28 October 2015

No Audience - No Music

I had forgotten that audiences could get so small.  Certainly, whenever students appear on stage in Singapore, it has become  customary for large numbers of their peers to sit in the audience hollering and screaming when they appear and generally supporting them with an enthusiasm which clearly lifts the performer in the most positive way.  For some reason (and probably not unconnected with the proximity of exams and assignment deadlines as the semester draws to its close) student audiences have suddenly shrunk and I find myself in a small clique of a dozen or so hardy souls who brave whatever Indonesian forest fires or clashing weather fronts can inflict on us for the sole purpose of experiencing a musical performance and providing the performer with a tangible presence with which to react.

The rot seemed to begin last Thursday when student composer Syafiqah ‘ Adha binte Mohamed Sallehin presented her new work, Rintihan Nadim, as part of her Master’s degree submission.  True, it was a performance which was principally directed towards the examiners whose job it was to assess the work rather than the performance, but it was open to the public who, in effect, served to legitimise the performance and provide the composer with a more direct (and, it has to be said, valid) reaction to the music than the focused and specialised considerations of the examiners.  It mattered at the time to the composer that the work was good enough to get a degree, but in the broader reality of musical experience, what matters most is how an audience responds.  The few hardy souls in the concert hall last Thursday responded well enough; but their numbers were too small to pay full justice to what was, in effect, a very compelling performance of a hugely attractive work.

I have come to like the composer’s style; it has a strange but rather satisfying blend of the innovative, the opulently romantic, the directly expressive and the distinctly Malay.  And while I felt that there was a sense of the music being driven too much by the narration rather than relying on its own impact, the story was well illustrated by the highly imaginative instrumental colour and effectively shaped to make a satisfying concert work. The tale of how the young boy Nadim saved Singapore from an attack by fish (specifically garfish - which seems strange since the modern-day habitat of the garfish is essentially around the waters of northern and western Europe and north west Africa – but there again, I suppose Nadim chased them all away from the South China Seas) is a good one for any audience.  The narration was delivered with a wonderful clarity by Megat Muhammad Firdaus Mohd, and the composer was at hand to ensure that the English translation was visible during the performance for the benefit of the non-Malays speakers.  Best of all was the quite outstanding playing of the student ensemble under the conductor Francis Tan Huan Chun.  It’s a big responsibility directing, not just a premiere performance but one which is being attended by examiners on whose word the young composer’s immediate future depends, and Tan could not have done a better job.  He had a cool and collected command over his seven committed instrumentalists and balanced the texture well, never forgetting to keep a wary eye on the narrator and ensure it all passed along fluently.   Whatever anyone else thought of the work, I very much enjoyed it and I have a feeling that the audience did too; all 20 of them (or so).

Last night, despite the presence on stage of 14 student string players, the audience outnumbered them only by about three to one and, surprisingly, the appearance of the students (the women amongst them beautifully garbed in various rich colours and exuding elegance in a way few orchestras do today), did not trigger a single screech, scream or whistle.  This was an audience there for the music rather than primarily to support their friends.  It was a delightful programme of Mozart, Bartók and Dvořák played with immense enthusiasm and a strength of tone which was most impressive.  It often tended to go rather fast – the finale of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik breathless to a quite staggering degree - and this showed in some shaky intonation and a few untidy corners especially in the Serenade for Strings.  But the inner balance of the string ensemble was excellent and some of the individual playing (one hates to single anyone out, but Yu Ssu-Yang’s cello and Liu Minglun’s violin warrant mention) was absolutely magnificent.  I particularly liked the tightly restrained vibrato which gave the collective tone a very clear and pointed focus.  The humour of the last movement of the Bartók Divertimento was particularly well conveyed; did I detect the merest hint of a snigger from a man 20 rows in front – the joke certainly was not lost on either him or me.

The audience just made it into double figures for this lunchtime’s horn and trombone presentation, and the small numbers clearly did nothing for the morale or confidence of the two protagonists, hornist Yeong Sze Fong and trombonist Kow Kang Yue Don, neither of whom quite rose to the occasion as fully as they might.  Concertos, No.1 for horn by Richard Strauss and the trombone one by Launy Grøndahl, were played with a thoroughly assured level of technical security, and both players were impressive in their attention to the detail in the score. However, as the Strauss progressed, one felt that Yeong had lost heart and was, to an extent, going through the motions rather than vividly delivering one of the truly great concertos of the 20th century (personally, I was deeply disappointed by the – probably necessary – curtailing of the accompaniment, but that magical transformation from the first to the second movements, perhaps one of the greatest moments in all Strauss, seems too important to omit from a performance merely on grounds of convenience).  He produced a clear, ringing tone and embraced the range effortlessly, but this sounded more in the way of a run through for the benefit of a teacher than a distinct interpretation aimed for an attentive audience.  And can we blame him when the public were so conspicuous by their absence?  

Likewise Kow, who gave a great deal of colour and drama to the Grondhal Concerto, but failed to bring it fully to life.  It’s an interesting concerto which uses the trombone to good effect and speaks in a pleasingly direct language to any audience.  Kow was obviously well aware of that; he just seemed to doubt that there was sufficient of an audience to open the work up to.  There is something infinitely depressing about playing to an empty hall and if ever people doubted how essential an audience is for the totality of a performance, these concerts should have provided a powerful counter-argument.


23 October 2015

Questionable Eras


A question posed during a masterclass on the “Wanderer” Fantasy triggered in me an internal burst of anger as unjustified as it was short-lived.
"Do we regard Schubert as a Classical or a Romantic composer?”

Even as the Master was posing his question I was silently screaming an answer; “It doesn’t matter!  Schubert is Schubert!”. 
The question, though, was rhetorical, and the Master himself supplied the answer; “It doesn’t matter", he told us all, " Schubert is Schubert!”  From that point on the Master could do no wrong in my eyes and I lapped up every word this mightily intelligent man subsequently uttered. His question, however, highlighted a serious issue; the dangerous and corrosive emphasis placed by teachers and many performing (and academic) musicians on historical eras.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, towards the end of the 19th century German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music, drew up three basic periods of history during each of which they could identify certain stylistic traits in music.  Never mind that, as German speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music, their vision was bounded by music written by composers from the German-speaking areas of Europe, they laid down pretty convincing arguments that musical style was largely dictated by the time in which a composer lived.  Thus they grouped every composer in whose music they could identify these stylistic commonalities together and then created an artificial historical period to encompass them: any composer working between 1600 and 1750 was labelled “Baroque”, between 1750 and 1820 “Classical”, and from 1820 onwards “Romantic”.  Sadly these German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music had all died before the 19th century had run its course and so never got to witness the demise of Romanticism as a consequence of the First World War.  As a result they neither provided a date for the end of the Romantic era nor a suitable label for what came next.

If those German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music had successors in German-speaking countries, they tended to keep themselves to themselves.  Having been humiliated in a World War, German thinkers probably decided that they were in no position to suggest to the world that Germany was still the pre-eminent musical culture, and it’s surely no coincidence that most German composers after the war seemed intent on distancing themselves from tradition rather than celebrating it.  Others had to take over the task of defining and labelling subsequent musical periods.

Step forward the British examination boards who, having laid down their framework of graded theory exams, had taken the concept of stylistic eras  to their collective bosom.  Not knowing quite what was going to happen to music as the 20th century progressed, they decided to label everything written after 31st December 1899 as “20th century” or “Modern”, and to this day, nobody seems to have thought to create a stylistic label for any music written during the later decades of the 20th century or the opening decades of the 21st.  So we have the ridiculous concept of Debussy and Elgar being lumped, stylistically, together with Messiaen, Stockhausen, Boulez, Glass and Arvo Pärt as “Modern”.

That in itself is daft, but neither dangerous nor corrosive. 

Bounded by the borders of the German-speaking world, the original 19th century philosophers, critics and writers on music, saw no need to include in their stylistic considerations English, French, Spanish or even Italian composers, and their descriptors of stylistic linkages referred almost exclusively to German music.  It was they, for example, who had convinced the world of the existence of a Classical Canon in which the God-like composers were Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – German-speakers to a man.  So in considering the stylistic traits common to those composers of the Baroque era, they looked only at the Germans.  To this day, there is a common belief that the greatest composers in history have all been from the German-speaking world and that composers unfortunate enough to have been born elsewhere are, almost by default, peripheral to the great march of musical history.  And that almost unthinking perception of non-German composers being peripheral to the mainstream of music continues to inform the opinions of many, much to the detriment of music itself.  This is the corrosive, destructive consequence of a view which defines musical style primarily in terms of historical era.

Why is it, do you think, that the descriptors of Baroque style are, in effect, descriptors of the music of J S Bach and others of the North German school?  What of Domenico Scarlatti, who fits neatly into the Baroque era, but is generally held to be lesser than his great contemporary because his music does not inhabit the same stylistic territory?  Virtually none of the descriptors applies to his music – although that hasn’t stopped generations of piano teachers and young pianists trying to fit his free-thinking, stylistically distinctive music into a German Baroque hat.  I read in a student’s diploma programme note that Scarlatti’s Sonatas “have none of the contrapuntal mastery of J S Bach”.  We are indoctrinated with the idea that the Fugue is the “ultimate Baroque musical genre”, and while it may have been for those living in northern Germany, it had no interest for the likes of Albinoni, Byrd, Purcell, Rameau or Alessandro Scarlatti whose collective genius lay stylistically in very different areas.

In seeing style as the almost exclusive consequence of historical period, there is also the grave danger of overlooking technology.  Throughout the 18th century keyboard instruments varied dramatically from country to country; even from city to city.  Bach famously went to Berlin to try out harpsichords which were generally thought to be of an entirely different quality to those in Weimar, Cöthen or Leipzig.  As the piano evolved, instruments made in France were quite different from those in London, Florence or Vienna and prompted different styles of piano writing from local composers.  But none of this is anything to the huge, fundamental differences between organs in different European states.  Even if Handel had wanted to write wonderful organ fugues, he was prevented from doing so by the basic technological character of English organs where the Voluntary was a much more suitable vehicle for the split keyboards and tiny pedalboards characteristic of the English organs of the 18th century.  I have heard otherwise sensible people say that John Stanley was not as good as Bach because he did not write such powerful Preludes and Fugues.  We would surely laugh out of court anyone who suggested that Bach was not as good as Stanley because he could not write a decent Cornet Voluntary. 

If our understanding of music in the 17th and early 18th centuries is distorted by this focus on historical eras, how much more it obscures our view of the later 18th century.  Indeed, so persuasive were those German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music, that to this day, even for quite musically alert people, the “Classical” period ONLY comprised Haydn and Mozart, whose music was so elevated that we now use the term “Classical Music” to define a whole swathe of musical activity.  In an experiment I challenged third year conservatory students to come up with 10 composers of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras.  They struggled to find 10 Baroque men, but did it in the end, produced the names of almost three dozen Romantic composers before I managed to shut them up, but when it came to Classical it was Haydn, Mozart and…Errrrm?  True, one wag did suggest Leopold Mozart and Michael Haydn as alternatives, but I dismissed that as cheating as he didn’t know a single work either had written.  What of Boyce, Arne, Clementi, Balbastre, Cannabich, Dusek, Boccherini, Cimarosa, Vanhal, need I continue? 

Then, with the focus on individual expression which came after the French Revolution, to lump every composer as “Romantic” is just plain daft.  How can we find stylistic linkage between John Field and Franz Liszt, between Hector Berlioz and Johannes Brahms, between Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner?

To return to the original question, if we regard Schubert as being “Romantic” we must interpret him as if he is Wagner or Liszt, whereas if we regard him as “Classical” we approach him as we do Mozart or C P E Bach.  Yet to do so seriously diminishes our appreciation of his true individuality as a composer, and so colours our musical judgement as to obscure it completely.  Yet there are innumerable piano teachers who devote hours to agonizing over just such pointless questions.
And why?

Because, for so many conditioned by the belief that music can ONLY be understood in relation to historical eras, it seems vitally important.  In my examining days I despaired at the countless piano teachers who had told their pupils that when a diploma syllabus asked for a “balanced” programme, that balance was purely and wholly era-based.  Thus the innumerable dreary recitals in which candidates presented no musical or stylistic comprehension in their playing, happy to believe that because they had chosen composers from different historical eras, they were presenting a properly balanced programme.  They did not think to listen to the music; they did not consider varying tonalities, tempi, moods, characters or even nationalities; just look at the dates and that’s enough.  I had no end of recitals stuck firmly in D major and, occasionally, B minor, full of fast and loud music, which varied only when you looked at the composers’ dates and read in the (usually) appalling programme notes that “Bach was a Baroque Composer. Mozart was a Classical Composer.  Chopin was a Romantic composer.  Debussy was a Modern composer”.

A good composer is one whose music stands out from the crowd, who writes in a style which is distinct from that of their contemporaries, and whose music transcends issues of time, place and technology.  Almost by definition, a composer cannot be good if the music simply conforms to the norms of the age.  If we have to judge a composer purely in terms of yardsticks laid down by a bunch of German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music who decided amongst themselves what sort of music belonged to their randomly chosen artificial historical eras, then we may as well abandon all ideas of valued judgements and join the ranks of those piano teachers for whom historical era is the sole consideration in all interpretative issues.   For them, whether Schubert was a Classical or a Romantic composer really is a vital question.


22 October 2015

Unvarying Reticence

Variety is something we look for in any piano recital.  Last night German pianist Andreas Henkel offered a certain geographic variety in his programme at Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  There was music celebrating Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and Scotland.  True, all of the composers were German (Liszt might have been Hungarian by birth and his Rhapsodie espagnole actually written in Rome, but at heart he was firmly rooted in the German musical tradition) while Henkel himself showed his perception of “international” by listing his personal international credentials as comprising concerts in such varied cities as Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin and Munich.  Actually, a great many more cities in countries other than Germany were mentioned, but there was an unmistakably Germanic feel to the whole thing which went way beyond the repertory choice or the simple window-dressing of a biography.

Opening with Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue Henkel took a while to settle into the somewhat impersonal and unresponsive environment of the Conservatory’s Orchestra Hall and for a time, the Bach did not seem to know where it was heading.  Soon, however, it fell on its feet and started running with an assured purposefulness which revealed the greatest characteristic of Henkel’s playing; a lucid and fluent technique which came dramatically into its own in the Beethoven Waldstein Sonata.   The Bach, though, also revealed a certain interpretative unevenness which again surfaced more obviously later in the programme.  In the case of the Bach, there was never a convincing balance between stylistic credibility and interpretative licence.  When he was in strict, texturally precise and stylistically confident mode, Henkel delivered some truly outstanding Bach playing, but it was compromised by occasional bursts of romantic opulence and lavish tone colour.  The pedal – a contentious issue in Bach performances but one which, under the foot of a completely convincing interpreter, never prompts doubts – seemed obtrusive as much because vast tracts of dry, pedalless piano tone were countered by moments when the pedal went down and stayed down. 

Henkel’s transparency of tone created by a wonderfully balanced technique, abutting a seam of rich but almost reticent romanticism, perfectly suited the Beethoven.  Themes were drawn out with the clarity and focus of a high-powered telescope and the inner balance of the texture was so enticingly managed that this was an absolute joy to hear.  On top of that, Henkel’s supreme sense of the overall architecture of the Sonata resulted in a performance of rare cohesion.  It simply unfolded before our ears as if it were a delightful, interesting and wholly absorbing journey by the kind of trains Germany was once famous for; spotlessly clean and running exactly to time.  You knew where you were going and had no doubts that you would get there safely.

It was the three Mendelssohn pieces which showed up more than anywhere else Henkel’s somewhat uneasy grasp of interpretative nuance.  The Capriccio in A minor, as well as the Song Without Words in F sharp minor, were fluently executed and offered a fine glimpse of Henkel’s fluid and immaculately balanced fingerwork, but in the more restful and expressive Venetianisches Gondellied we were not so much gently caressing the waters of the Viennese canals, as thrust out into the Mediterranean and rocking queasily in a vast, swelling sea.  It lurched from bar to bar like a cartoon Rubato, and while Henkel drew the melody out wonderfully clearly from the texture, any singer attempting to sing the line would have ended up dazed and dizzy from the awkward manipulations of rhythm which passed here for romantic expressiveness.

Almost everything about the Liszt, however, was admirable.  Brilliantly delivered from a technical standpoint, it had a lovely sense of organisation and purpose, there was colour and expression and a certain Spanish flair.  Oddly, though, as with everything in the programme, Henkel held back from the ultimate demonstrative gesture.  Just as the Liszt neared the end, Henkel seemed to withdraw into his shell and the dynamic faded to end almost apologetically.  Just once, at the end of this recital, one wished he could have let his hair down enough to give us a true and powerful gesture of expression; it all seemed just a little too tightly reined in.

And what of Scotland?

An encore was offered (when, in a piano recital in Asia, is one ever not?) and, as Henkel explained, he was continuing the (German) tradition of presenting a “transcription”.  The “transcription” itself was of a Scottish melody, the Bunessan Tune which, in Scotland, certainly, is usually sung to the words “Child in a Manger” but Henkel, and many in the audience,  associate more with “Morning has Broken”.  Whatever.  It was not a transcription but a set of variations on a tune which, in all fairness, offers no real scope for variation; it is so firmly rooted in its tonality and its melodic shape that it is best left well alone.  Henkel superimposed a few pianistic gestures, ripples of arpeggios, fluid runs up and down the keyboard, but it never went anywhere or did anything.  It was a lot of effort over nothing.  But this encore did reveal what, possibly, was at the root of Henkel’s approach to performing.  A very obvious Christian faith seems to have persuaded him that personal display and self-aggrandisement is secondary to musical and personal sincerity.  All very good and commendable, but pianists need to be a little more extrovert, a little more egotistic, a little more open with their emotional involvement in the music if they are to be wholly convincing, and much as every moment of this recital was enjoyable, it had an overall sense of restraint and reticence which just blunted the sort of wide variety of moods many of us look for in a piano recital.

18 October 2015

Wiener Wit & Wisdom

Early in 2012 I took up a short-term contract in Abu Dhabi.  My work in Singapore seemed to be stagnating, and I felt in need of a change, so the opportunity to spend time doing something I loved in a city I had never previously visited was an opportunity not to be missed.  We duly gave up our lovely Singapore home, called in the movers and asked them put all our belongings in storage until such time as we decided where we were going to settle next.  The Abu Dhabi work was wonderful but, all too soon, the contract came to an end and my wife decided we should spend the next few years in the UK for the sake of our daughter, then aged four, who needed to get to know her British roots and relatives; my mother and one of my sisters had died while my daughter was still a baby, and we didn’t want the rest of the relatives to peg out before she had got a chance to know them.  So we stayed with my father in the UK while I looked around for something to do and, very soon, an opportunity came up at the University of St Andrews to cover maternity leave.  So, before the year was out, we found ourselves living in one of Scotland’s most beautiful regions.  With a definite new address established, I contacted our Singapore movers and asked them to arrange to ship our belongings to the UK.  And that was when things began to unravel.

The movers contacted a shipping agent who arranged for two containers to be set aside into which our belongings would be loaded prior to shipment to the UK.  At that point I received an urgent call from the shippers saying the movers had packed the containers so badly that they would not survive a journey by sea and I would need to arrange for the containers to be emptied and re-packed.  I instructed the shippers to go ahead and do this, but somewhere along the line this instruction got missed, and the containers were loaded on to the ship still as they were.  A few months down the line I had a message from a cargo handling agent in the ominously named town of Gravesend at the mouth of the Thames telling me that the two containers had arrived in the port and been off-loaded from the ship, but it was “obvious that the contents have been damaged in transit". 

Things began to go completely mad at this point.  I was not allowed to go to the secure area of the docks to inspect the damage for myself, and nobody there was in a position to open the containers and report on their condition, although they were able to tell me that the contents of one had been “destroyed completely” and the other “damaged beyond repair” (I can only assume some kind of X-ray discovered this, although I’m not sure how the two descriptions differ).  If I wanted to take possession of my belongings, I would need to pay for both containers to be removed from the docks, at which point they would be checked by customs and I would then need to arrange for a truck to transport the two containers by road the 1000kms to Scotland.  Requests and pleas for some more tangible proof of the extent of the damage yielded nothing, and I was faced with the stark choice of paying thousands of pounds to find a shed in Scotland where I could have two containers dumped while I sifted through useless shattered fragments for which I would have likely paid a very hefty customs duty, or to instruct the cargo agents to destroy them before passing through the customs shed and into the UK.  

It turned into months of sheer hell, deciding whether to deliberately destroy everything we possessed, or risk opening the containers and finding everything in pieces and then having to add insult to injury by arranging for its disposal.  In the end, after my extended prevaricating, the decision was forced on me by a short phone call.  “We will dispose of these containers tomorrow unless you take possession of them today”. I had no choice but to order the destruction of everything that I had ever possessed; clothes, furniture, photographs, certificates, a safe full of insurance and share certificates, pension and trust fund documents and personal papers charting a lifetime's labours, childhood mementoes, family mementoes, my daughter’s, my wife's and my own birth certificates, our marriage certificate, health records, my own academic records and certificates, my precious piano, my computers, my audio equipment, my vast recorded music collection, my priceless collection of organ music and scores, and a huge library amassed over the course of some 50 years.  To say it was heartbreaking is an understatement, and not a day goes by when I don’t agonise over what I have lost.  The financial loss has been catastrophic, and I doubt I shall ever recover (I have long since resigned myself to sleeping on the streets of London and selling The Big Issue), but more serious has been the psychological effect on me.  I admit that I have thought about suicide more than once when the memory of what has gone – a lifetime of memories and achievements – hits home.  That I still have my lovely wife and gorgeous daughter is certainly enormous compensation; but it doesn’t drive away those dark thoughts about what I have lost which have me waking up most nights in a cold sweat.

This morning, for example, round about 3am I suddenly woke with an urge to look up a reference in one of my lost books.  It was a fascinating biography of Schumann, bought in a second hand bookshop in a seedy suburb of Brisbane many years ago, and so tattered and torn that I never did know who the author was or, indeed, when it had been published or by whom.  Yet it set out in vivid detail the full horror of Schumann’s mental decline and described how his personal problems affected his music.  The psychological damage my loss has caused me prevents me from trying to replace any of my lost goods (what’s the point when I might well lose it all again?), but how I wish I could find this book once more, for it was one of the most compelling portraits of the composer I know and I urgently would like to remind myself what it had to say about the Cello Concerto.  That I should wake up in the God-forsaken moments of a dark Sunday morning thinking of Schumann and his Cello Concerto is not entirely surprising since, over the course of Saturday, I heard the work not once, not twice, but several times.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is in town and, luckily for Conservatory students, several members of the orchestra came over yesterday morning to give masterclasses.  The place was buzzing with bassoonists, clarinettists, flautists, cellists and violists, while others, like me, flitted from room to room picking up the wonderful wit and wisdom of the Wiener wisemen.  It was a tremendously exciting experience, witnessing such intense and valuable teaching to students who lapped up every word, even when the teacher was less than sympathetic to shortcomings.  Every one of these Viennese musicians was in class of their own, but my personal favourite was orchestra’s Principal Cello, Tamás Varga, who pulled no punches in his masterly comments to those students who submitted themselves to his masterful scrutiny.  As with his colleagues, he showed an immense knowledge of the repertory, and I would hope all the students went away with a feeling that they all had a great deal more to learn beyond the considerable emphasis on technique all the masters highlighted.  But they also showed a real understanding of the music – not just a knowledge of it – and nobody moreso than Varga.  Working through a movement of the Schumann Cello Concerto with the excellent student cellist, Yu Ssu-Yang, Varga seemed almost to slip into the shoes of Schumann, not so much saying as recreating that tense and unhappy man in the advanced stages of mental delusion, and conveying more vividly than a hundred words, what the Concerto was saying.  “It seems so happy, but it’s not.  It’s uncomfortable.  It’s uneasy.  There's something wrong”, and so saying, he squirmed in his chair and looked pained in a manner which let you know exactly what was in the heart of this music. 

Wisely, another excellent student cellist, Oliver Randall Scott, had not submitted himself to Varga’s teachings because, that very afternoon, he was performing the Schumann Concerto in the semi-finals of the Conservatory Concerto Competition.  Any words of guidance from a Viennese master would only unsettle any player if, hours before such an important performance, interpretative ideas and technical revisions were questioned and pulled apart.  Scott’s was an admirable performance, beautifully poised and impressively secure.  Technically it flowed effortlessly and it certainly presented the music in an authoritative way.  But even as he was playing, images of Varga squirming in his chair, trying to brush aside images of mental instability but not succeeding, flooded into my mind and I realised what was missing.  Scott, for all his admirable qualities, hadn’t really immersed himself in the psychological depths of the music; it was a lovely performance, a fluent and expressive performance, but not a particularly perceptive one.  And perhaps neither should it have been.  To get into the mind of a man in terminal decline as a consequence of contracting syphilis (an incurable disease at the time), who had seen all his youthful dreams shattered, his ambitions thwarted and his personal life unravelling before his eyes, is more than we should expect of any fresh-faced young conservatory student. 


Yet, as the Viennese masters so vividly revealed, if anyone is to attempt to perform some of the great works in the repertory, there is not just the requirements to have an absolute mastery of the musical text and a finely-honed, constantly evolving technique, but a real understand of the psychology of the composer at the time he wrote it.  Examination students who glibly tell their diploma examiners in their pitiful programme notes that “Schumann was a Romantic composer”, clearly have no idea what Schumann really was, deep down.  And they need it, if they are going to perform his music with any degree of conviction.  I don’t recommend contracting syphilis, nor even losing everything you have ever possessed, but to understand the pain of psychological suffering is something every cellist (pianist, singer, etc.) must do if they are ever going really to play late Schumann.

14 October 2015

Barcelona for Burma, Madrid for Myanmar, Argentina for Thrills



The most extraordinary thing here – among a plethora of quite extraordinary things – is an astonishing arrangement (by Ruggiero Ricci) of Tárrega’s famous guitar solo, Recuerdos de la Alhambra.  It takes on an almost frantic quality, at times seeming to out-stretch the physical limitations of the violin.  It certainly gets a sizzlingly virtuoso performance here from Sebastian See-Schierenberg, who comes out best on this CD in those pieces where rapid figuration and virtuoso display rule the roost.  His account of Xavier Turull’s thrilling transcription of the Albeniz Asturias is nothing if not powerfully assertive and compellingly driven.

There is no doubt that See-Schierenberg possesses the kind of florid technique which yields dazzling pyrotechnic displays, and in terms of excitement and vivid rhythmic vitality this disc is in a class of its own; who would have thought an apparently simple selection of Spanish favourites played by violin and piano would have ignited so much fire?

But then this disc is not at all what it seems.  With the second movement of Falla’s Suite Popular Espanola the surprises pile on thick and fast.  The first movement seems straightforward enough, but suddenly with the second (“Nana”) a breathy, folksy voice whispers into the microphone songs of childhood memory, and then, where we might be expecting a piano, a guitar comes along.  In the kind of re-imagining and free approach to performance which characterises this entire CD, See-Schierenberg, Sophia Lisoskaya and Ramon Ruiz have decided to mingle piano and guitar accompaniments and add a few ideas of their own.  I am not sure it always works in the Falla, where the individual pieces stand well in isolation but fail to coalesce into a Suite; possibly breaking them up around the disc might have been a better idea.

That said, this re-imagining approach pays particular dividends with the four tangos which have generally come to be known as Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons on Buenos Aires” (Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas) - and the only real justification in the disc's title for the "Americas" element. .  The extensive booklet notes tell us that what we hear on the CD is a “work in progress”.  If so, See-Schierenberg and his wonderfully supportive pianist, Sophia Lisovskaya, are very much heading along the right lines, evoking the essence of the tango while conveying a glorious feeling of improvisatory fun – particularly some intriguing violin effects in the closing moments of Otoño Porteño - as they explore afresh what are rapidly becoming classic pieces of our time.  Giving over the final season (Invierno Porteño) wholly to the piano is probably misguided, especially given this rather sentimental view of it; it seems so terribly anti-climactic after all the colour and excitement which has gone before, and the ending is undeniably limp.

Spanish flavour is reinforced with Campiana Andaluza by the famous guitarist Sabicas (Agustin Castellón Campos), and the only piece on the disc appearing in the guise in which it was originally conceived.   Here it is played by guitarist Ramon Ruiz (who is also the endearing vocalist in the Falla).  But while a beautifully expressive account of Montsalvatge’s Canción de Cuna Para Dormir a un Negrito brings a moment of respite to the general air of manic activity on the disc, See-Schierenberg, for all the expressiveness of his playing, lacks the warmth and generosity of tone this music calls for.


Sales of this relatively short disc (it’s a shade over 50 minutes in playing time) go to a charity which is close to See-Schierenberg’s heart (supporting the violin study programme at a school for blind children in Rangoon).  That alone should encourage sales; but even those hard-hearted enough not to be swayed by social consciousness or basic human sympathy should buy this disc.  It’s an awful lot of fun, and full of genuinely welcome surprises.


Tilting Thibaudet

When it comes to concert pianists, they seem to fall loosely into three categories.  There is the demonstrative virtuoso whose playing exhibits as much visual as musical effort, who likes the audience to know just how much physical and mental effort is involved and for whom sweat, agony and ecstasy are just daily tools of the trade.  This type of pianist is a dying breed, largely supplanted by the second category; the player who is so totally "at one" with the piano that both instrument and player seem inseparable.  This player is so clearly involved in the music that even the profoundly deaf would probably identify the specific work being played.  And then there is the detached, almost dispassionate player, who seems to keep the piano at arm's length and shows no outward signs of effort either physical or musical.  Perhaps the most obvious example of this last category is the French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

I am minded to make these observations after last night's Thibaudet recital at Singapore's Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall where my view of the stage was obscured by a particularly broad-shouldered man sat in front of me.  When I tilted myself over to the left, I could see Thibaudet sat stock still and rigid; when I tilted the other way I could see the piano and Thibaudet's hands and fingers elegantly caressing the keyboard.  I had to assume they were Thibaudet's hands and fingers since at no point was I able to see both piano and Thibaudet in the same view; there was a fundamental disconnect between my right vision which revealed gracefully flowing fingers, wafting over the keys with, it would appear, barely enough effort to depress the notes, and the stiff, somewhat rigid figure in my left vision.  Now well into his mid-50s (isn't it time he updated his publicity photos?) and looking as if the slightest movement might burst the seams of his extremely tight-fitting concert attire (we read it is "by celebrated London designer Vivienne Westwood", a fact that follows Thibaudet around like a strong perfume and which, while it has absolutely no relevance to musicians, is presumably an essential part of his concert biography for financial reasons) Thibaudet at the piano is the epitome of discretion.

Such understated, undemonstrative playing is ideal for Ravel, and with the second half of his recital devoted to his compatriot's music, Thibaudet revealed why, of all living pianists, he delves more deeply into the true soul of this music.  Hearing (and seeing) this discreet, elegant and poised pianist evokes with astonishing power, the true essence of Ravel.  Somehow, the amazement, astonishment and perplexity with which much of this music was greeted at its first airing a century ago, is potently recreated by performances which understate the romanticism (forget silly notions of periodicity, Ravel was as Romantic as Czerny, Chopin and Chaikovsky) and emphasises its subtly and delicacy.  Miroirs was totally enchanting - so much so, in fact, that I had no idea whether Thibaudet actually played all five sections or just four - but what had me most deeply affected was Thibaudet's wonderfully translucent and fluid account of Pavane pour une infante defunte.  Ravel objected to over-sentimentality in performances of his most popular piano composition, and at one point suggested that it was really a Pavane for a "barren princess".  He may have been speaking in extremes, but I suspect not.  It was written for a woman who denied herself the gift of child-bearing; something which clearly Ravel, with his almost idealised love of children, could not comprehend.  Thibaudet's beautifully  understated account seemed to evoke with uncanny acuity a picture of a woman of graceful bearing viewed with pity tinged with regret.  No abject sorrow or sadness, no self-indulgent moping around; this was a performance I suspect got completely into the spirit of what Ravel intended.  It was, to put it in a word, lovely.

Thibaudet's distant approach was also ideal for the Schumann Kinderszenem with which he opened the programme.  With a copy of the music propped up in front of him and sitting stock still, as if to underline the deliberate non-virtuoso character of the music, he drew from the piano a kaleidoscopic array of subtle tone colours and textural nuances which elevated it far above the child-like simplicity of the basic musical character.  Children in the audience, of which there were many (and all as immaculately behaved as were the entire audience, who sat enraptured throughout the entire concert) might have gone home inspired or depressed at hearing music they probably play in their lessons, delivered with such finesse.

The main work in the first half was Schumann's First Sonata, a work I have always felt showed Schumann trying too hard to achieve something and ending up achieving nothing.  Thibaudet did not convince me otherwise, and while there were lovely moments, the rambling and incoherent final movement seemed as rambling and incoherent as ever, despite the graceful way those disembodied hands and fingers floated so effortlessly over the keys.