Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, No. 20 in A, D959, is my sonata. Never mind that I’ve heard Imogen Cooper, Daniel Barenboim, Piers Lane, Andras Schiff and Richard Goode, amongst others, perform the sonata, and have listened to countless recordings (including Shera Cherkassy, Radu Lupu, Mitsuko Uchida, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Inon Barnatan and Krystian Zimerman), all of whom might claim that it is their sonata. Schubert’s D959 is my sonata.

Why is it ‘my’ sonata? Because I spent many hours, days and months studying, learning and eventually performing this work, and through that meticulous process I acquired a sense of “ownership” of the music.

Taking ownership of one’s music, literally making it one’s “own piece”, is something that musicians strive for. A strong sense of ownership connects one to one’s music, and also creates a special communication with the audience.

Ownership is hard won, however, and comes from close study and deep knowledge of the score to fully acquaint oneself with the composer’s message and intentions. All the explicit information contained within the score must be processed, understood and acted upon –  the notes, dynamic, rhythmic and articulation markings, tempo, expression and character directions, and all the technical aspects of the music; in addition, implicit directions need to be considered and factored in: a rising passage may suggest a slight crescendo or stringendo, rests and fermatas suggests breathing space, a doubling of octaves may indicate a more orchestral sound or texture. The ability to process and interpret implicit directions comes from the musician’s own musical knowledge, training, an understanding of historical contexts and performance practice (in, for example, Baroque music), experience, maturity and personality.

Such disciplined learning and study gives one the confidence to play the music convincingly and to create one’s own personal vision of the music. I have been to concerts where it is evident that the music is well learnt, all the details taken care of, but it doesn’t communicate, or touch one’s emotions. A non-committal performer may tread the middle road, providing an inoffensive range of dynamics, expression and so on, but without a real sense of conviction which robs the performance of that special edge of excitement. Audiences can certainly feel this and may leave the concert satisfied but unmoved.

So, ownership is about having done the detailed work on the score to give one the confidence to perform the music convincingly. But there’s more: ownership also creates spontaneity, freedom, originality and sprezzatura in performance – the impression that everything one does is effortless. As a performer, one does not want to show the audience what one cannot do; instead, the performer reveals, through their ownership of the music, not only mastery, but also freedom, ease and delight, playing ‘in the moment’…. Performers who have these qualities, and who have complete ownership of their music, are prepared to take risks in performance, secure in the knowledge that one never plays the same piece of music the same way twice. Such performances are thrilling and memorable.

 

Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus – Olivier Messiaen

Steven Osborne, piano

6 November 2019, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

Messiaen builds cathedrals in sound. From a single candle gently flickering in a quiet side chapel to the glorious fan traceries of the main transept, the private place for solitary prayer and contemplation to the awe-inspiring painted spaces where the many gather to celebrate the glory of God, his music is monumental in its scale and breadth, a hypnotic Sainte-Trinité in sound.

And if Messiaen is the architect, then the pianist who performs his music is the guide, sometimes tenderly, sometimes violently, always colourfully leading us through the aisles and passageways, the arches and niches, past gilded icons and kaleidoscopic stained glass.

Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus is arguably the greatest piano work of the twentieth century, a work which more than holds its own against Bach’s Goldberg’s or Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas in its scale and breadth, its many challenges, technical, artistic and physical. It is a work of immense beauty, sensuous, powerful, sometimes brutal, thrilling, awestruck and awe-inspiring, ecstatic and intimate. It is also deeply personal and emotionally direct in its expression of the composer’s own profound Catholic faith; humble too in Messiaen’s ability to ground the music in a way that makes it accessible through his use of recurring themes and devices, in particular his beloved birdsong. These elements also give this tremendous work a cohesive, comprehensive architecture – and it is only by hearing the work in one sitting, as opposed to listening to individual movements from it, that one can fully appreciate Messiaen’s compositional skill and vision. Like a great symphony, the work moves inexorably through its movements towards a gripping finale.

I adore this music.

It begins with a whisper, barely a heartbeat, delicate chords, softly-spoken yet vividly hued (colour is so significant to the synaesthesic Messiaen) and repeated octaves, occasionally interrupted by luminous bell sounds; a profound, introspective contemplation. And then, some 130 minutes later, it ends in a blaze of glory, bells clanging across in the keyboard in ecstasy, “all the passion of our arms around the Invisible One….”

The extraordinary narrative arc and cumulative power of the Vingt Regards is akin to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, though its message is closer to one of his Passions. The expressive sweep of the work is vast, from the intimate, aching tenderness of Regarde de la Vierge (IV) to primal brutality of Par Lui tout a éte fait (VI) and the concentrated stillness of Je dors, mais mon coeur veille (XIV). As a consequence the work is rarely performed without an interval, but pianist Steven Osborne, who has been playing this incredible music for almost 20 years, believes it should be played as a whole, without a break, to create “a deeper sense of engagement with the work as a whole, for both myself and the listener.”

Steven Osborne, London 30 May 2013
Steven Osborne

The journey is remarkable, immense, exhilarating and overwhelming. Osborne knows this music so well that one feels at once totally at ease with him guiding us on this epic voyage yet also acutely alert, as he is, to every shift in harmony and tonal colour, every nuance and emotion. Speaking to him in the bar after the concert, I remarked that he seems very settled in the music (I first heard him play this work in 2013) and he commented that one just has to “go with it”. Such a modest description of such monumentality!

His virtuosity is restrained, yet his every gesture is freighted with meaning; he creates an extraordinary range of colours and tone – translucent filigree arabesques, shimmering, flickering trills, brilliant chirruping birdsong, plangent bass chords, rumbling, rolling Lisztian arpeggios….. And all despatched with an almost effortlesss sprezzatura, the music freshly wrought, as new sonorities, new meanings are revealed.

The performance was perfectly paced, the silences as poised and significant as the notes themselves, Osborne’s clear sense of continuity allowing each movement to be heard as a single statement in its own right, while also contributing to the cumulative, architectural effect of the whole. Here the rapture and ecstasy of Messiaen’s faith was captured in a profoundly concentrated performance that reverberated with passion, spirituality, awe and joy.

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

I loved to sing as a child and wanted to imitate my voice through an instrument: the clarinet was an obvious choice.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Every note that I played and that brought me closer towards what I felt and heard inside.

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

Performing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on a brand new bassett clarinet at the BBC Proms. The instrument was designed for me and ready only three weeks before the performance.

The ARD competition in Munich in 2012 was also quite a challenge!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

My latest recording: Belle époque with the Orchestre National de Lille under Alexandre Bloch (Pentatone).

Which particular works do you think you play best?

As I love Mozart (Quintet, Concerto, Trio) and French music (Debussy, Poulenc, Widor, ..) most; I guess those are the pieces people like to hear most from me.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Intuïtion and a sense of challenge and creativity.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

My favourite halls are the Concertgebouw Amsterdam and the Tonhalle Zürich. Both halls have a magical acoustic.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I do not have a favourite musicians, but I love many: Martha Argerich, Liisa Batiashvili, Truls Mörk, Hagen Quartet, Belcea Quartet, Francesco Piemontesi, Tabea Zimmerman, François Leleux…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

A performance of Brahms Clarinet Quintet in a small church in Belgium. There was a special atmosphere that evening. It felt almost like a healing experience, both for me and the audience. Many listeners started to cry during the slow movement.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Serving the music, reaching perfection and leaving ego at the doorstep.

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

Practice hard, stay yourself, ask yourself why you make music and embrace challenges with a smile.

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

Even closer to my clarinet

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Having the impression that life flows by itself.

Belle Époque – music for clarinet from Brahms, Debussy, Pierné, Trojahn and Widor
(Pentatone SA-CD PTC 5186808) is available now.


Belgian clarinettist Annelien Van Wauwe, former BBC New Generation Artist and winner of the renowned Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award 2018, is known for her expressive, intensive, lyrical and honest performances. She is considered to be one of the most fascinating and original clarinettists of her generation.

Read more

Purcell and Handel touch the parts other composers don’t reach

Guest post by Karine Hetherington.

I came to Baroque music late in life and I wonder why. One reason I believe is that for a long time concert houses or musicians, for one reason or another, didn’t feature it or play it. Music programmes drew on composers from the Classical and Romantic eras, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert being the most often played. At the Wigmore Hall in London, it was all about virtuoso piano performances, emotional intensity and famous trios or quartets – or so it seemed.

Early music, on the other hand, was thought to be dry, simplistic and unsuited to modern audiences. Most worryingly, it came across as elitist, only to be enjoyed by the clergy, closed circles of academics and music students.

Nowadays, nothing could be further from the truth as early music is not only being played in churches up and down the country, but in every concert venue worth its salt as well. The early music movement is gathering momentum and newer, younger audiences are being drawn in by musicians of their own age and orchestras, who, like the City of London Sinfonia, have done much to make the genre more accessible. The ‘Come and listen to Couperin on a beanbag,’ strategy has worked wonders for audiences of all ages.

But it’s not all about gimmicks. Singers from the current generation of young performers are keen to sing Purcell and Handel.“He knew how to write for singers,” confirms alto, Laura Lamph, about Purcell. “There is the occasional coloratura, which obviously needs extra preparation”. Tenor Ed Woodhouse echoes this enthusiasm but also talks about the challenges for a tenor. “Many composers of early music have a penchant for writing stratospheric first tenor parts, and these can be extremely difficult to sing”.

The notion of the challenge is undoubtedly the draw for the young singer. But it is not only about flourishes and singing stratospheric high or low notes. A performance can fall flat if the singers don’t inhabit their role. Neither is it about one singer’s performance. Each singer is part of the ensemble of artists and each, whilst trying to deliver a personal best, has to make the other singer look good too. Ed Woodhouse sums it up: “Singers have to be musically sympathetic of each other”. It is easy to see how this coming together to benefit the whole can be attractive for artists. There is no room for a diva mentality singing Purcell’s odes.

As for the emotional side, soprano Cally Youdell points out that “Handel and Purcell are some of the most skilled at portraying intense darkness and despair, as well as effervescent joy”. It is true that Dido singing ‘When I am lain in earth’ in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is probably one of the most beautiful, heart-breaking laments ever written. It is no accident the lament was taken up by top vocal artists in the rock and pop world too.

Ashley Stafford, who directs groups of talented young performers and sings himself, states that vocal artists are eager to perform Purcell for many different reasons. For one thing Purcell is multi-layered. The texts are “celebratory, sacred, devotional” on one level, but it is the music, its “inventive rhythms, ear-tingling harmonies, orchestral and vocal textures” which grab your attention and prise open the emotions. Purcell can be humorous and light-hearted too, and it is “his depth of awareness of the frailty of our existence in a universe of unknowns” which makes him resonate in our souls.

 

And this is the point, Purcell offers us in his gloriously inventive music a little extra space in these contrary times, to view the world as it really is, good or bad. In our despair his music is a balm, whereas his celebratory ecstatic passages are a reminder that there is great light at the end of the tunnel.

In Guilty Night by Purcell

Go and see the Kensington Olympia Baroque Ensemble perform ‘Celebration and Solemnity’ : The Music of Henry Purcell at Olympia, Hammersmith Road, W14 8UX on 9th November, 7.30pm. Further details and tickets


Karine Hetherington is a teacher and writer of novels, who also blogs on art and music, and is a reviewer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s sister site ArtMuseLondon.com. Her two published novels, The Poet and the Hypotenuse, and Fort Girard, are set in France in the 1930s and 1940s. Karine promotes singers and musicians performing in the fast-growing Kensington and Olympia Music and Arts Festival.

A peaceful ostinato figure, grounded and tranquil, opens the work. After a few bars, a serenely beautiful yet simple melody is heard in the treble which melts into a series of increasingly complex variations, the initial theme dissolving into trills and grace notes, gossamer fiorituras and filigree passages. The curve of complexity turns full circle when the theme returns in its original form at the end.

This could quite easily be a description of Chopin’s lullaby, the Berceuse, Op 57, composed in 1845, but in fact the work in question was recorded some 100 years later for the jazz album ‘Everybody Digs Bill Evans’.

Bill Evans’ ‘Peace Piece’ came out of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Some Other Time’ (from On The Town). Evans borrowed the ostinato bass figure and improvised an increasingly decorative treble line over the top of two chords which remain the same throughout, just as in Chopin’s Berceuse.

What happened was that I started to play the introduction, and it started to get some much of its own feeling and identity that I just figured, well, I’ll keep going

– Bill Evans

While Chopin’s Berceuse, with its sense of freely evolving improvisation and fresh decorative ideas, is the most obvious model for ‘Peace Piece’, the work is also redolent of Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies (that repeating bass figure again) and the slow movement of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto. The trills and figurations in ‘Peace Piece’ are also reminiscent of birdsong; Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux was just appearing, but whether Evans actually knew this music is not known.

Evans, a jazz pianist by profession, was classically-trained at Southeastern University and Mannes School of Music, and his fondness for and mastery of classical repertoire (including by Bach, Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Ravel and Debussy) gave him extraordinary expressive freedom and inspired some of his greatest jazz innovations.

Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned with feeling being the generating force

Bill Evans

‘Peace Piece’ has a wonderful static, meditative calm, and in both ‘Peace Piece’ and Chopin’s Berceuse, the ostinato serves as a unifying, grounding element from which ideas flower and evolve over an extended narrative arc, while the reprise of the opening melody creates a sense of departure and return. Evans’ music, like that of Chopin, and also Scriabin, Debussy and Ravel, combines economy of musical statement with highly original melodic and harmonic concepts (in bars 47-49 of ‘Peace Piece’, for example, Evans uses a free tonal approach reminiscent of Prokofiev). He used oblique harmonies based on whole-tone scales, and abandoned functional or structural harmony, so that chords are specifically used for colour and timbre rather than strict harmonic progression. There is an introspective lyricism and intimacy in both his sensitive piano playing and his compositions which defies categorisation, proof that in great music creative influences transcend time and genre.

Evans refused to play ‘Peace Piece’ live, insisting it was the result of a unique moment in the recording studio, a moment which could not be recreated in concert (though he did eventually perform it just once, two years before he died).

Many classical pianists admire Bill Evans and ‘Peace Piece’ remains one of his most influential piano solos, some 40 years after his death. The French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet pays tribute to Evans’ genius in his ‘Conversations With Bill Evans’ album, and Russian pianist Igor Levit uses ‘Peace Piece’ as a fittingly consoling conclusion to his album ‘Life’. The British composer Gavin Bryars wrote ‘My First Homage’ (1978) as a homage to Bill Evans.

The score of ‘Peace Piece’ is published as a “written out improvisation”, offering the pianist the opportunity to either play it verbatim or to explore their own improvisations. Playing it can feel like a meditation, where time stands still – something an audience will sense too when the music is played well. It needs accuracy and attention to detail but also a willingness on the part of the performer to stand back and let the music just “be”, to exist in the moment of creation – as Evans insisted it should in that 1958 recording.

To me Bill was the Chopin of jazz. He was a great artist.

– Jimmy Rowles (1918-1996), American jazz pianist, vocalist, and composer

 


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Venezuelan pianist Clara Rodriguez has been praised for her imaginative and engaging concert programmes which consistently contrast Western classical repertoire with the music of South American composers.

In this special concert on 22 November at St James’s Piccadilly, Clara is joined by violinst Stephen Bryant (Concertmaster of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1992) and cuatro player Arnoldo Cogorno in a programme which combines much-loved works from the classical repertoire with vibrant Venezuelan music. Actress Susan Porrett will read Beethoven’s ‘Letter to the immortal beloved’ as a complement to the Piano Sonata Op 27, No. 2, the ‘Moonlight’.

Tickets £13-£20

Booking link https://bpt.me/4254302

This celebration of shared music-making has a practical purpose and the aim of the concert is to support of young Venezuelan musicians who are in desperate need of essential accessories for their instruments. These talented young musicians need new and used violin, cello and double bass strings, and reeds for wind instruments. With this event, Clara Rodriguez hopes to raise awareness of the difficult situation these students face and this concert is a wonderfully appropriate way of collecting donations of these essential accessories and money to pay to have them couriered to Venezuela in order to support the education of many young musicians in Venezuela. Donations have already been received from leading violin maker and dealer Florian Leonhard, Adrian Warwick Stringed Instruments and violinist Pierre Frappier

New and second-hand strings for violins, violas, cellos, double-basses or reeds for wind instruments will be hugely welcomed. You can send donations to Clara Rodriguez by writing to claris97@hotmail.com. Fundraising in conjunction with Luis Miguel González and the Fundación para el Impulso de las Artes en Venezuela (FIDAV)

22nd November 2019 7.30pm

St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London W1J 9LL

Clara Rodriguez – piano

Stephen Bryant – violin

Arnoldo Cogorno – cuatro

Susan Porrett – reader

Programme

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata for Piano No 14 in C sharp minor, Quasi una fantasia’ (Moonlight) Op 27 No 2

Edvard Grieg: Sonata for Violin and Piano No 2 in G Op 13

Fritz Kreisler: Schon Rosmarin

Luisa Elena Paesano: Pajarillo for piano

Manuel de Falla: Nana from 7 canciones populares españolas

Johannes Brahms: Sonata movement in C minor (Scherzo from the FAE Sonata) WoO post 2

John Williams: Schindler’s List