourage students to develop greater critical listening.  Given the pretty appalling state of music criticism in Asia generally, this seems a most enlightened and sensible idea.  After all, the market for classical music is both relatively new and also expanding, and the critic performs a much more vital educational and promotional role here than he does in the west where audiences are more ready to form their own opinions.  So, how did it pan out?  On the whole it went well.  A handful of students attended and we had some very worthwhile discussions.  The quality of the resulting criticism still left a lot to be desired, but such things take time and one can already see a few green shoots emerging from the customary crop of cliches, meaningless use of pseudo-technical terms and stock statements of the obvious.

But one thing really worried me, and that was the lack of experience shown in those who aspired to be critics.  A chance encounter in Singapore with someone who not only remembered my early criticism for the Musical Times (for whom I wrote extensively in the 1970s and 80s) but had studiously kept copies of it all, found me revisiting what I had written in those far off days.  How terrible it was, oozing ignorance and shallow opinion.  There is no doubt that to comment effectively on others' performances, one needs to have accumulated a wealth of experience.  I do not believe that critics necessarily need to be trained musicians or seasoned performers - indeed, that can be a disadvantage - but I do believe that critics need to have spent many years sitting in audiences, listening to recordings, reading avidly and honing their literary skills before their opinions are either worth reading or even readable.  Look at the appalling comments that appear on websites under the terrifying heading "Customer Reviews" and you know what I mean.

Recently booking a hotel I was directed towards "Customer Reviews" on a travel website.  It seemed that the hotel in question had attracted a disproportionately large number of semi-literate and incoherent visitors, all of whom had axes to grind which were totally irrelevant to me.  Why a hotel in a quiet coastal location should be castigated by a visitor because "its not near subway's and taxi's cosst FORRTUNE", is a mystery, but the sad fact is a lot of silly people take this kind of thing seriously, apparently unaware that so many good reviews are written by the hotel management themselves and so many bad ones by those with a vested interest in bringing about the hotel's commercial ruin.

With sites like Amazon positively encouraging the incoherent, illiterate and ill-informed views of those with no critical experience or ability, the time has certainly come for a serious move to be made to foster intelligent and impartial criticism.  We expect from our professional musicians a high level of training, experience and ability; why do we not adopt similar standards from our critics?  If more of these Critic-In-Residence projects could be run by those who publish criticism, the public might be encouraged to listen more seriously to music and, as a result, be more likely to recognise and respect true performing quality.

07 April 2013

A War Requiem Far From Home

Last week it was The Messiah; this week it’s another major choral work written for an English audience.  Both have accumulated their fare share of performing traditions which serve more to distract than enhance the listening experience today.  With The Messiah many of those traditions are obvious (why do audiences persist in that puerile habit of interrupting the “Hallelujah Chorus” by getting to their feet during it?), but while they are generally more subtle in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem they are equally irritating.

Many English musicians are passionately proud of Britten – his more ardent admirers speak of him with a kind of sycophantic adoration which brooks no dissent – and in claiming ownership of his music, they tend to (albeit unwittingly) create barriers which those less conscious of his genius find difficult to overcome.  On top of that, with the War Requiem there has grown up a belief that the only true interpretation is that which Britten himself set down in the recording studio some 50 years ago, and few conductors seem prepared to view the work afresh.
Initial indications for the Singapore performance on Friday were not good.  There was a glutinously emotive pre-concert talk and an on-stage announcement which left us in no doubt that we were present at an event which was rather more an act of homage to Britten and his beliefs than a mere concert presentation of a musical work, while, in an attempt to ape the Britten recording, soloists were chosen from England (tenor Barry Banks), Germany (baritone Detlef Roth) and Russia (soprano Elena Zelenskaya).  To cap it all, the programme book sported a plain black cover.  This looked as if it was going to be yet another display of adulatory commemoration for a fallen hero.

Amazingly, though, as soon as the performance started, it was clear that Chinese conductor Lan Shui was in no way prepared to take Britten’s recording as his model.  Almost every element of this performance showed a freshness of approach and an individuality which transformed it from the reverential to the stimulating.  Shui took a wholly distinctive approach, passionate and driven, articulate and, at times, terse.  The transitions from full chorus and orchestra to soloists and chamber ensemble to children’s choir and electronic keyboard (and whoever labelled in the programme booklet the ghastly electronic machine Shane Thio so masterfully controlled as an “harmonium” clearly had never ever heard or seen a real harmonium) were seamlessly managed, with Lim Yau, the on-stage sub-conductor, absolutely brilliant in taking up the baton from Lan Shui and propelling his chamber ensemble along with vivid drama.  In many ways Lim Yau was the true star of the show; a lesser musician could easily have let things sag, yet not only was he utterly at one with Shui’s approach, but he also elevated it so that the soloist/chamber ensemble moments were projected as vivid mini-dramas against the broadly-sweeping soundscapes of the full chorus.
Perhaps talking of Lim’s taking up the baton from Shui is not quite right.  Amazingly, Shui did the whole performance with his right arm held rigid due to an earlier accident.  Throwing all hints of accepted conducting technique aside, he made very clear his intentions through a wildly waving, batonless, left arm, a great deal of frantic bobbing of the head and odd little kicks from a very rigid right leg.  It looked strange but, boy, did it get results.  The Singapore Symphony Orchestra was on absolutely top-notch form, playing with marvellous intensity and superb ensemble.  How much of this was down to Shui and how much down to the Leader I cannot say, but with Markus Gundermann in the Leader’s chair, I suspect he had a significant part to play in the ultimate success of this performance.  Gundermann was, in many respects, the perfect choice to be the Leader for the War Requiem.  In one man, he embodies Britten’s original plan to bring certain nationalities together.  Born in Germany and brought up in that part of the country which, throughout his youth, remained firmly under Soviet influence, Gundermann has adapted himself superbly to a “western democratic” life, speaks perfect English and is, most importantly, a divine violinist.  He was not responsible, however, for the one moment of true spine-tingling wonder from the orchestra.  That was down to the magnificent SSO brass who, in their earth-shaking fanfares in the “Dies Irae”, provided the most awesome moment in the entire performance.

Nowhere in the performing traditions of the War Requiem is Britten’s early recording more detrimental to modern-day appreciation of the work than in his choice of soloists.  Musically Heather Harper (who sang in the première in 1962) was far more appropriate than Galina Vishnevskaya (who sang on the recording), yet in selecting the statuesque Elena Zelenskaya, the Singapore performance may have accorded with Britten’s desire to have a Russian soprano, but did not do the performance itself any favours.  She was big and forthright, but lacked the clarity and openness to make any impact.  Far more rewarding were the two male soloists. I have sat through no end of performances and recordings in which various tenor and baritone soloists slavishly work to emulate the two iconic soloists of the original recording.  Tenors without number have done their damndest to imitate Peter Pears, managing the unique vocal inflections (cruelly described by a singing teacher of my youth as being “like gargling in concrete”) but none of the sublime artistry, while baritones innumerable have attempted the strangely nasal English pronunciation of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau without any hope of matching that supremely wonderful voice.  What a wonder to hear in Banks a tenor who gave clear, sincere and precise delivery of words and music; a rare chance to hear the actual pitches Britten had written delivered with unfaltering accuracy.  For his part, Roth was focused and strong with unaccented English (although occasionally mangled when the drama of the occasion seemed to get to him) and a voice which had great presence but none of the bell-like resonance of Fischer-Dieskau.  I very much admired, too, the sense of these two soloists being within the texture rather than forced out on top, and if at times their voices were overwhelmed by the instrumental forces around them surely this is just what Britten wrote (even if, convention has it, he did not achieve it in his own performances)?
Good, too, to have such a warm and beautifully polished children’s choir as that assembled by Wong Lai Foon for this performance.  Usually performances follow Britten’s lead in using just trebles and getting them to squawk and rasp in parody of the “Continental Tone” he so much admired.  Wong gave us sweetness and purity; and it was truly angelic, floating down from a high balcony in the Esplanade (which, I have to say, got the sound just about right for this performance.  From where I sat in the stalls I heard everything in fine detail, a very pleasing overall balance and, most of all, a sumptuous acoustic backcloth.  And, while I’m at it, congratulations to the excellent sur-titler who only once or twice changed the discreet slides a trifle late in the day; I don’t as a rule like sur-titles in the concert hall, but these did the job sufficiently unobtrusively not to cause too much distraction.).

The 140 voices ranged across the back of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall last week all belonged to a single choir.  Stretching across the even greater width of the Esplanade in Singapore were some 200 (excluding the 50 or so in the children’s chorus).  These were drawn from five different choirs, including members of the Shanghai Opera House Chorus, and while no choir made up of bits and pieces is ever going to have the conglomerate fusion of sound that a single entity does (in terms of attack, articulation, ensemble and overall choral tone, the Hong Kong Philharmonic were streets ahead of the Singapore team), Lim Yau had trained them to an impressive level of cohesion.  It was a horribly top-heavy chorus, men outnumbered by women over two-to-one (and vocally, if I can put it this way, by almost five-to-one), but it did a splendid job responding to Shui’s direction with great assurance.  Occasionally the sheer physical distance from one end of the choir to the other led to fuzzy ensemble, but that was a minor failing in an overall picture of glorious triumphs.
This was not a revelatory performance – Lan Shui doesn’t do revelatory – nor was it particularly inspiring – with most people on stage performing the work for the first time in their lives, there were too many moments of tension for it to break entirely free of its bonds – but it was deeply, deeply satisfying.  How nice that we can, at last, experience the music of Britten as if it was simply the work of a composer rather than the summation of a nation’s psyche.