Guest review by Karine Hetherington

I don’t go to the British Museum as often as maybe I should. My education in ancient civilizations sadly ceased the minute I left primary school. However I still love the Greek myths. I have happy memories of fashioning the Greek gods and heroes from papier-mâché and chicken wire in class and recall my felt tip drawing of Prometheus writhing in agony as an eagle pecked out his liver!

When I received an invitation to attend a talk and musical concert at the British Museum about the Parthenon Frieze in June, it seemed the ideal opportunity to renew my interest and to learn something of the precious exterior ornamental band which ran around the 2,500- year-old Parthenon temple.  I also wanted to know what all the fuss was about, why lawyer Amal Clooney, one month after marrying superstar George, was taking up the Greek cause to return the priceless marbles to Greece. Today, around 60% of the frieze is housed in Room 18 of the British Museum, the majority of the remaining 40% resides in the Acropolis museum.

The Parthenon Freize at the British Museum (picture source: Wikipedia)

So I set out on a gloriously sunny evening in June with the words of my friend Molly Borthwick (generous supporter of that day’s event) whirling around in my mind: “You haven’t met Ian (Jenkins), you haven’t heard him speak! He’s the world expert on Greek and Roman sculptors. You’ll lurvv him!”   When Molly says these things, I listen.

An hour later I was in the back row of the lecture hall. Without any ceremony a silver-haired Ian Jenkins walked on stage, looking the part of Victorian gentleman and flamboyant academic in his slightly creased, pin-striped suit and a silver watch chain, from which hung his museum key. From his lectern he perused the audience. I scanned the room myself. My gaze flitted across the packed lecture hall composed of suited men and women in heels and summer dresses, over to a younger crowd nearer to where I was sitting, in jeans, sneakers and dark tee-shirts, some of whom, started to canoodle the minute they sat down.

I went back to reading the programme: “Ian is the curator of the Museum’s critically acclaimed exhibition ‘Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art”. “The body” I thought to myself, a theme which is bound to get the punters in at the British Museum. Tonight however, Ian’s angle had changed. We were being offered: ‘The Parthenon Frieze: a symphony in stone’. As I am a great classical music lover and a Wigmore Hall regular, I was intrigued by the musical connection. This, coupled with the fact that we were going to be treated to a live UK premier of newly commissioned work entitled Panathenaia which had been inspired by the Parthenon frieze.

Ian explained that the frieze was the decorative sculptural upper band of marble, which originally ran off the entrance to the Parthenon temple.  The frieze evokes the ‘Great Panathenaia’, the festival held every four years to celebrate the birth of Athena. Here we had to imagine it in situ: two parallel processions progress along opposite sides of the building towards their finishing point on the east wall. We see horsemen, chariots, animals for sacrifice, young women and magistrates or tribal heroes. There are chariot races that day and music competitions, the prizes special jars, filled with olive oil, with a depiction of the event on them.   The high point of the ceremony is the presentation of the peplos or sacred cloth, newly woven, to adorn an ancient olive statue of Athena.  Presiding over these festivities are the gods and goddesses. The interesting thing, Ian tells us, is that there is a question mark over whether the gods are viewing these events from on high – that is from Mount Olympus – or down at the Temple in Athens, suggesting perhaps the merging of the human and the divine. Have humans become godlier or have the gods become more plebeian? There is a pause whilst we take this in. A man in front of me stops tapping the screen on his iPhone and looks up, as if he has just woken up to this momentous question left hanging in the air.  He looks around vaguely then bows his head again and resumes his silent tapping.

Ian’s talk becomes more and more fascinating as he draws all sorts of modern artistic parallels with the frieze. He sees the same arrangement of horses in a work painted by the great artist Mark Gertler in 1916, ‘The Merry go round’ and so on. And then comes Ian’s tour de force. “The symphony” which is to be found in the Parthenon Frieze. Ian starts to show us slides of his transcription of the frieze, which he has converted into a sort of Braille, in which the numerous figures seen from above, are represented by simple shapes. And here I quote from the Panathenaia librettist Paul Williamson, as I’m not a musicologist : “The heads of the horsemen, for example, are shown as ovals, laid out in rows to indicate the depth of field. The effect of the semibreve-like ellipses arranged on staves, as it were, is incredibly like musical notation.”

Oh my! My brain is now reeling, I am eager to hear the music to give it a rest.

Full of anticipation we leave the lecture hall, and make our way up a grand staircase to Room 18, the Parthenon frieze viewing gallery.

Twenty minutes later, having finally settled in our seats, we are able to admire the frieze for real; we stare at the sections of white marble sculptures on the walls, beautifully lit, looking so clean, the figures so beautifully fluid and lovingly preserved, though incomplete. It is hard to believe that they are so ancient. The TV camera is there with Patricia Wheatley, formerly with the BBC and head of the BM Broadcasting unit, the photographers with their telescopic lenses, all now aiming at the stage, for the choir, two sopranos, the orchestra and lead violinist Hugo Ticciati (soon to be playing at the Wigmore I noticed with interest) has just stepped in. The enthusiastic Ticciati starts speaking a little fast on the stage, but it doesn’t matter, all I need to know is in the programme, namely that it was he who had the idea of commissioning this work in the first place.  Ticciati enlisted the services of award-winning composer Thomas Hewitt Jones (Winner of the 2003 BBC Young Composer Competition) and they chose Paul Williamson to write the libretto. Ticciati and his orchestra performed the finished work once in Sweden last summer, at a summer festival he organises, and instead of the Parthenon, a rock-balancing artist was called in to reconstruct his own frieze with some stones from a nearby lake. Apparently the last irregular diamond of stone was put in place as the music ended.

Wow! I thought, not bad, not bad at all. But even a rock-balancing artist cannot compete with these beautiful smooth, sculpted warriors running along the wall.

A young bearded conductor steps up on stage with tight corkscrews curls, followed by two late musicians, who, cowering with embarrassment and grasping their violins quickly find their seats.

Panathenaia is a Cantata in eight movements for string orchestra, timpani, soloists and choir. The hugely talented composer, Thomas Hewitt-Jones drew his inspiration from certain figures from the frieze and temple statues.

The instrumental Prelude opens with the tense plucking of strings and jagged rhythms, then the full orchestra enters into a slow lumbering movement of strange, mysterious sounds marking the start of the Athenian procession or is it the wars that preceded the building of the Parthenon temple, as there is the rumble of drums.   We are transported back to c. 495-429 BC, where the instruments one imagines to have such different discordant sounds.

In marked contrast, the following “Temple” movement with the Choir, is one of beautiful high, ethereal voices, denoting the harmony and beauty of the land and holy building where justice reigns: “This ancient land’s an orderly/Arrangement, wrought from flowing forms”.

“The Weaver’s Song” following, sung with great feeling by the fine blonde soprano Paulina Pfeiffer is both mournful and serious in tone – serious because she is weaving the sacred cloth which will clothe the statue of Athena, therefore a great responsibility – mournful – because she is alone, separated from her warrior boyfriend who is taking part in the chariot races during the festival: “Eros, has made me dull”. Apparently in rehearsals, Paulina, was disturbed by her voice ricocheting off the frieze in Room 18. She was, I was told, holding back tonight, and I noticed her shoulders stiffen a little as one particular high note echoed around our heads. The effect however was thrilling!

I loved “The Lyric Suite”: Hugo Ticciati’s achingly beautiful violin, sometimes so haunting and then the unsettling bassoon, plucking of strings and tympani which crescendos into a full-blown orchestral swell setting things up for Prometheus and his challenge with the gods.

In “Prometheus” we had the gorgeous pairing of the blonde soprano and dark mezzo-soprano, Karolina Blixt. Blixt looked very striking in her Grecian ivory dress and liquid eye liner eyes which flashed at the audience, causing quite a ripple amongst the male members who looked up at her in complete reverence (I see a star in the making). “Ah but the gods have lost their spark” they sing signifying the decline in the influence of the gods, making way for Prometheus who “…freed the agent of change/That far-seeing rascal”. The sopranos snarl the word “rascal”

In “Shadows in a dream” the choir asks what harmony is possible when humanity inherits the earth? Tympani – storm rumblings loud then soft and distant, set the scene for the following “Birth of Pandora”, Zeus’s revenge on humanity. I loved the amazing anarchic dance of the satyrs attending the birth of the beautiful, ‘baneful’ Pandora. “Caper on your crooked legs” – wonderful alliteration by Paul Williamson the librettist. And finally the Coda – plucking of double basses like footsteps fading away. The music has turned full circle. We are back to where we started.

Loud applause. Ian Jenkins the curator, the musicians, singers, composer, librettist and conductor, had transported us into another world, another time. It had been an exciting, illuminating experience, one that I am very keen to repeat. These sorts of happenings however are rare and require money, time, commitment and passion. Vision too. I felt privileged to have attended such an event.

Since then I have returned to admire the frieze in the British Museum twice!

Discover this extraordinary composition performed by orchestra and singers for the first time ever in the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery, which houses the Parthenon Sculptures. Surrounded by these stunning carvings, Panathenaia celebrates their artistry and tells the story portrayed in the timeless stones.

Karine Hetherington is a teacher and writer who lives in London. A dual-British and French national, with a Russian ancestry thrown in, her short stories and novels reflect her passion for both the detail and grand sweep of European history. After studying creative writing at Birkbeck College in London, Karine has been telling stories that have brought history to life, with tales of love and adventure that draw on the detail of real events and real lives. Karine’s novel ‘The Poet and the Hypotenuse’ is available now. Read an extract here

Meet the Artist……Thomas Hewitt Jones

In the last week, I’ve been to two concerts which have featured the music of Fryderyk Chopin. The first, at St John’s Smith Square, was the second concert in British pianist Warren Mailley-Smith‘s wonderful and ambitious complete Chopin cycle; the second was a concert by young Polish Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, who performed the Opus 25 Études as part of his Wigmore Hall recital on 30th October.

Warren Mailley-Smith

Warren opened his concert with Chopin’s Fantasie in F minor, Op 49, a dark yet majestic work to which he brought requisite scale and grandeur while also highlighting the more intimate elements of the piece. The rest of the programme featured shorter works: a selection of Waltzes and Mazurkas, and in the second half the complete Op 10 Études. What was apparent throughout the concert is that Warren clearly adores this music. This may sound crass, but I believe it is important to love the music you play. In the many interviews I have conducted with musicians, most will express a real love of the repertoire they play and this is often a deciding factor when planning concert programmes or recordings. Warren’s affection for the music was apparent in every note and phrase and this was transmitted very clearly to the audience both through his sensitive shaping of the music, his elegant soundworld and his body language. Despite the size of the venue, he created an atmosphere of intimacy, amply demonstrating his appreciation for the small scale of many of the works played.

In his Études, Chopin elevates the student study into a work of great beauty and virtuosity – while also cleverly retaining the basic premise of the study, that it tests and hones one’s technique. I think the key to playing the Études convincingly is to treat them first and foremost as beautiful pieces of music. Which is what Warren did. It is fascinating to hear the complete set in one sitting, to appreciate their contrasting characteristics and moods, and to marvel at the range of Chopin’s imagination and powers of expression. In Warren’s hands, each was a miniature miracle, sensitively rendered and deftly delivered. His assured technique was the foundation on which he built this artistry and the overall result was exceptionally engaging and intense. I look forward to the next concert in Warren’s Chopin cycle, at the end of November.

Midweek, I heard Stephen Hough at the Barbican in music by Schubert, Franck and Liszt together with the premiere of his new Piano Sonata III, ‘Trinitas’. There is no doubting Hough’s formidable technique coupled with insightful musicality and this concert reflected this. It was a serious affair, only lightened at the end by the encores, but it was a satisfying and thoughtful concert.

Read my full review here

Finally on Friday to the Wigmore to hear Jan Lisiecki, billed as a “wunderkind” (a description that always makes me suspicious!). At just 20, Lisiecki has already garnered much praise, in particular for his recording of Chopin’s Op 10 and Op 25 Etudes (he has been signed to Deutsche Grammophon since the age of 15). I have read much about Lisiecki, some very fulsome, some not, and I was curious to hear him live. Unfortunately, his concert was a very patchy affair. The opening Mozart Sonata (K 331) was elegantly articulated, tastefully pedalled and with an understanding of Mozart’s orchestral writing, particularly in the middle movement. The Rondo all Turca, which certain pianists, who shall remain nameless, have a habit of thumping out at high speed, was witty and playful, undoubtedly helped by a more restrained dynamic.

Jan Lisiecki (photo: Mathias Bothor)

Things started to go wrong, for me at least, with three Concert Studies by Liszt, with further problems in Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses, which were largely lost in unclear phrasing and overly loud playing. After the interval came Chopin’s Opus 25 Études. The ‘Aeolian Harp’ Etude began well, with delicate figurations and a clear sense of the melodic line, but as soon as the volume began to increase, Lisiecki’s touch became heavy handed and unrefined. In the more energetic Etudes, we were “treated” to an unrestrained display from the “louder faster” school of pianism. The ‘Butterfly Etude’ bounced around the keyboard like an over-sized clumsy moth. Phrasing went awry in the noisy melée, left-hand figures were highlighted but made no sense, and by the time we reached the ‘Winter Wind’ Etude, the brutal hammering of the piano had become almost laughable. In short, this was an unnecessarily flashy and tasteless display of arrogant adolescent virtuosity, which seemed to bear little fidelity to the score, nor an understanding of Chopin’s distinctive soundworld (it is said by those who heard him play that even in the forte and fortissimo range, his sound never rose above mezzo-forte: this is of course in part due to the more softly-spoken instrument he favoured). I have a fundamental and ongoing problem with people playing Chopin’s miniatures (and the Etudes are miniatures – just very difficult ones!) on modern concert grands: just because you can harness an enormous sound from such an instrument, it does not mean you should. A sensitive artist will know how to temper the sound to suit the repertoire – and the acoustic. The Wigmore is a relatively small venue and the audience does not need to be hit over the head with the sound of the piano….. I wondered, on hearing Lisiecki’s playing, whether a teacher may have encouraged him to play that way, or whether it was simply the exuberance of youth. I also felt he is still looking for repertoire which truly suits his personality: when he does, I hope he may produce good things.

  
Barbican. London, 28th October 2015
As befits this deep thinking musical polymath, the programme for Stephen Hough’s Barbican concert was carefully constructed to reveal every side of his personality – artistic, creative and philosophical. The concert showcased Hough’s new Piano Sonata III, written to celebrate the 175th anniversary of The Tablet, which Hough intelligently linked to his choice of other composers. The spiritual preoccupations of Schubert, Franck and Liszt match Hough’s own, but there were motivic connections between the works in the programme too: for example, the final movement of Hough’s Piano Sonata mirrored the grandeur and hymn-like qualities of Franck’s Fugue. Liszt’s Valses oubliées looked forward to Schoenberg and his cohort in their unexpected harmonies and fragmentary melodies, while Hough’s own work looked back to the 12-tone compositional technique, originally conceived by Schoenberg. There was also virtuosity aplenty too – in his own work and in two of Liszt’s Transcendental Études, which closed the concert.

Read my full review here 
(Photo credit: Sim Canetty Clarke)

Geoffrey Saba

Two concerts in as many days, both in beautiful deconsecrated churches and both featuring the piano music of Franz Schubert. The first concert was at St John’s Smith Square, a church in the heart of Westminster regarded as one of the finest examples of English Baroque architecture. The venue also offers one of the finest acoustics for piano music in London, performed on this occasion by pianist Geoffrey Saba.

The programme opened with Schubert’s Sonata in B D575. Written when the composer was twenty and cast in four movements, it is suffused with sunshine and joy and Schubert’s special gemütlich, elegantly nuanced by Saba who played with a genial tone and acute sense of Schubert’s intimacy. The Four Impromptus D935 followed, and again we were treated to playing which was sensitively shaded and tastefully voiced, from the plaintive duetting fragments of the first Impromptu, through the long-spun theme and variations of the third to the sprightly and folksy flavours of the fourth. After the interval came the Sonata in A, D959, Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, composed in the last year of his life. Much has been written and debated about Schubert’s last three sonatas, in particular their length, the cyclic and motivic elements which they share, and, with regard to the A major Sonata, the extraordinary Andantino second movement, which is quite unlike anything else Schubert wrote.

For those who assert that this is Schubert’s “most serious” sonata I would highlight Mr Saba’s keen sense of the work’s life-affirming qualities, particularly in the final movement which unfolded with warmth and wit. In the opening movement there was a clear sense of the contrasting architecture and fastidious attention to articulation, while the Scherzo’s arpeggiated chords sparkled, contrasting with the more pastoral elements of this movement. Mr Saba observed all the Da Capo repeats (which many pianists choose to omit), lending a greater sense of significance to this movement and creating balance across the entire work. The slow movement opens with a melancholy barcarolle or folksong. Spare pedalling allowed us to appreciate the profound simplicity of this section before the “acute emotional disturbance” (Alfred Brendel) of the middle section. This was refined playing, always alert to Schubert’s lyricism, combined with a willingness to allow the music to speak for itself.

Geoffrey Saba will feature in a future Meet the Artist interview

www.geoffreysaba.com

Alan Schiller

On Sunday afternoon more Schubert at St Mary’s Perivale, a tiny 12th-century former chapel in west London. This venue is home to a lively and varied series of concerts, and attracts fine artists, both established and younger musicians. On this occasion we were treated to music for piano 4-hands by the Schiller-Humphreys Duo (Allan Schiller and John Humphreys). Both acclaimed in their own right as soloists, Schiller and Humphreys have been playing as a duo for over thirty years – and it shows in their relaxed yet perfectly synchronised style and evident enjoyment of the music they play. I page-turned for John and Allan at a concert at Steinway Hall in June 2015 and was afforded a rare and at times entertaining insight in to the “special relationship” of the piano duo.

John Humphreys

Sunday’s programme featured what is arguably the greatest work for piano duo, Schubert’s Fantasie in f minor, D940, to which John and Allan brought a keen sense of the narrative of the work while also highlighting the special characteristics of each movement. The rest of the concert featured music for piano 4-hands by Mozart (at his most profound and reflective in the Sonata K521 and rather more lighthearted and witty in the Andante and Variations K501), Hindemith’s Sonata for Piano duet which contained interesting echoes of the Schubert in its first movement, Ravel’s ever-popular Mother Goose suite and three Hungarian Dances by Brahms. The pianists, through their relaxed and friendly manner, created a convivial atmosphere, helped in no small part by tea and cakes after the concert, giving audience members a chance to mingle and meet the artists. An entirely satisfying and civilised way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

More on St Mary’s Perivale here

At the Piano with John Humphreys (interview)

(photo: Fran Kaufman)

My final visit to Wigmore Hall this season (the hall is closed during August) was to hear one of my piano heroes, Canadian pianist and composer Marc-Andre Hamelin. Each of his London concerts I’ve attended has offered coruscating technical facility combined with musical insight and the impression of a thoughtful musician who is very connected to the music he plays. This is in part created through his economy of physical movement when he plays. There are no unnecessary gestures in Hamelin’s playing, no pianistic histrionics or flashy pyrotechnics (except in the music itself), and because he never gets in the way of the music, his performances are concentrated and intense.

This concert was no exception, its intensity made even greater by the inclusion of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, the “Funeral March”, with its third movement theme made so infamous by its associations with the deaths of Russian Communist leaders, and its extraordinary and ghostly finale.

Read my full review here

Daniel Barenboim, musical polymath, is in town for a four-concert Schubert Project residency in which he will traverse all 11 of Schubert’s completed piano sonatas. Prior to the first concert, he unveiled a brand new piano – one with his name on it. The Barenboim piano was conceived and developed in a collaboration between Barenboim and Belgian piano maker Chris Maene, with the cooperation of Steinway. What makes this piano different from the modern concert grand is that it is straight strung, and Barenboim used a Liszt piano as the inspiration for his eponymous instrument. It is said to offer a greater variety of colour, transparency and clarity across its range. Audiences at Barenboim’s Schubert recitals will have the opportunity to hear for themselves this new piano in action.

Unsurprisingly, it was a full house at the Royal Festival Hall and there was a distinct buzz of anticipation and reverence ahead of the start of the concert. Sitting in the rear stalls didn’t really offer myself and my concert companions a chance to examine the piano in detail. The piano remained firmly closed, lid down, until a few moments before Barenboim took to the stage, and was closed up again during the interval.

The jury is still out on whether the Barenboim piano was noticeably different to a modern Steinway, and any clarity and crispness of articulation, or nuanced dynamics are surely the result of the pianist’s technique, not the piano: one would expect an artist of Barenboim’s calibre to make even the most beat-up church hall piano sound lovely.

The theme of the first of Barenboim’s Schubert concerts was the key of A, as he presented three sonatas from different periods in the composer’s life. The D537, in A minor, was composed by Schubert when he was 20 and is the earliest surviving completed piano sonata, though it was not published until 1852 as the Op. post. 164. It begins with a dotted motif followed by filigree semiquaver broken chords. It’s emotionally charged and already demonstrates Schubert’s skill in unexpected harmonic shifts which colour the music. The middle movement, in warm E major, is genial and nostalgic, with a theme that would be heard later in the concert (Schubert “exported” it as the Rondo theme of the final movement of the D959). Yet, typically of Schubert, the mood shifts during the trio, a chilly march in A minor. The finale has a Beethovenian cast, with a dash of Haydn’s wit, yet already full of Schubert’s trademark unexpected harmonic shifts and emotional volte-faces.

I think many of us were trying to hear whether the piano really sounded that different instead of concentrating on the music, but the opening Sonata was presented with energy, though not always entirely convincingly, and keen sense of Schubert’s tonal palette, especially in the final movement. The middle movement, whose theme was reprised later in the D959, began genially enough, but the middle section had an ominous tread, for which the bass notes of the piano were suitably rich and dark.

The first A major Sonata of the evening is known as “the little A major” and was the most genial of the three sonatas presented in the concert.  Barenboim created a sense of intimacy in the first movement, but again one had the sense he wasn’t entirely convinced by it himself. It continued into the ethereal slow movement, whose pianissimos were, at times, barely a whisper. The finale was lyrical and good-natured, the opening theme played with a songful elegance, though I felt he pushed the tempo a little too much for my taste so that some of the lyricism was lost.

After the interval was “my’ Sonata, the penultimate of Schubert’s piano sonatas, the D959 in A major, which I have (perhaps recklessly) set myself the task of learning. I was extremely curious to hear Barenboim’s take on this big work, not least whether he could carry the narrative of the first movement right through to the closing sentence of the finale. My difficulty with hearing other people’s versions of this sonata is that they often conflict with my own, which can make me the most pedantic of listeners. I spend a lot of time with this Sonata. To say I eat, drink and breathe it might be excessive, but I often find myself waking in the night and playing it through it my head. The opening statement, a chorale-like sentence, lacked real nobility and drive and the propulsion towards the suspension at the end of the passage was lost in some curious pulling about of the tempo. There were one or two rocky moments as some of the triplet figures were lost – and this issue reappeared in the finale, where perhaps Barenboim was tiring (this is a big work – lasting around 40 minutes, even without the exposition repeat in the first movement), and overall I felt the movement lacked power and drive.

The slow movement, about much has been said, written and surmised, a melancholy folksong with a storm at its centre, lacked cohesion and there were some serious memory issues towards the end. The movement seemed relentless rather than revelatory. However, the scherzo was bright and crisp, with some sensitive highlighting of the melodic line in the trio section. The finale seemed rushed, the triplets often losing clarity, but the sections in the coda where the music stalls, as if to take a long breath, to reflect on what has gone before, were perfectly paced and the closing statement, a recapitulation of the opening sentence from the first movement, was emphatic. The standing ovation which followed was as much for Barenboim the man, the demigod, as for the performance and the new piano.