Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili played an absorbing programme of works by Liszt, Chopin and Prokofiev to a sold-out Wigmore Hall on the evening of 6th December 2011.
Read my review for Bachtrack here
My reviewing job for Bachtrack.com has enabled me to attend many more concerts than I used to, and I am at the Southbank at least as frequently as I am at the Wigmore Hall these days.
Each venue has its own audience, with its own quirks and foibles. The Wigmore audience is famously high-brow – or at least would like to be regarded as high-brow – elderly and “north London” (the hall is often nicknamed ‘The North London Concert Hall’). Members of the audience are expected to sit in reverential silence, to know when to clap, and to generally behave impeccably. I have twice been asked to remove my watch at the Wigmore because “the tick is too loud”. Sometimes, if a member of the audience coughs too much, or fidgets, or – Heaven forfend! – rustles a programme, they will be met with fierce looks and angry, hissed “shusshings”. It is therefore always interesting to see who has turned out for a more unusual or adventurous concert programme, or a young performer debuting at the Wigmore (“doing a Wigmore” as it is known in the trade). At Di Xiao’s recent debut, the audience were younger, many were fellow Chinese, and my friend and I also spotted quite a few musical “slebs” including cellist Julian Lloyd-Weber. The presence of such “slebs” may suggest that these people know something we don’t, or that the soloist is “one to watch”. Last summer, at a charming and touching Chopin concert with readings, organised by pianist Lucy Parham, one couldn’t move for theatrical lovies: both the Fox’s, Martin Jarvis, Timothy West and Prunella Scales, to drop but a few names. Stephen Hough tends to attract young, mostly gay, acolytes, and if Till Fellner is performing, you can almost guarantee to see his teacher, Alfred Brendel in the front bar. As a member of the ‘press pack’ now, I often arrive at a concert to find the venue has put all the journos together (excellent seats at RFH and QEH, right at the back at the Wigmore), and we all scribble away trying not to read what our neighbour has written, just like being back at school!
The audience at Cadogan Hall is different. Stepping into the champagne bar there’s always a great buzz of chat and shouts of laughter, enough to suggest that this audience is likely to be younger, more awake and maybe more receptive to what they are about to hear. Audiences on the Southbank are generally younger, more trendy, more relaxed, while the Proms audience is different again – a real mixture of music afficionados, groupies, students, curious tourists, old timers who go year after year and people who are just beginning to explore the great annual music festival. The enthusiasm of the Proms audience is really infectious and undoubtedly contributed to my enjoyment of the Proms this summer.
Sometimes the soloist or musicians themselves can affect the way the audience responds and behaves during a concert. At Maria Joao Pires’s wonderful Schubert series at the Wigmore a few years ago, the musicians (the Brodsky Quartet and singer Rufus Muller) remained on the stage while Pires played her solo pieces (a selection of Schubert’s Impromptus) and the audience was asked not to applaud until the end of the first half. This created a wonderful sense of an intimate, shared event, and we might have been in Schubert’s salon, enjoying an evening of music making amongst friends, for friends.
But if we, the audience, are too much in awe of the soloist, we can put up invisible barriers which can affect the atmosphere in the concert hall. This was very apparent when I heard Daniel Barenboim perform as part of his Beethoven Piano Sonatas series some years ago.
Recently, I’ve attended and performed in informal concerts in other people’s homes. My husband likes these kinds of concerts, with wine and friends and chat between pieces. As he rightly points out, this is a much more natural way of enjoying music that was written before c1850 (when Liszt, almost single-handedly, made the concert into the event as we know it today), and reminds us that music is, above all, for sharing. With the increasing popularity of presenting music in more unusual and intimate venues like The Red Hedgehog or Sutton House (London), or in the beautiful library of the cloisters in Wittem (Belgium), musicians are able to bring music much closer to the audience, literally and metaphorically, while events such as Speed Dating with the OAE (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) offer audiences the chance to meet the musicians after the performance.
Some other small venues:
Woodhouse Copse, near Dorking, Surrey
Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre, Walton, Surrey
Guildford Guildhall, Surrey
The Forge, Camden, London
Rook Lane Arts Centre, Frome, Somerset
Read my review for Bachtrack.com here
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.