It seems that whenever Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólafsson touches a piano, beautiful sounds flow from the instrument – whether it’s Bach, Rameau, Debussy or Philip Glass. His latest release, From Afar, is no exception, with the added sonic treat of two pianos, offering contrasting colours and timbres.

This new album, the most personal of all Ólafsson‘s recordings to date, reflects his musical DNA, from childhood memories growing up in Iceland to his international performing career and contemporary inspirations, including the pianist, composer and pedagogue György Kurtág, whose music appears on this disc interleaved with works by J S Bach, Schumann, Brahms, Mozart, Bartok, Ades, and Icelandic composers Kaldalóns and Birgisson.

The inspiration behind the album comes from a life-changing meeting with Kurtág in Budapest in September 2021, which left Ólafsson with “a feeling of lightness and joy” and sparked memories of music he loved as a child – the pieces on the album by Bach, Mozart, Schumann and Bartók. From Afar, its title inspired by Kurtág’s Aus der Ferne, is both a tribute to his hero and a return to his musical roots.

On the first sight, the track listing looks eclectic – we move from Bach to Schumann, Mozart to Kurtág in the space of a few moments (and each piece is no more than around four minutes long), but the selection, organisation and of course the playing of the pieces succeeds in creating a pleasing and intriguing listening experience – and I love the way Ólafsson segues from piece to piece, creating an almost uninterrupted flow of music.

The other intriguing aspect of this recording is that it’s a double album, with the pieces recorded on both a Steinway concert grand piano and an upright with a layer of felt covering the strings, effectively a permanent soft pedal. György Kurtág and his wife Marta recorded many of their four-hand Bach transcriptions and pieces from Játékok on a felt-softened upright piano “with marvellous results” (Ólafsson), and so this aspect of the recording is another homage to Kurtág. It also creates a wonderful, nay “marvellous” soundworld – delicate, hushed, intimate, tender (and if you, like me, have had the privilege of hearing Mr & Mrs Kurtág performing you will recognise and appreciate this very distinctive, almost whispered sound that the felted piano offers). Here, the microphones are set so close to the piano that you can hear the keys being depressed and released, and the occasionall rattle and tap of the keys connecting with the keybed. The upright also calls for a different kind of playing to a grand piano: of course it has its limitations in terms of breadth of sound, colours, dynamic palette, but there is something deeply appealing about the more hushed timbres of the upright piano. For Olafsson its “its imperfections become acoustic opportunities.” It also makes a connection with countless music students and domestic piano players whose most familiar instrument was or is an upright piano.

With two distinct soundworlds provided by the different instruments, the album explores evocative, wistful themes of home, childhood and family, Hungarian and Icelandic folk songs, nature-inspired works, homages and three previously unreleased transcriptions by Ólafsson: the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata for solo violin in C major, Mozart’s Laudate Dominum – which he dedicates to Kurtág – and Icelandic composer Sigvaldi Kaldalóns’ Ave Maria (the first work Ólafsson ever transcribed)This piece was the first single from the album, which Ólafsson performed as Lockdown Artist in Residence for BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme in 2020. Broadcasting live from an empty Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík, his tender, thoughtful performances brought comfort and a much-needed connection to live music to millions of listeners around the world.

This album offers a similar kind of comfort, with its flow of miniature works, exquisitely, often caressingly played, with Ólafsson‘s beautifully luminous sound, crystalline articulation and sensitively colouring. It feels homely and intimate, the kind of music one would play at home, by oneself or with a small group of friends.

There are some real jewels in this album – Schumann’s Vogel als Prophet from Waldszenen, played on the felted upright, Bartok’s 3 Hungarian Folksongs from the Csik, and Mozart’s Vesperae… are stand out tracks for me, but there is much to enjoy here, such is the variety of repertoire and Ólafsson‘s sensitive lyricism. It’s an album to curl up with on a winter’s evening.

From Afar is released on the DG label

Meet the Artist interview with Vikingur Ólafsson (from 2017)

J.S. Bach (1685-1750) Toccata in E minor BWV 914

F.J Haydn (1732-1809) Piano Sonata 47 h.o.b. 32 in B minor

F. Liszt (1811-1886) Deux Legends S. 175 – 1. St. François d’Assise: La prédication aux oiseaux S. 175; 2. St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots

Stephen Gott, piano


The splendid new Bechstein piano showroom in Manchester, the piano maker’s first purpose-built showroom in the United Kingdom since the Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall was opened in London in 1901, boasts an attractive recital room with a C. Bechstein Model C 234 concert grand. The showroom hosts regular recitals and on Thursday 13 British-American pianist Stephen Gott performed music by Bach, Haydn and Liszt.

I have known Stephen for nearly 15 years now: we first met on a piano course hosted by our teacher, Penelope Roskell, where he gave a mature, thoughtful performance of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, the memory of which has stayed with me ever since. Stephen is a very dedicated, hardworking young pianist, who started to learn the piano relatively late, in his teens. He studied at London’s Trinity-Laban and the University of Huddersfield, and is currently studying privately with Pascal Nemirovski.

His programme for his Bechstein recital displayed a nicely balanced range of repertoire from Bach to Liszt. The Bach Toccata in E minor was suitably serious in mood (E minor being perhaps Bach’s darkest, most serious key) and Stephen neatly portrayed the fantasia elements in the opening section, while the section second had energy and focus, with a good sense of forward motion.

The Haydn sonata was spirited, its elegant middle movement a pleasing contrast to the drama of the outer movements. But it was in the Liszt Legendes that Stephen really impressed and in which I felt he seemed most comfortable (and I know from conversations with him that he adores the music of Liszt, especially the more serious works such as these). From the fluttering, twittering birds of the first Legende (‘St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds’) to the rolling, swelling waves of the second, Stephen played with sensitivity, expression and a clear understanding of not only the structure of these pieces but also the Biblical narratives which inspired Liszt. The second Legende was particularly rich in drama, the rise and fall of its narrative tension masterfully managed by Stephen, and providing an exciting, virtuosic close to this recital.

Meet the Artist interview with Stephen Gott

The Royal Choral Society (RCS) celebrates its 150th anniversary with a season of concerts which reflect its illustrious history and its connection with some of the most significant names in the musical world, including Charles Gounod, Giuseppe Verdi, Antonin Dvorák, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Edward Elgar, Ethel Smyth, William Walton, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Malcolm Sargent, who had a 39-year association with the choir. The current music director, Richard Cooke, who joined in 1995, sang in King’s College Choir under David Willcocks and was chorus master under the batons of Bernstein, Abbado and Tennstedt among others.

A much-loved British institution, the Royal Choral Society has a long-standing association with the Royal Albert Hall where it gave its first performance on 8 May 1872 under the baton of its founder-conductor, Charles Gounod, at a time when live performance was the only means to hear music. Independent and self-funding, the Society has striven to keep the artform alive with performances of the great works of the choral repertoire, including during wartime with its morale-boosting concerts of Messiah, Elijah and The Dream of Gerontius.

Under the direction of Richard Cooke, the choir has sung rarely performed works by Berlioz – The Damnation of Faust & Grande Messe des Morts – while Mahler symphonies and Requiems by Verdi, Mozart and Britten have been performed to acclaim. The choir has also premiered many works in the UK, including Verdi’s Requiem, Dvorak’s Stabat Mater and Ramirez’s Misa Criolla. The choir’s Easter tradition of the Good Friday Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall has become something of a national event, with near sell-out annual performances, and the Society is now firmly established in the Royal Albert Hall’s Christmas programme, with 16 festive performances to look forward to this year.

In May 2021, the choir found itself in the national spotlight when, in something of the spirit of its wartime performances, it gave a socially-distanced performance of Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall at a time when it was forbidden for amateur choirs to rehearse or sing indoors in groups of more than six. The performance, deemed ‘professional’ by the DCMS, led the way for non-professional choirs to return to Covid-safe rehearsals and performance.

Find out more about the RCS’ illustrious history here: Royal Choral Society – History

Highlights of the Royal Choral Society 150th anniversary season:

THE WORLD OF SAMUEL COLERIDGE-TAYLOR

Sunday 9 October, 7.30pm, Fairfield Halls, Croydon

London Mozart Players

Royal Choral Society

Croydon Philharmonic Choir

Richard Cooke: conductor

Ben Hulett: tenor

Fenella Humphreys: violin

A celebration of the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor including the epic Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.

Born in Holborn and raised in Croydon, Afro-British Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was regarded, by Elgar no less, as the most talented composer in Britain. He was a household name in the early twentieth century, thanks to the popularity of his biggest hit Hiawatha. Every summer for some 30 years, thousands of people descended on the Royal Albert Hall for ‘Hiawatha Season’ – a dedicated two-week stint of Coleridge-Taylor’s immense choral work, sung by the Royal Choral Society, with the Royal Albert Hall turned into a Native American ‘reservation’, a tradition only brought to a halt by the Second World War.

In this concert Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast is reimagined for a modern audience, surrounding it in music from Coleridge-Taylor’s contemporaries – Elgar’s The Spirit of the Lord and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The programme also includes Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto, performed by Fenella Humphreys, the score of which was lost on RMS Titanic and had to be subsequently rewritten.

It is interesting to note that the Performing Rights Society was founded as a direct result of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor selling the publishing rights to Hiawatha to Novello. He never earned a penny more from his blockbuster hit and died in 1912 in relative poverty.

Today, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is being ‘rediscovered’, but the RCS has a long-standing association with him.

https://www.royalchoralsociety.co.uk/concertdetail.htm?event=624


CHRISTMAS WITH THE ROYAL CHORAL SOCIETY

Monday 12 December, 7.30pm, Royal Albert Hall

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Richard Cooke conductor

Mary Bevan: soprano

The RCS has sung at the Royal Albert Hall every Christmas since 1872 and this year celebrates its 150th Christmas in its spiritual home. Its festive programme will be packed full of glorious carols old and new and includes best-loved carols for the audience to join in singing.

https://www.royalchoralsociety.co.uk/concertdetail.htm?event=625

CAROLS AT THE HALL ROYAL ALBERT HALL

17, 18, 21, 22, 23, 24 December (various times)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

National Youth Choir of Great Britain

Richard Cooke: conductor

Greg Beardsell: compere

Soloists tbc

Fifteen carol concerts in the lead up to Christmas at London’s favourite venue, these events are a firm favourite for families wanting a traditional, fun, singalong festive concert featuring Christmas classics and popular carols. The brilliant Greg Beardsell hosts all 15 concerts.

https://www.royalalberthall.com/tickets/events/2022/carols-at-the-royal-albert-hall/

 

HANDEL’S MESSIAH ON GOOD FRIDAY

Royal Albert Hall, Good Friday 7 April 2023, 2.30pm

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Richard Cooke: conductor

Keri Fuge: soprano

Marta Fontanals-Simmons: mezzo-soprano

Andrew Staples: tenor

James Clerverton: bass

The Royal Choral Society’s 147th year performing this beloved oratorio at the Royal Albert Hall on Good Friday. The choir performed Handel’s Messiah in its first season in 1872, but 1876 saw the first Good Friday performance at the Royal Albert Hall, and it quickly became an annual Easter tradition, only interrupted by the Blitz in 1940/1 and the 2020/1 Covid pandemic. The choir is thought to have performed this work more than any other choir with an estimated 280 performances.

In 2020, the RCS’ Messiah on Good Friday was an early lockdown casualty and the choir produced one of the first ‘multivideo’ performances – Hallelujah Chorus, broadcast on Good Friday to launch the Royal Albert Hall’s #RoyalAlbertHome initiative.

In 2021, due to Covid, the choir performed Messiah on Trinity Sunday instead of Good Friday, with 119 singers socially distanced on stage, only organ and trumpet accompaniment, and just 800 in the audience at the Royal Albert Hall.

The RCS’ video of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ has had 11.5 million hits on YouTube and is the ‘go to’ video for all manner of celebrations.

https://www.royalalberthall.com/tickets/events/2023/messiah-on-good-friday/

 

A CHORAL CELEBRATION!

ROYAL CHORAL SOCIETY’S 150TH ANNIVERSARY CONCERT

Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 7 May 2023, 2.30pm

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Richard Cooke: conductor

The Royal Choral Society’s special 150th anniversary concert, featuring the best in choral music.

Join the Royal Choral Society in its spiritual home to enjoy the drama of the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem, the emotion of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and the ebullience of Parry’s Jerusalem – works inextricably linked to the choir’s illustrious history. Also on the programme is Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus both of which featured in the choir’s first concert in 1872, works specially commissioned for the choir by Malcolm Sargent and Roxanna Panufnik, plus a few other surprises along the way.

And for the singers in the audience, the opportunity to join in ‘beltissimo’ with favourite anthem, Parry’s I Was Glad.

The Royal Choral Society will be accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with Richard Pearce on the organ, all under the baton of the choir’s Music Director of 27 years, Richard Cooke. After the Covid woes, the choir intends to raise the roof of London’s favourite venue in celebration of the sheer joy of singing.

www.royalchoralsociety.co.uk


For further media information/interviews, please contact Frances Wilson | frances_wilson66@live.com

American pianist Beth Levin in conversation with Max Derrickson on her upcoming recital programme at Merkin Hall, New York, and new recording of Liszt and Mussorgsky.


[MD]: It’s a pleasure to have the chance to talk with you, Beth! Thank you. You’re a well-known concert pianist with an extremely impressive career. Particularly, your musical heritage with some of the most famous pianists on the 20th Century as your teachers (Marian Filar, Leonard Shure and Rudolph Serkin) could be plenty enough for an interview. But if you’ll allow, let’s focus on a specific recital and recording that you are recently doing (in 2022), which includes two very important, and extremely difficult, piano works: Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Anyone familiar with these works likely knows that they are “bears” to perform – technically, and no less so, musically. And you decided to perform both on one program. Would you talk about your choice of performing these two virtuosic works together?

[BL]: Thank you, Max. Lovely to explore the works with you! I think that the Liszt Sonata was really new territory for me and that appealed to me. I had learned the Mussorgsky many years ago and am just now revisiting it. The juxtaposition of the new and the old felt right. Let me say that I’ll be opening the recital with Portrait Miniatures: Three Women by Andrew Rudin which is very much a modern work and a wonderful departure point for the rest of the program. Friends had been urging me to play the Liszt Sonata for quite some time and up to now I resisted it. Suddenly the time seemed right to open the music. From the first read-through I was utterly and completely hooked. Playing through Pictures had more of a nostalgic feel and a reminder in some ways of my Russian/Ukrainian roots (my grandparents on both sides are from Odessa). The music elicits reactions from me as a musician – timing, color, character – that surprise me and I hope will translate to the listeners.

In terms of the pieces being difficult, I never like to admit to it. I play for weeks before I realize that I had really better isolate and practice those octaves!

I recorded the pieces this summer and that was a marvelous education into the music and into the preparation behind the performances.

[MD]: Roots in Odessa! Odessa’s like the breadbasket of the world of music! But we can return to that momentarily, as well as to the recording you made this summer. But before we get there:

Your programs are always, for me, so challenging and thoughtful… and brave. I have you to thank, actually, for introducing me to Andrew Rudin’s excellent and modern music. It’s intriguing to me that you’re beginning with his three Portraits. Each are under three minutes long, and I gather that they each have a sort of inside joke to them – for example, his dedication of the second portrait to Rose Moss was written for her as a parting gift to her after a summer at the MacDowell artist’s retreat in New Hampshire – and titled To a Wild Moss Rose, which plays (pun-fully and musically) on one of Edward MacDowell’s most famous piano miniatures, To a Wild Rose (Edward, of course, the founder of the MacDowell retreat). How do you see Rudin’s miniatures as departure points to Liszt and Mussorgsky? And, can you say more about your history with this fine composer’s music?

[BL]: Originally, I planned to play Andrew’s work in between the Liszt and the Mussorgsky, and he laughed and said he didn’t mind being sandwiched in the middle of two giants.

But I think starting with Portraits makes more sense. They can be likened a bit to the portraits that Mussorgsky paints in Pictures. And I like that the program will begin here and now and work its way back in time which will give the program a path to follow. The Liszt by itself is a vast arc and so the pieces will be arcs within arcs. I simply want the audience to come on the adventure with me.

I have played and recorded Andrew Rudin’s work over the years and am very honored that his piano sonata was written for me.

[MD]: I really like the arc idea in your programming here – it sounds like a fun adventure! Regarding the Rudin Portraits, I admire that you are adding this contemporary piece to fit in with Liszt and Mussorgsky on your recital at Merkin Hall in October (2022). You also added a contemporary piece on your last CD, playing Carosello: Disegno per piano No 3 (2005) by Swedish composer Anders Eliasson, in between Handel and then Beethoven’s colossal Hammerklavier Sonata. Do you have a particular philosophy about performing new music? Also, do you have a particular model, or philosophy, about choosing programs?

[BL]: Sometimes it’s as simple as working on a piece such as the Hammerklavier or the Liszt Sonata and wanting to experience something utterly different. The Rudin for instance is a lovely change from the Liszt when one is practicing and I think it may work that way for listeners as well. The pieces take over your life for a while and it’s good if you love the music you are working on. A program has to feel right and get one excited – but I’m not sure that I have a philosophy about choosing one.

Finally, I really enjoy playing the works of friends – scores that arrive in the mail and are fresh and newly printed, a reminder of when the Liszt and the Mussorgsky were just written.

[MD]: I can completely understand about a piece of music taking over! And so, your method of balancing that out is to play something entirely different. But importantly, I think, as you said, the three short Rudin pieces are a wonderful balance to the weightiness of the rest of your program for your concert audience.

I can imagine your glee over getting fresh copy in the mail… there’s something really very delightful about that. Opening the package, feeling the score, first glances and first impressions, and all that wonderful stuff. Do you recall your first impressions of Pictures at an Exhibition? Of Liszt’s Sonata?

[BL]: I do remember opening the score to the Liszt Sonata in January and feeling many emotions at once. It was as if the whole work had been in the back of my mind for years just waiting to move to the center.

I had to talk to a close musical friend about it and I remember making immediate plans to play it. I had never performed much of his piano music and barely knew anything about the sonata. But I was instantly committed to learning it.

Pictures at an Exhibition had been sitting on my shelf for years – I went to it mainly questioning how it would feel to work on it again.

I’m surprised at how differently I seem to be approaching the portraits. A kind friend who has heard both versions said he thought I was taking more time now and going deeper into the character.

With both the Liszt and the Mussorgsky there is the chance to explore so many artistic facets and create a musical world. But some days I just stare at all the octave passages and technical high jinks! haha.

[MD]: Looking at the score of the Liszt, and seeing those technical high jinks, some might faint, I think! Perhaps in another interview, we can talk more about relationships with pieces of music – they become such a part of the performer’s life at a certain time – the performer devotes so much heart and psyche to a work, and the score becomes a sort of whiteboard for notes and suggestions, and a reflection of our relationship to the music. Life can get tangled up in a piece of music. We can explore some of that, too, when we talk more about your revisiting Mussorgsky.

In the meantime, though, considering those challenging parts of any piece of music, how do you approach conquering them? What’s a typical practice/routine response for you? How have you been tackling the Liszt?

[BL]: The desire to simply play is so strong perhaps because of the extreme expressiveness of the Liszt Sonata. I start out playing a page or so extremely slowly but then the musical sweep takes over and I just have to ride the waves. But in many passages first I practice slowly, evenly, and within a strict context. Speed often comes on its own – you can’t really push. In the octaves I worked out the shapes inherent in the writing and those also seemed to come at their own pace.

I worked on the Liszt this morning and it was just that combination of how I will ultimately perform the work with a few moments of “Whoa Nellie!”

Having the recording as a deadline was very helpful, I think. Playing for friends was crucial as well – their suggestions and the mere act of playing through.

[MD]: I think Liszt would have appreciated hearing some “Whoa Nellies!” along the line. And … I can only imagine how delightful it must be to be the friend who gets to listen to your putting one of these masterpieces together.

Some deeper specifics about the Liszt: Liszt dedicated his Sonata to Robert Schumann as a thank you in reciprocation for Schumann’s dedication of his solo piano work Fantasie in C major, Op. 17 (1839) to Liszt. Liszt completed his Sonata in B minor (in 1853-4), however, after Schumann had been committed to a mental asylum following his attempted suicide. It thus arrived at the Schumann household sans Robert, and finding Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, both virtuoso pianists. As Brahms played through Liszt’s Sonata for Clara, she famously found it rather awful, lamenting that she had “to thank him for that!” – but we should report that it didn’t take long for the Sonata to find its place as one of the great, and one of the most unique, solo piano works of the 19th Century. Nonetheless, it’s considered a thorny piece in several regards. Besides its technical challenges, another of those thorns is its rather difficult-to-categorize, some say genius, hybridization of structural form – somewhere between a true Classical sonata and a Liszt-ian tone poem. How do you approach this structural uniqueness/ambiguity? Does the arc of the piece let the Sonata dictate its own path?

[BL]: I lean more to the idea of the work as a tone poem and yet I can see how he structured it as a sonata within a sonata. The “Andante sostenuto” can be read as the slow movement. Apparently, Liszt said very little about the new form of his Sonata but it certainly influenced composers far into the future. His exquisite themes flow so perfectly and inevitably into one another that you almost feel like he’s taking your hand and saying “just follow me.” I think one can be very free and expressive in one’s interpretation exactly because the structure is so solid. I know that he transcribed Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy for piano and orchestra and may have been very influenced by that same idea of freedom and fantasy within four movements … sort of a Garden of Eden within marble walls.

[MD]: I really do love your description … and it makes sense to me, that Liszt sort of left the mystery out of the mix…. clever and again by half…. yet his Sonata carries you along the way, whatever the overall form is. The Garden of Eden within marble walls is a lovely metaphor. I think, too, that inside the Garden also lives a serpent…

About Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: You mentioned above that your “grandparents on both sides are from Odessa.” We won’t confuse Ukraine with Russia, though to be sure, there are connections. Nonetheless, did you feel, and, or do you feel now, that you “hear” the Mussorgsky a little more deeply? And were your grandparents musicians, may I ask?

[BL]: Do you mean was there something in the borscht that gives me the inside track into Pictures at an Exhibition?

Seriously, I know that my parents grew up in households where everyone either played the violin, sang or played the piano. Music was a strong element in the lives of my parents and grandparents. But I realize that doesn’t make me an expert on Mussorgsky. I do feel certain instincts for Pictures and I try to be careful about assuming that every instinct is a correct one. I do employ rubato, color, timing and phrasing in ways that I think match and enhance the music and I hope that others will enjoy my interpretation.

[MD]: I think borscht can do a lot of things… but I appreciate the wisdom, and humility, regarding your instincts. Mussorgsky feels, to me, powerful and raw and immensely musical. And so, I’m not sure that one can get too far afield from his intentions once immersed in a performance, do you know what I mean?

About the piano version: I (and probably most listeners) have been mesmerized by Pictures since I first heard them … first in Ravel’s orchestral version. It was surprising to me, when I first heard the original piano version, how exceptionally well they still sound without all the bells and colors of an orchestra. The music is extremely hardy!

Now that you’ve been close to the piano version twice around, do you think Mussorgsky had an orchestration in mind when he was writing Pictures – or do you feel he was truly thinking of the colors of the piano? Are there any really favorite moments for you?

[BL]: A bit of background: one of Modest Mussorgsky’s best friends was Viktor Hartmann, an artist who tragically died of an aneurism in 1873 at the age of 39. Two weeks after Hartmann’s death his friends and supporters organized a major exhibition of his works at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. About a year later Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition. Completed in only twenty days, Pictures was originally a set of short pieces for piano in which Mussorgsky depicted himself walking through the exhibition and contemplating Hartmann’s works.

I think Mussorgsky was writing a piano piece – period. He was thinking of the piano as an orchestra at times – complete with bells. But I don’t think he was thinking of orchestration. He knew that the piano is a great chameleon and can recreate almost any vision.

One of my favorite “pictures” is “Il Vecchio Castello”” based on an architectural sketch by Hartmann. The melody is so expressive and the rhythmic underpinning so graceful. Also, I appreciate the way that each “Promenade” is so different from one another. “Tuileries” was inspired by a now lost crayon drawing of the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. It is so delicate and I love playing it. “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” is another favorite – my only desire is not to leave too many feathers on the ground!

The weightier movements such as “Gnome” or “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” require the power of a huge sound. I enjoy how Mussorgsky will contrast heaviness with something frothy in the following piece – from an oxcart to a tulle tutu.

A favorite arrival point for me is the “Sepulcrum Romanium Catacombs.” After much activity this piece is slow, austere and as cavernous as a tomb. It may have been an expression of Mussorgsky’s feeling of loss for his friend Hartmann. The music is exhaled in long breaths and marks the point at which “Baba Yaga” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” take over and end the work.

[MD]: When one hears a fine performance of this work, I think it’s easy to hear that Mussorgsky was treating the piano like an orchestra at times – which serves to remind us of the extraordinary talent and intellect that Mussorgsky possessed.

I love your image of stray notes falling off the keyboard like little chick feathers! And I think it illustrates part of the work’s true genius – it’s ability to evoke emotions and images. Each “picture” is a little masterpiece. “The Old Castle”… what a beautifully expressive tune. And I completely agree that the balancing of heavy and light, the pacing, and the overall direction of Pictures is really a masterful compositional achievement.

There are, as we know, only a few of Hartmann’s artworks left to see from that exhibition. And only several of the one’s that Mussorgsky immortalized still exist. I think I’d really love to see the Polish Oxcart and The Old Castle. Which would you really love to see? And do you think seeing them would inform your performance differently?

And… do you ever get lost in there… in the Exhibition? That you just want to linger a little while longer at a particular “picture”?

[BL]: I’d also love to see the Polish Oxcart and The Old Castle. Not seeing the images isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can allow your own imagination to flourish. It reminds me of haiku – better to simply let the words paint a picture … in this case let the music describe the art. Mussorgsky’s great skill as you said becomes so apparent exactly because he is a master at bringing Hartmann’s portraits to life. I think he even goes beyond that and creates an aura, a world in which the art can exist.

I think that I do linger here and there in the music when it seems right. I would love the audience to get lost inside the music.

[MD]: Are there any “pictures” that you find particularly daunting to play?

[BL]: The final two, “The Hut of the Baba Yaga” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” have a few thorny places and they occur in great speed. Speed often magnifies difficulty but what would great music be without challenges?

[MD]: I completely agree with your assessment about Mussorgsky creating a world beyond the art – thinking of the “Unhatched Chicks,” for example … in Mussorgsky’s wildly wonderful music for that, it rather looks as though Hartmann’s illustration was created secondly, for the music, not the other way around.

Regarding the challenges of the last two “pictures,” now I’m feeling a little guilty … I think you mentioned that you never like to admit something is difficult … did I just trick you into that?

But speaking of challenges, what about the Liszt Sonata? Are there any particular passages that you find really tough?

And, though the Sonata is a work that really shows off virtuosity, it also really shines with radiant poetry. Which passages do you find breath-taking?

[BL]: Haha – that’s what makes you a wonderful interviewer! No, I think that dwelling on technical issues such as virtuoso octaves can be insignificant.

The genuine task is to present the work as a whole, get inside it, portray what Liszt had in mind, and give a performance. If I miss a few notes or octaves, so be it – that pales in comparison to the actual fulfilment of the work. On the other hand, you need an expressive, flexible and physical technique, but more as a tool, not as an end all. That is probably true for any art. When I’m confronted with a few difficult passages I do laugh at myself knowing that they are merely reminders of imperfection on a path to art.

If I get swept away in the Sonata it is where the music melts into pianississimo. For all its grandeur, the poetic passages are truly the ravishing moments in the music. The final “Andante Sostenuto” is so moving and the final three chords are like a prayer.

I hope that the audience feels the emotion of the piece and that I simply express what is there.

[MD]: I hear you well on that, Maestra. I think we all have heard when a performance is flawless, technically, but at the cost of being soulless. I’ve never heard any of your performances suffer from that, Beth! And I guess the only thing I can respond to about those beautiful moments, and those last three, heart-stoppingly blissful chords is, “Amen.”

Before we start wrapping up our lovely conversation, could you tell us a little more about the recording session that you had for the Mussorgsky and Liszt? And do you know when the CD might be issued?

[BL]: I recorded with old friends Philip Valera (audio engineer) and Mark Peterson (producer) whom I knew at Boston University when I was studying with Leonard Shure and they were both budding organists. We had an easy rapport and were able to kid around when we weren’t doing the more serious work of recording Liszt and Mussorgsky. But I think that is so important when you begin a recording session – the ability to laugh creates a relaxed atmosphere for everyone. There were a few snags: the microphones were nowhere to be found when we first met at ten in the morning on a Wednesday in late May. And the weather in Wilson, North Carolina was extremely humid. The Steinway was freshly tuned but the piano keys were actually damp in Kennedy Hall at Barton College. Not to mention my hair!

I don’t yet have a release date for the recording by Aldilà Records. They produced my last CD of the Hammerklavier sonata, Handel and Anders Eliasson and I was so happy with their dedication to detail. Through the years I guess I’ve learned: if a conductor calls, call back. If a record label wants your mastered CD, just be grateful.

[MD]: The recording engineers that I’ve known are a band of very lovely, smart, laid-back and capable people… and funny. That has to help the recipe in cooking a recording! But … damp keys?? What on earth do you do about that? (Let’s not even touch the hair subject.)

Adilà Records has produced some really great recordings! I hope we see yours very, very soon.

Allow me, now, to pull way back, and ask you: you have a few years of an illustrious career informing your approach to performing – how might you characterize your playing of these great pieces today, in comparison to when you were, let’s say, in your twenties?

[BL]: I think that I rehearse differently now which affects performance – slower, more thoughtfully.

I have always tended to be a bit wild at the piano but after years of playing I have more control of things. Coaching with the conductor Christoph Schluren influenced my playing – as it relates to phrasing, mostly.

I think the wisdom from my teachers sort of synthesized for me at some point and now when I look at a score I bring to it more than I did.

I wish I could say, “I’m much smarter now.” Haha – I can only hope.

[MD]: It’s a wonderful realization to recognize your own personal musicianship as a monument to the other great musicians, friends and teachers who shared their talents in the service of the expression of art. Of course, their expertise is wrapped in the gold leaf of your great talents, too. Thanks for that beautiful sentiment, Beth.

And thank you for your time and generosity of soul that you’ve shared with me in this interview. Good luck with your recital, and I can’t wait to hear your CD!

[BL]: Thank you so much, Max, for your wise questions. I have enjoyed looking at aspects of the Liszt and the Mussorgsky with you as a guide!


Beth Levin performs Mussorgsky, Liszt and Rudin at Merkin Hall, New York, on 27 October. More information

The Innocent Ear was a radio programme, broadcast on the Third Programme (which became BBC Radio 3) in which listeners were invited to “preserve [their] ‘innocence'” by not trying to guess the composer, and by approaching the music with fresh judgment, freed from prejudice”.  The music played would be identified afterwards, thus freeing the listener’s mind of preconceptions and encouraging a closer, more concentrated or deeper way of listening. (One of the main aims of the programme was to introduce lesser-known music/composers to listeners through this impartial approach.)

I quite often do this kind of listening late at night, to BBC Radio 3’s Night Tracks and Unclassified programmes, where pieces often segue into one another, without any interjection from the presenter. I find it encourages deeper listening, though this may also be related to the time of day and setting (I’m usually in bed by this time with the lights turned low or even off). I have also found myself listening to, and enjoying music by composers I thought I loathed!

Our listening is shaped by our personal taste, experience and maturity, and by external influences such as broadcasts, reviews, recommendations, shared playlists, music heard on tv or film soundtracks, current trends (composers and performers come in and out of fashion very regularly), and much more. More often than not, the concerts we choose to go to are based on both personal taste and the extrinsic influences mentioned above.

But what if we were to apply the innocent ear approach to concerts? There would be no programme (even words like ‘sonata’ or ‘quartet’ suggest a specific genre and structure, at once setting up preconceptions about what will be performed); no words of introduction, either in writing or verbally; just the music. How might the listening experience change?

The programme note remains a mainstay of the traditional presentation of classical music; alongside that we now have the “presenter” (especially evident at the BBC Proms) who can, but not always (and the best ones don’t), become a filter between audience and music, explaining why we should “appreciate” certain pieces, impose meaning where meaning may not exist, and attempt to connect the music to the context of our times, rather than the time in which it was originally created. This kind of presenting can become really distracting, irritating or problematic when the presenter sees it as their role to place their own personal stamp on the concert, rather than allowing us to listen without prejudice. What is worse, is the gushing adulation of certain artists or composers, and a deluge of post-performance superlatives, leaving the listener little space to reflect on their own response to the music.

And in the midst of all this, the score, and the sounds which the text produces when brought to life by the musicians, often seems secondary to what this or that piece of music is “about”.

Do we need to be told how to listen? And do we also need to be told what the “meaning” of the music might be (this especially applies to contemporary music, in my experience)?

Without a programme note or verbal introduction, the music has to impress purely on its sonic content, to be effective and affective, and any meaning ascribed to or drawn from it will be personal to the individual listener. In this way, listeners open their minds, and ears, to the experience of the music, without prejudging its merits based on when or by whom it was composed. In this way, works are appreciated for their intrinsic musical power, rather than extrinsic factors, such as the reputation of the composer or biographical or historical contexts.

Music does not have to have “meaning”, but rather it should be meaningful – as it undoubtedly is, for a multitude of reasons, and we each take our own personal meaningfulness from it.

Minimalist music has proved that fewer notes can still be powerful and arresting. Perhaps a similar “less is more” approach should be applied to programme notes, introductions and the presentation of classical music?

“Music doesn’t have to be understood, It just has to be heard” – Hermann Scherchen, conductor


A few of my late-night, ‘innocent ear” discoveries:


Friday 30th September, 7.30pm, at St George’s Hanover Square, London W1

Poppy Beddoe – clarinet

Matthew Taylor – conductor

A special concert in memory of conductor, Artistic Director and producer Tom Hammond, who died suddenly just after Christmas 2021 at the age of 47, will be held on 30 September at St George’s church, Hanover Square.

Organised by a group of Tom’s close friends and colleagues, the concert will feature music by Tom’s favourite composer, Jean Sibelius, as well as works by Mozart and Nielsen, and pieces by composer friends Bernard Hughes, James Francis Brown and Matthew Taylor, who will also conduct the concert. The soloist is clarinettist Poppy Beddoe.

Programme:
Mozart Adagio and Fugue in C minor
James Francis Brown Lost Lanes – Shadow Groves
Bernard Hughes 3 Pieces for Tom
Sibelius Impromptu for Strings
Matthew Taylor Romanza
Nielsen 3 Pieces Op.3, orchestrated for strings

Conductor, soloist, orchestral players and publicist are offering their services free of charge, and proceeds from the concert will be donated to Future Talent and London Music Fund, two charities which support young musicians, especially those with limited financial means, to reach their full potential – a mission very close to Tom’s heart.

Tickets cost £10-£30 and can be booked via this link: www.ticketsource.co.uk/thmemorial

Thank you for your support of this concert


A passionate and thoroughly engaging conductor, Tom Hammond always put *people* first – the musicians he was leading, the audience to whom they were performing, or the composer whose notes they were illuminating. He was a champion for increasing access to music for people from all walks of life, firmly believing in its power as a tool for social change, community spirit, and pure enjoyment.

Despite claiming he ‘couldn’t play it’, Tom would spend hours dissecting each score at the piano, whilst delving into published letters, biographies and anecdotes to find out what made a composer tick so that he could convey that understanding to others. Amongst his orchestras are now many converts to the same composers Tom loved.

Tom’s conducting took him around the UK and internationally. On several occasions he was proud to lead the Palestine Youth Orchestra, with whom he visited Jordan, Dubai and Oman. One of the world’s true driving forces, Tom also founded the chamber ensemble sound collective, the Hertfordshire Festival of Music as Co-Artistic Director, and the recording company Chiaro as a producer.

Alongside seemingly endless energy and a zest for life, Tom’s encouragement for all music-makers leaves thousands of people with awakened curiosity and so many wonderful memories.

For press/media enquiries, please contact Frances Wilson frances_wilson66@live.com