Austrian pianist Till Fellner played a selection of well-known and well-loved piano music by Haydn, Schumann and Liszt in an engaging lunchtime recital at London’s Wigmore Hall. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here
The first lunchtime concert of the Wigmore Hall’s autumn season featured young French pianist Lise de la Salle, who brought passion, poetry and panache to a neatly contrived programme focussing on “narratives” within music, with works composed by musical friends, Chopin and Liszt. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here.
In my new role as a reviewer for Bachtrack.com, several things have occurred to me recently:
- I have turned into a frightful self-publicist, sharing my reviews with anyone and everyone, and gaining an absurd, childish rush of delight from every retweet or recommendation I receive
- I’ve become geekily obsessed with stats and hit rates, scanning my blog each day to see how much traffic it has received, and regularly checking Google to see where I am in the search order (some smug satisfaction was gained earlier today when I saw that my latest review had achieved the giddy heights of top spot)
- I’ve discovered a whole other world of music bloggers in the blogosphere, who review concerts and who offer speedy and insightful reactions to what they’ve just heard.
I have blogged before about the ‘joy of blogging’: it’s free to set up and you don’t need to be a techie to organise your own blog. For me, the most important aspect of blogging is being able to express myself freely, hit the “publish” button, and wait for people to stumble across my blog, or even subscribe to it. I have always written, from short stories and poetry at school, to a full-scale novel, tentatively entitled ‘Facing the Music’, and incorporating two of my pet subjects: music and the First War (the premise of the book is whether music has value in the lives of people during extremely straitened circumstances; I argue, via my protagonist, that it does…..very much so).
Like playing the piano to any degree of seriousness, writing is hard work, and can be all-consuming. When it is going well, one can lose oneself in it, for hours on end. When I was deeply immersed in my novel, I often forgot to eat, and would stay up late, or get up in the middle of the night, just to write. And just like playing the piano, one needs to practice one’s writing.
This is why blogging is such a good discipline; it forces one to be concise, to avoid unnecessary woffle, while allowing one to hone one’s writerly craft on a regular basis. And for me, there’s absolutely no point in having a blog if one does not regularly update it with new and (I hope) interesting material. It has also opened doors to other writing-related activities: the job at Bachtrack came about directly as the result of someone reading my blog.
Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve connected with many other piano and music bloggers around the world – and a couple of whom I’ve actually met (at Maurizio Pollini’s final concert at the Festival Hall last month). Some are specialists, but many of these bloggers are not professional music journalists (i.e. writing is not their primary job/source of income), yet they take their writing very seriously, and are read by many like-minded people who feel these writers have something interesting, important or insightful to say.
And why does one need to be an “expert” to write intelligently about music? I doubt the vast majority of people who read reviews want to know that the piece opened in A minor but resolved itself in C. They don’t want to be confused by esoteric music-speak or complicated analysis, which can often appear unnecessarily dry and academic; they want to know what the concert was about, what it felt like to hear that piece, see that performer, experience the atmosphere in the concert hall that night…..
Bachtrack’s USP is to encourage people who would not normally go to classical music, opera or ballet to book tickets for such events; thus, reviewers are encouraged to write imaginatively and in an accessible way. Many of Bachtrack’s reviewers are not professional journalists. Most of us are keen ‘amateurs’, people who love going to concerts, the opera and the ballet, who are open-minded and receptive to what we are hearing/seeing, and who are able to convey our enthusiasm in a snappy 500-word review. Bachtrack insists that reviews are submitted within 48 hours of the event: this means we’re usually ahead of other reviewers (though not necessarily other bloggers/Twitterers), and newly-published reviews are tweeted and shared across the internet very quickly.
These days, people even tweet an instant response during the interval: I’ve done it myself, and I love the idea of people tweeting from the Bechstein Room at the Wigmore (actually impossible in reality as there is no signal down there, but you get the picture!) or from the Level 4 bar at the Festival Hall. In effect, surely it’s the same as leaning across to your companion at half time and asking “So, what did you think?”
Some music blogs I follow regularly:
Boulezian – intelligent and detailed concert and opera reviews written by academic Mark Berry. I first discovered this blog last March, after Mark wrote about the Jerusalem Quartet recital at the Wigmore which was interrupted by protesters. He, like me, was in the audience that day.
Orpheus Complex – concert and opera reviews, and general music-related articles, written by Gavin Dixon, who has a special interest in 20th century music.
Jessica Duchen’s Classical Music Blog – concert and book reviews, music-related articles and musings written by journalist and author Jessica Duchen.
I’ll Think of Something Later – articles and musings on music, including reviews, by broadcaster David Nice
Entartete Music – articles on music and culture by Gavin Plumley.
Slipped Disc – Norman Lebrecht’s blog, featuring all manner of music-related articles, from reviews to breaking news.
PS for those who are interested in such things, I make notes in an old-fashioned reporter’s notebook when I’m reviewing, but tend to compose on my laptop. I use classic black Moleskine notebooks for notes about playing the piano, my practising diary, and for other writerly notes (I have 6 full of notes for my novel). And I always use a 2B propelling pencil….
The mercurial and fiercely independent Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja, friend and protégé of the late great Sviatoslav Richter, stamped her mark emphatically upon some of Schubert’s most well-loved works in a BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert at London’s Wigmore Hall. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here
To the Wigmore Hall last night for an evening of late Schubert piano music, performed by Paul Lewis. A few years ago, Lewis stamped his mark emphatically upon the international piano world with his concert cycle and recordings of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas, thus elevating him to the rank of one of the top flight pianists of his generation. Now, in another epic world tour, he is exploring the late music of Schubert.
Lewis was taught and mentored by Alfred Brendel – and it shows. Brendel famously does not teach – except for the chosen few (Imogen Cooper, Till Fellner). He performed (he retired in 2008), choosing to concentrate on the Viennese school, he writes and he gives lectures on music. His on-stage persona is austere, didactic, intellectual, highly disciplined.
Watching Paul Lewis play music composed in the last six years of Schubert’s short life, I felt the shadow of Brendel at his shoulder throughout the evening. The opening Waltzes, D145, written in response to the seemingly unending desire for dance music in Vienna, were largely serious, grand and solemn. Only occasionally was the music allowed to “let go”, offering brief glimpses of the private life of a composer who enjoyed evenings of music, song, women (and men, it is said) and wine with his friends, students and writers, radicals and intellectuals. As opening pieces, I would have liked more lightness, more spirit, more playfulness. And maybe a touch less darkness.
In the D899 Impromptus there was a greater sense of the music being thought out in advance, each signpost along the journey of these pieces clearly highlighted, lest we miss it. In the opening C minor Impromptu, there was less coldness in those early measures, less of a sense of the tyranny of the bare G which marks the opening, reminding us that this is a work which falls post-Winterreise. There was warmth in the major key measures and lyricism, but towards the end, from bar 160, the repeated Gs in the treble and bass were too mechanical, too obvious, robbing the music of its portentous chill.
The E flat Impromptu was rapid and polished, and, as a consequence, lost some of its agitation and hysteria. At times, during the Trio, the touch was too heavy and occasionally muddy. Though many measures in this section are marked fortissimo, at times there was not a proper sense or attack, or if there was, it was quickly reined in, cheating the music of its startling contrasts and harmonic and emotional shifts. This was even more evident in the final Impromptu of the set, the A flat. The opening semiquavers never really took flight, and some smeared or inaccurate notes suggested a tiredness on the part of the performer, possibly the result of having played this programme several times already.
The Hungarian Melody D817 was a pleasing opener for the second half, settling us in before the expansive G major sonata. It was enjoyable if overly dark, its folksy elements muted in favour of a grander delivery. (For a really wonderful performance of this piece, I would flag up Imogen Cooper’s from her ‘Schubert Live Vol 3′ album.)
The G Major sonata, D894, was the favourite of Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, and, in his hands, the spacious opening movement, marked Molto Moderato e Cantabile, comes in at 26 minutes, roughly the same length as an entire Beethoven piano sonata. It is graceful and meditative, Richter achieving an amazing stillness in the first motif. Paul Lewis opted for a brisker tempo, which suited the second subject elements better, but rather robbed the first subject of its grace and philosophy. In the middle movements, my attention began to wander: I craved more life, more bounce and vivacity. Throughout, the very cerebral reading of the score was evident (witness the powerful influence of Brendel!). The final movement was more questioning, charming and humourous, but overall I felt the sonata was played with too much gloss and a curious ‘intellectual complacency’ that diluted the music’s spontaneity and tempered the ever-shifting soundscape and emotional landscape of Schubert’s writing.
Paul Lewis repeats the programme at the Wigmore on Thursday night, and then in Oxford and Schwarzenberg, Austria, before returning to London next week for performances of Die Schëne Mullerin with tenor Mark Padmore.
As a postcript to this review, I must also mention Paul Lewis’s annoying habit of snuffling and “chuffing” as he plays. I have been aware of this “tic” before, and it seems to be getting worse. It was particularly noticeable during the quieter or more profound measures, and was obvious from the earliest bars of the first Waltz.
Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt wittily and imaginatively coupled two of Bach’s French Suites with a handful of miniatures by Chopin, all composed in Paris, in an enjoyable lunchtime concert at London’s Wigmore Hall. Read my full review here
English tenor Ian Bostridge CBE, with his wonderful pianist Julius Drake, proved his extraordinary range and versatility as a singer with a programme featuring music by Tippett, Britten, Haydn and Weill. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here
I’m off to my spiritual home this evening, London’s exquisite Wigmore Hall, to hear the exquisite English tenor Ian Bostridge singing songs by Britten, Tippett, Haydn and Weill, in a special concert which marks the last day of Sir John Tusa’s chairmanship of the Wigmore Hall Trust. I bought a new jumper especially for the concert: it is partly because I love having an opportunity to dress up, and I do think one should make an effort for the soloists, who have, after all, made a huge effort to come out and perform for us. Also, I am going in my new role as a reviewer for Bachtrack.com, and, daft as it may seem, being well-dressed will make me feel confident.
Meanwhile, as I prepare myself to go out, I’ve been thinking about ‘concert etiquette’. It regularly astonishes me how badly people can behave in a concert hall: talking during the performance, humming (often tunelessly), rustling programmes, trying to open blister packs of cough sweets, coughing, yawning. Added to that, there is quite often the dimwit who forgot to switch off their phone, despite the big sign on the stage and hefty reminders by the house staff. I have, twice, been ticked off for having a “very loud watch” (a Swatch, in fact), which “interrupted” the pianissimo slow movement of a Beethoven sonata. At a Chopin recital I went to five years ago, my companion sipped Pimms from a Thermos flask during a performance of the Opus 49 Fantasie. (She also asked me, in the interval, after we’d just heard the B-flat minor Sonata, “So, who wrote the original Funeral March?”, but that is another story….)
From conversations with performers, I’ve learnt that the sense of an audience which is attentive or actively engaged in what one is doing can be extremely helpful, inspirational even, in creating the right atmosphere and circumstances for a great performance. Likewise, as a member of the audience, the sense that the performer is drawing us all along in one marvellous shared musical experience is also very exciting. Mitsuko Uchida is extremely good at this, even in a venue the size of the Royal Festival Hall, while Stephen Hough’s chilly manner made the normally convivial Wigmore seem cold and unfriendly.
Another gripe of mine is about that sector of the concert-going public who seem to gain a perverse thrill from spotting mistakes or flagging up memory lapses or other errors during a performance, as if they are actively waiting for the performer to fail. Rather like hoping for a crash at the beginning of a grand prix race. Some people can’t wait to get home and check their score, or a “perfect” recording while enjoying a sense of smugness in having heard a smudged note or a smeared run in the 15th bar of the First Ballade. When I heard Simone Dinnerstein perform at WH a few year’s ago (admittedly, a rather dull and uninspiring performance generally), she had a serious memory lapse in Schubert’s 4th Impromptu of the D899 set. I know this piece extremely well and I knew exactly where the error occurred. Fortunately, she managed to maintain the right harmonic framework, but it was still a very obvious mistake. I really felt for her, and I wonder how many hours of practice she put in after the event to exorcise that particular error.
At the Wigmore, the large majority of the audience are elderly, some very elderly (read the paragraph Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach for the most perfect description of the Wigmore’s superannuated audience), and the seats are rather comfy and plushy, and it’s often too warm in the hall. Result: Beethoven’s Opus 5 to the accompaniment of snoring. For a performer, it must be rather galling to have spent all those hours preparing only to find a third of the audience asleep, ten minutes into the performance. Ditto people yawning, or talking. In reality, I suspect many performers are expert at “filtering out” such behaviour, and in bigger venues, the lighting is such that only the first few rows of the audience are actually visible.
Of course, these are all relatively minor complaints, and it is rare for such things to spoil my enjoyment of a live concert. For those who require absolute silence, 100 per cent concentration, and perfect delivery from the performer, may I suggest you stay home with the most precision-engineered recording you can find. It might be a perfect performance, but it will lack the danger, risk and excitement of live music.
Monday 24th January, Wigmore Hall
Schubert – German Dances, Ländler, Valses Sentimentales; Brahms – 4 Klavierstücke, Op 119; Beethoven – Piano Sonata Opus 110; Chopin – Four Ballades
Encores: Chopin – Nocturne Op 9, No. 2; Dudley Moore Parody on a Beethoven Sonata
There is a mysterious fulfilling pleasure in watching any manual task being performed with infinite skill and grace, the agility and accuracy required, the finesse of touch and judgement. Thus, we admired Piers Lane’s superior technical prowess in the four Ballades of Chopin, and the applause that came spontaneously after he had completed the first one was, in part, an appreciation of the monumental technical effort involved in playing some of the most challenging music of the piano repertoire. After the fourth was safely delivered, the applause was even more rapturous, and perhaps tinged with relief, that the performance had been completed safely, accurately, and without mishap. Indeed, the playing was utterly pristine, and if it was lacking in depth or emotion at times, at least the performer’s technical assuredness could be admired.
This was my first concert of the new year, a varied programme which contained two great edifices of the standard repertoire: Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata, and Chopin’s Four Ballades.
The concert opened with a selection of Schubert’s D783 German Dances, Ländler (D790, No. 3), and Valses Sentimentales (D779). It is easy to forget, when hearing works like this in a formal concert setting, that these are salon pieces, written for the regular Schubertiades, which often took place in Schubert’s home, or the homes of his friends, and where assembled guests would take to the floor and dance. There is a light-heartedness in these pieces – indeed, some are positively rollicking – yet many of them are shot through with Schubert’s distinctive harmonic shifts, and the melancholy is never far away. They were a pleasing, inoffensive opener, and one had the sense of Piers Lane clearing the way for the big warhorses to come.
I was not, until this evening, familiar with the Brahms 4 Klavierstücke, Op 119, though I had listened to extracts of them on iTunes earlier in the day. The first, a meditation on descending thirds, was utterly sublime, “teeming with dissonances”, as Brahms warned Clara Schumann, and freighted with sadness, as each note of every bar was sounded so carefully. The second was breathless and agitated, with a contrastingly tender middle section, whose melody returned at the end, allowing the music to fade away nostalgically. The third was playful and graceful, while the fourth, a rhapsody marked Allegro risoluto, was confident and full-blooded, full of pent-up energy, and generous in its thematic content.
And so to the Beethoven Sonata….. Here, I must admit to a love affair with this piece which borders on an obsession. It is my Desert Island Disc (a choice I share with tenor Ian Bostridge, clearly a man of taste), but I would not take any old recording with me to my Desert Island. No, it has to be the right one. For me, Arrau is hard to match (as he is with all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas); equally, Glenn Gould, for all his eccentricities (and on the recording I have, one can ‘enjoy’ his humming and muttering accompaniments in the Arioso), brings a Quasi una Fantasia feel to the piece, segueing effortlessly from one movement to another, in a continuous stream of Beethovenian consciousness, while, in his hands, the final fugue is a peon of praise, as glorious as a peel of celebratory bells, life-affirming and uplifting. Another favourite performance, or rather performances, given by a friend in unusual and intimate venues, is remarkable for its meditative qualities, and its ability to remind us that this is music that goes to the very heart of what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being. This is music which speaks of the meaning of life, shared values, what it means to be alive, and which debates the basic philosophical questions of Beethoven’s time which still have relevance to us today. Written towards the end of the composer’s life, at the same time as the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven’s last three sonatas (the Opus 110 is the last but one) prove that a whole universe can be contained in a single piece of music. This is not just music; this is philosophy.
Of course, Piers Lane had no idea that I was placing such a huge responsibility upon him as he played the opening measures of the Opus 110, and, while I enjoyed his playing, it was no Desert Island choice. In the Arioso, particularly the section where the music literally dies back, and comes back to life little by little (and this is Beethoven’s actual instruction in the score – poi a poi di nuovo vivente), I did not feel that Piers Lane truly “breathed life” into the music, and the final fugue, which should sound triumphant, exultant with a sense of the music groping its way to daylight from some darker, outer firmament, started to unravel slightly, with uneven tempos. His playing was pristine (as it was throughout the entire performance), but it did not move me.
Chopin’s Four Ballades are considered to be some of the most challenging works in the piano repertoire, a fact from which I draw a certain amount of smug satisfaction, for I am learning the First Ballade, at the suggestion of my teacher. It is rare to hear them performed back to back, since they are technically and physically demanding. They are each sufficiently different to be performed as stand-alone works, but it was wonderful to hear all four in a one siting.
Chopin ‘invented’ the Ballade, deriving it from its poetic and vocal cousins, and was the first composer to apply the term to a purely instrumental piece. It was later taken up by composers such as Liszt and Brahms. The Ballades are innovative in form in that they cannot be placed in any other form, for example, Sonata form. Despite sharing the same title, each is highly distinct, with its own character, though all share certain attributes, such as the clever use of “lost” or “ambiguous” keys, exquisite delayed gratification through unresolved harmonies, contrasting, climactic passages, and moments of pure romanticism. The structure of the pieces does not suggest a firm narrative; rather, the listener is able to form his or her own narrative as the music unfolds. (The Third, for example, has a “ticking clock” motif which brings to mind a lovely image of Chopin working at Nohant, while an elegant carriage clock chimes on the mantelpiece, perhaps reminding him, poignantly, of the passing of time.)
Once again, I felt Piers Lane’s rendition of these monumental works lacked real depth, and it was only at the Fourth where he really seemed to settle into the music and finally get into his stride. The piano was too loud at times, so loud that it hurt, and occasionally the tone was marred by some very dodgy harmonics, a problem I noticed when I heard Leonskaja at the Wigmore last autumn (suggesting it’s the piano rather than the performer at fault). I do think it is important to remember the kind of sound Chopin was said to produce when he performed, or which he encouraged his students to strive for, and to bear in mind that the kind of piano he preferred (a French Pleyel) had a smaller voice than a modern concert Steinway. A little tempering of the fortes and fortissimos here and there would have brought more of Chopin’s famous “souplesse” to the music. (Interestingly, Piers Lane has talked very elegantly on the subject of Chopin’s music, as part of Radio 3’s bicentenary celebrations last year.) Nevertheless, it was an impressive performance, and the applause and curtain calls were absolutely deserved.
The Nocturne, played as a first encore, was relaxed and elegant, the fiorituras tripping off his fingers, as if he had just improvised them there and then. Perhaps this is because it is easier to play an encore like this when the main job of the night is done? But the evening was not yet over. Returning to the stage once again, Piers Lane announced that he would play “a very naughty piece” – Dudley Moore’s hilariously clever parody of a Beethoven sonata.
Dudley Moore playing his Beethoven Parody