‘Divine Fire’ at Craxton Studios Hampstead, Saturday 3 November 2018

The fascinating story of Fryderyk Chopin and the authoress George Sand is brought vividly to life by Viv McLean (piano) and Susan Porrett (narrator) in 7 Star Arts’ mixed-genre production ‘Divine Fire’.

Interwoven with some of Chopin’s most beautiful and popular piano works, ‘Divine Fire’ traces the relationship from their first meeting in Paris in 1836 until their parting in 1847. The story unfolds through a compelling, dramatic narration of events by the RSC and National Theatre actress Susan Porrett, interspersed with mood – evoking piano pieces – fiery scherzos, heart-rending ballades, stirring Polonaises and poignant Nocturnes – played by the great Chopin interpreter Viv McLean.

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‘An absorbing, moving and beautifully presented evening of words and music’

‘Divine fire’ was Sand’s own description of the intensity of her attraction to Chopin, suggesting a love that transcended the purely physical to a more spiritual plane, a meeting of bodies and minds.

The concert takes place at Craxton Studios in Hampstead, a fine example of English Arts and Crafts architecture and interior design. Originally built for an artist, the house was the long-time home of Harold Craxton, acclaimed concert pianist and teacher at the Royal Academy of Music. Craxton’s home became a creative hub for musicians, artists and writers – a tradition which continues to this day as the studio is regularly used for concerts, auditions, recordings and filming.

Viv McLean performs on Harold Craxton’s own Blüthner grand piano.

Divine Fire at Craxton Studios, Saturday 3 November at 7.30pm

‘The great strength of this format is the subtle interweaving of words and music…..Viv McLean’s understated, modest delivery always allows the music to speak for itself, while Susan’s words lend greater focus, encouraging us to listen to the music even more attentively.’

Read an interview with actress Susan Porrett about the creation of Divine Fire

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I have written music ever since I started playing the piano (around age 6 I think). I used to feel guilty for making up pieces when I felt I should have been practising ‘seriously’! I had a lot of encouragement from various instrumental teachers, and at school, and later at the RCM junior department. However, this encouragement was towards a career as a performer, not a composer. I never studied composition and it would never had occurred to me to do so. I’m not even sure that I knew you could! When I was doing GCSE music composition, my music teacher at school told me I should be concentrating on composition seriously and I should take lessons at junior RCM. I actually had a bit of an argument with her about this as I thought it was a crazy suggestion – I was going to be a viola player and most composers I’d heard of were dead!

Halfway through the undergrad course at the RCM, I injured my left hand quite badly and was told that was it basically, as far as a professional career playing the viola was concerned. I did my final year at a university, mainly by writing a huge dissertation on the Bartok viola concerto (!), but also taking the advanced composition module as I felt it was something I might have a chance of passing. After I graduated I just carried on writing and once I had three pieces I thought were fairly respectable I applied for a masters in composition at Goldsmith’s College. Starting there was a massive shock – I knew nothing about composition really and very little about contemporary music outside of the viola repertoire!

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

There are so many great composers writing now, and I think it’s a very interesting time for women composers in particular. I am very conscious that my work is insignificant compared to many others, but this inspires me to carry on improving my writing. I am grateful to my first composition teacher, Judith Bingham, for helping me when I was first starting out and to Kenneth Hesketh for really challenging me in my writing.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

I was incredibly lucky with my early compositional career. Up until I was about 30 or so, things really went along pretty nicely and easily. I was doing all the usual young composer stuff and getting some good commissions. Things then went downhill a bit as I was struggling a lot with the conflict between writing how I wanted to write and how I felt I ‘should’ write. There were some challenging things going in in my life as well at that point, and I didn’t write anything for about 3 years. I then had a baby and started writing again! This is probably not a recognised way to rejuvenate your composition, but it worked for me! The frustrations now are that I have very little time to devote to the business side of composition and living out of London makes it extremely hard (both time wise and financially) to travel in for concerts and networking. I also need to be a lot more practical in terms of making money as I have my son to support, so I spend most of my working time teaching.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Since the birth of Edward (now 3 years old), I have only written a few pieces and they have all been commissions. Even before then, I pretty much always wrote with a specific performance or performer in mind and I would find it very hard to write any other way. The challenge for me now, with a young son, is the deadline, but without it I would probably never write anything at all!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I have found that the stranger the compositional brief, the better the results can be! Sometimes, I find that too much freedom and choice can be a bit overwhelming and haven’t resulted in my best pieces. I have written a couple of pieces for Carla Rees (rarescale) and her quarter tone alto flute. This was a challenge for me, but one that was easily met as she was so generous with her time and advice during the early compositional stages. By the time I was half way through the piece what I was doing felt totally natural to me and the piece was written relatively easily.

Of which works are you most proud?

I am proud of all my pieces in the sense that they all exist in their own time, for a specific purpose. Even the few which I would happily never hear again have played a part in my compositional journey. I know which works I think are ‘better’ in terms of compositional technique or which ones have been more successful, but this doesn’t mean I am any prouder of them.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I’m afraid I can’t answer this one!

How do you work?

I think a lot before starting the piece and usually have it sketched in my head before I start. Once I can hear bits of it reliably then I get to work with manuscript paper planning out the structure and what ideas will come where. If there’s a time limit (which there usually is) then this bit is very important, and I won’t move on from it until I am happy. It saves so much time in the long run. Then I just write the piece from beginning to end! I will sketch each section on manuscript paper until I am happy with it and only when I have a large chunk of ‘finished’ music will I go anywhere near Sibelius [score-writing programme]. Some of my composition pupils write directly onto Sibelius and I would find that extremely hard.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

This is a hard one, but I never tire of listening to Mendelssohn, Schumann or Stravinsky. I love Bach but I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I find Beethoven’s music a bit of a struggle to enjoy – even though I obviously admire his work a great deal.

Among more contemporary composers, long time favourites are Julian Anderson, Thomas Ades, Judith Weir and Oliver Knussen and from the younger generation I like what Ed Nesbit, Helen Grime and Charlotte Bray are doing very much.

I love listening to recordings of ‘old school’ string players such as Fritz Kreisler, Albert Sammons, William Primrose etc. The fact that the performances aren’t ‘perfect’ or anywhere near today’s sound quality somehow adds to the appeal for me.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I am making a living from music (a mixture of composition and teaching). I feel very lucky to be doing something I enjoy, so in that respect I feel successful.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Don’t expect to do everything at once and make the most of every opportunity while you can.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Alive – and still enjoying my writing.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I’m not sure that this exists other than for brief moments. I feel content if my family is healthy and happy and there aren’t too many outstanding bills to pay!

What is your most treasured possession?

My sanity.


Elizabeth Winters has established herself in the UK as one of the leading composers of the younger generation. Her music is regularly performed throughout the UK, by performers as diverse as the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, BBC Singers, Ensemble 10/10, Rarescale, The Orlando Consort, Aurora Nova and the Choir of Canterbury Cathedral. Her works have been programmed as part of LSO Discovery, the Presteigne Festival, the Royal Opera House ‘Exposure’ Series, the Leeds International Concert Season, the European Capital of Culture Concert Series, the Aldeburgh Festival and during services at St Paul’s and St Alban’s Cathedrals. Several works have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Elizabeth won a British Composer Award (2009, Making Music Category) for her orchestral piece The Serious Side of Madness. Other competition successes include first prize in the 2015 Orion Orchestra Composer Competition and first prize in the Liverpool Capital of Culture New Composer Competition. Elizabeth recently received funding from The Composers’ Fund to support the creation of a composition studio. The Composers’ Fund is a PRS for Music Foundation initiative in association with the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

Born in 1979, Elizabeth studied at the Royal College of Music and Goldsmith College, where she gained her MMus in Composition with Distinction. Her principal composition teachers were Judith Bingham and Kenneth Hesketh. She has also worked with Julian Anderson, John Casken (Lake District Summer Music Composer Residency) and Colin Matthews, Michael Gandolfi and Oliver Knussen (Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme). Elizabeth also enjoys working with young musicians and been commissioned by the National Youth Recorder Orchestra and the Farnham Festival.

elizabethwinters.com

 

Communication

Music is a powerful means of communication, by which people share emotions, intentions, and meanings, and our personal engagement with music, whether in a live concert, listening to a CD or via a streaming service, is driven by the medium’s ability to convey and communicate emotion. Music can arouse strong feelings, recall memories; it can promote extreme happiness or engender feelings of deep love or loss….

Like speech, music has an acoustic code for expressing emotion, and even if a piece of music is unfamiliar, we can “decode” its message. Because of this, while musicians perform music according to their own interpretations, we can still understand the basic acoustic code: a crescendo indicates increased intensity or drama; a minor key suggests seriousness or melancholy; pauses create suspense and anticipation.

For the performer, the ability to communicate emotion or tell a story in music requires more than the technical facility to process what’s on the score. A good understanding of the structure of the music is important for a convincing, and communicative, musical performance, allowing the musician to respond to aspects such as variations in tempo and dynamics, harmonic and melodic tension and release, phrasing, repetitions, etc. By responding to these elements, the listener is given a set of musical “signposts” which guide them through the music, and bring cohesion, interest and variety to the performance.

A performer must resolve the entire depth of the ideas contained there. How often carefully notated shadings, accents, tempo changes reveal not simply a positive characteristic of sound but rather the untold sides of the author’s concept. How many directions we find in Schumann, Chopin, Scriabin, even Beethoven that a pianist should follow not in a real sound but by addressing the subtlest hints to the imagination of a listener!

– Samuil Feinberg

Communicating emotion is the most elusive aspect of the performer’s skillset, and is the fundamental reason why people – performers and listeners – engage with music. At a basic level, music communicates specific emotions through simple musical devices, for example:

  • Happy – fast tempo, running notes, staccato, bright sound, major key
  • Sad – very slow tempo, minor key, legato, descending sequences or falling intervals, diminuendo, ritardando

But there is something else which makes a performance particularly rich in expression or communication. Performance is generally regarded as a synthesis of both technical and expressive skills. Technical skills can be taught, while expression is more instinctive: it is of course possible to act upon expression markings in the score, but in order for these to sound convincing and, more importantly, natural the performer must draw upon other factors, including extra-musical ones.

Many performers create a vivid internal musical and artistic vision of the music they are playing. This may include an aural model; the use of metaphors or adjectives to create a narrative or picture for the music; and personal experience, including extra-musical experiences. A performer’s own emotional experiences may influence the way they convey emotion in the music. This suggests that only a performer who has actually experienced the highs and lows of romantic love can perform, for example, Schumann’s Fantasie in C with the requisite emotional insight. Of course, not every performer will  have the life experience, but they can still convey emotion in their performance by awakening their imagination to bring expression and emotional depth to their playing. In addition, in a concert situation, the imagination of the listener is very much at the disposal of the performer, to be shaped and influenced through sound.

We talk about performers “communicating the composer’s intentions” (i.e. paying attention to and acting upon directions in the score such as dynamics, tempo and expression markings, articulation, rests and pauses etc) or “conveying the story of the music“, but fundamentally I think as listeners we crave a performance which touches us personally. Listening to music is a highly subjective and personal experience – we’ve all had those ‘Proustian rush’ moments when a piece of music, or a single movement or even a phrase, provokes an involuntary memory, sometimes with physical side-effects such as goosebumps or shivers (physiologically, this is the result of the release of Dopamine, the brain’s “reward” neurotransmitter). Sometimes we want to feel uplifted or transported by music, taken us out of ourselves and the mundanity of everyday life to another place, to experience something touching the spiritual or transcendent. Such moments, and the memory of them, are very special and individual.

Occasionally one is at a concert where a very palpable sense of collective concentration can be felt in the auditorium. This occurs when the performer creates an intense communication between music and listener. I experienced it, along with the rest of the Wigmore Hall audience, at a performance of Beethoven’s last three sonatas by the Russian pianist Igor Levit in June 2017. The sense of concentrated listening and suspense was extraordinary. How did Levit achieve it? I’m not sure…. a combination of exquisite tone control, musical understanding and the sheer power of the music itself.

Most people like music because it gives them certain emotions such as joy, grief, sadness, and image of nature, a subject for daydreams or – still better – oblivion from “everyday life”. They want a drug – dope -…. Music would not be worth much if it were reduced to such an end. When people have learned to love music for itself, when they listen with other ears, their enjoyment will be of a far higher and more potent order, and they will be able to judge it on a higher plane and realise its intrinsic value.

– Igor Stravinsky

Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth

Rick Wakeman has been a consistently fascinating artist throughout his decades-long career. As a fan of both classical and progressive rock music, I feel he’s been a constant presence, his cape sweeping nonchalantly across any so-called dividing lines between genres and styles.

In contrast to the grandeur of some of his earliest and most familiar work, Wakeman’s most recent releases have felt more intimate and introspective. The 2017 album ‘Piano Portraits’ was just that: solo piano treatments – somewhere between arrangements and variations – of an eclectic range of pieces that covered Debussy and Fauré, Elgar and Holst, Bowie and the Beatles… and not to leave out his own band, Yes.

This new album, ‘Piano Odyssey’, is in many ways a sequel with seemingly deliberate echoes of its predecessor. As before, there are two Beatles tracks, and just the one from Bowie this time, amid other carefully chosen cover versions. Yes is represented by two new arrangements. On the classical team are Liszt, Dvorak and Handel.

As the album title suggests, though, a journey of some kind has taken place. Rather than simply repeat himself, Wakeman has added strings and a choir more or less throughout, diluting the forensic focus on the lone piano. However, the lush arrangements can’t disguise the fact that this feels like an even more personal project, surveying Wakeman’s career more incisively and giving it a perhaps unexpected unit

I think this unity is behind the quality I loved most about the disc, which is that it sounds exactly like something its creator would pull together – and yet at the same time, it feels like a surprise, not quite like anything else. In theory, given the forces involved, the classical feel should dominate, but that isn’t what happens. Instead, it’s rather more like listening to a kind of ‘chamber’ prog: Wakeman often deploys his string players and singers as if they were band members, the choir in particular performing ‘solos’, moving in and out of tracks as needed rather than saturating them. His own distinctive playing has him operating like a combined rhythm and lead guitar might, capturing the melodies at the top end with great delicacy (and some very agile embellishments!), without sacrificing a sense of real propulsion.

As a result, the pieces that really hit home for me are the two Yes songs, in particular ‘And You & I’, and the reworks of two of his solo tracks, ‘After the Ball’ (now merged with Liszt’s ‘Liebestraume’), and ‘Jane Seymour’ (originally composed on organ, and with Bach coursing through its bloodstream). In the CD liner notes, Wakeman explains how the new versions make what he was trying to do clearer, more audible. And there’s no doubt that ‘Piano Odyssey’ is giving him the opportunity to shine a light on his practice: without trying to ‘match’ or ‘outdo’ Liszt, he has deliberately designed his medley to show how the composer influenced him. (Elsewhere, he uses this technique to illuminating effect in ‘Largos’ – merging Dvorak and Handel with the utmost respect, but a refreshing lack of deference.) Equally, in ‘And You & I’, the sparkling high-pitched melody is so evocative of Jon Anderson’s vocal it’s somehow uncanny.

I don’t think the record is totally flawless. How you react to the more familiar covers will inevitably depend on your relationship to the originals, and what you want a new version to achieve. I felt ‘The Boxer’ was a misfire: to me, the song, while tender, has an underlying resolve and pugnacity that befits its title. Here, the slow pace fatally weakens it, along with oppressive strings and the choir contributing isolated ‘lie la lie’s with no context. On the other hand, a similarly sentimental treatment of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ fits the song like a glove. The version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is shot through with wit, subverting any bombastic expectations the listener might have – even Brian May’s guitar cameo appears out of nowhere.

Two completely new compositions again emphasise the personal – named for two adopted moon bears, Rocky and Cyril (Wakeman is a passionate animal rights advocate). Writing from scratch in this idiom allows Wakeman to produce probably the most nakedly emotional tracks on the record, the signature traits (again, the steady motor, the climb to the high register) reflecting how much of himself he has put into these pieces. And I think it’s fair to say that the whole album – a heart-on-sleeve musical autobiography-of-sorts – wins through as an accomplished yet totally sincere attempt by the artist to communicate a true audio sense of himself.

Rick Wakeman’s ‘Piano Odyssey’ is available now on the Sony Classical label.

Meet the Artist interview with Rick Wakeman


Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at

Twitter: @adrian_specs

Adrian is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

 

 

 

life_cover_750x750_88985424452_enThis could be the best thing I’ve heard this year. A bold claim, I know, but listening to Igor Levit’s new recording Life (Sony Classical) literally stopped me in my tracks….

With four recordings already and glowing reviews wherever he plays, this latest offering – his first in three years – from German-Russian pianist Igor Levit was eagerly awaited. It’s very different from his previous recordings which have focussed on “big” serious works (the Diabelli and Goldberg Variations, Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, late Beethoven Sonatas). ‘Life’ is a classical concept album, a very personal existential reflection on life and death, prompted by the death of a close friend. Music has proven therapeutic benefits and Levit finds a way through his grief , though perhaps not a sense of closure, in a series of solemn, valedictory and deeply thoughtful works by Busoni, Bach/Busoni, Schumann, Rzewski, Wagner/Liszt and Bill Evans. There’s no flashiness here, no glittering runs or vertiginous virtuosity – that would be inappropriate. Instead we have a continuous meditative flow of music from Busoni’s Fantasie after J S Bach through the fleeting poignancy of Schumann’s Geister (‘Ghost’) Variations to Bill Evans’ Peace Piece, an unusual but entirely fitting work with which to close this wondrous recording.

Every note is considered, measured, poised but never mannered: there’s none of the pedantry other “intellectual” pianists tend towards in performance. This playing epitomises the maxim “through discipline comes freedom” – something I felt very strongly in Levit’s mesmerisingly intense concert of Beethoven’s last three sonatas at Wigmore hall last year. You could have cut the atmosphere – one of concentrated collective listening – with a knife, and Levit achieves the same palpable sense of presence, intimacy and profound communication on this recording. It’s as if you’re in the room with him, quietly observing, listening, almost without breathing, while he plays. He finds incredible delicacy in the quietest reaches of the dynamic range – technically hard to achieve and emotionally wrought – and the entire album has a compelling processional quality, felt most strongly (for me) in Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Solemn March to the Holy Grail from Parsifal, to which Levit brings immense control and a hushed, prayer-like quality to the magisterial architecture of this work.  The Fantasia and Fugue on the Chorale  ‘Ad nos, ad salutarum undum’,  the longest work on this 2-disc recording, is another glowing transcription, also by Liszt, demonstrating that music, like life, is subject to change. Isolde’s passionate Liebstod and Busoni’s poignant Berceuse pave the way for the final work on the recording.

Bill Evans’ ‘Peace Piece’ matches the solemnity and intensity of the rest of album but in its ostinato bass and delicate treble filigrees, so redolent of Chopin’s tender Berceuse, there is, finally, a sense of consolation. It’s beautifully played by Levit, as are all the pieces on this recording.

Highly recommended