The piano music of Olivier Messiaen is not performed enough for my taste, partly because there aren’t that many pianists around who are willing to tackle it. One notable exception is British pianist Peter Donohoe, who studied with Messiaen’s second wife Yvonne Loriod, and who played the composer’s music to the composer himself during his studies in Paris in the 1970s.
The concert at London’s Institut Français, part of the three-day It’s All About Piano Festival, was originally to include the London première of La Fauvette Passerinette, a work fully sketched by Messiaen in 1961 which was discovered by Peter Hill, who worked with Messiaen between 1986 and 1991, and which Hill completed in 2012. Sadly, Peter Hill was unwell, and so the work was introduced by Elaine Gould from Faber Music and Peter Donohoe, who played brief, appetite-whetting extracts, and relayed some interesting and entertaining anecdotes of his studies with Monsieur and Madame Messiaen, and his experiences of performing Messiaen’s music. Benjamin Frith stepped in at the last minute to perform Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen with Peter Donohoe
I was moved to write this post after reading this article on the wonderful Brain Pickings site, in which Nassim Nicholas Talib (author of Black Swan) talks about the writer Umberto Eco’s “anti-library” of some 30,000 books, many of which he has not yet read. This article struck a chord with me, as a few years ago I read a fascinating book by French psychoanalyst and University of Paris literature professor Pierre Bayard,How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, in which the author makes a very good case for freeing ourselves from the conventions and obligations of being “well read”. Professor Bayard explains that reading is a way of engaging with literature in various ways – books we’ve read, books we’ve skimmed through, books we’ve heard about, books we’ve forgotten, books we’ve never opened. As both Bayard and Taleb both state, the books we haven’t read are the most interesting for they offer new possibilities in broadening our knowledge and widening our cultural horizons. In the world today, knowledge can be accrued incredibly easily and quickly via the internet, and this accrual of knowledge becomes a compulsive need to enable us to rise in the hierarchy of perceived “intelligence” or “knowledgeability”. In fact, all those books which haven’t been read yet represent a wondrous research tool, for they are all waiting to be explored.
The same can be said of music. Today, with a huge variety of recordings, films and live concerts and opera available to enjoy every hour of every day, we can feel under tremendous pressure to be seen to have covered all the “classics” (the big warhorses of the classical repertoire by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler et al – not to mention 20th century and contemporary classics……) and to know them. I admit to some hefty gaps in my musical and listening knowledge, gaps at which certain friends and colleagues are apt to pull their eyes and wring their hands: “What? You don’t listen to Wagner???!!!”. But for me, those gaps stand for something rather special and exciting.
Just as the large pile of books by my bed attests, so the huge library of music waiting to be explored – via CDs, streaming services, concerts, sheet music and more – represents a wondrous journey of discovery, and one about which I am very excited. In fact, this journey began at a young age, when I first became aware of classical music through my parents’ own listening and concert-going. By the time I reached my teens, I had developed fairly trenchant ideas about the kind of music I liked, and would touch at the piano. Growing musical maturity and an irrepressible inquisitiveness have led me to discover a wealth of music, but still I have hardly scratched the surface. The great thing is that I know there is plenty more out there, just waiting to be heard and explored.
It is for this reason that I grow increasingly frustrated with concert programmes at London’s mainstream venues (where I spend a lot of time, in my role as a concert reviewer and ardent live music fan). The same diet of largely the same “classics” by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Mahler, Brahms comes round year after year. There are too many “safe” programmes, not enough brand new music, nor even 20th-century repertoire being performed. Sometimes it feels like one is picking up the same dog-eared favourite copy of Austen or Dickens. There’s nothing wrong with the programmes, nor indeed those authors, per se, but our listening horizons would benefit greatly from the opportunity to explore more unusual or lesser-known repertoire.
When selecting concerts, either as a reviewer or simply for pleasure, I tend towards those programmes which include unusual juxtapositions (for example, a recent concert at the Wigmore Hall by the Rubenstein Competition winner, which paired Scarlatti with Ligeti and Chopin with Messiaen), or music which I haven’t heard before. I may not like all I hear (and by the way, it really is ok to admit that you don’t like Schoenberg or Birtwistle: it doesn’t make you a lesser person!) but I intend to remain open-minded and open-eared at every concert I go to.
As an active musician, the voyage of discovery is even more potent: so much repertoire out there just waiting to be explored! The prospect is hugely exciting.
I was delighted to join a crowd of excited Haydn fans in Soho, London today for the unveiling of a blue plaque in honour of the composer Joseph Haydn, who lived at 18 Great Pulteney Street in 1791.
At midday on 24th March 2015, to the cheers of the assembled crowd, Sir Neville Marriner unveiled a commemorative blue plaque in central London to celebrate the work of the composer Joseph Haydn. Sir Neville was joined by Denis McCaldin, director of the Haydn Society of Great Britain, and the Austrian ambassador, who both spoke ahead of the unveiling.
The plaque is the first dedicated to Haydn in London. When he visited for the first time in 1791, the composer was at least as popular as his contemporary, Mozart. Though Mozart has three plaques in London, until today Haydn had none, despite fifty years of attempts to establish one.
Taking inspiration from the successful subscription concerts of his day, the Haydn Society of Great Britain ran a lively and successful crowdfunding campaign to commission and install the plaque.
The Haydn plaque can be seen at 18 Great Pulteney Street, Soho, London W1F 9NE.
(This article first appeared on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc)
Who or what inspired you to take up the cello and pursue a career in music?
My parents were both dentists, but my mother was a keen amateur harpsichord player. I started as a very good recorder player and gradually ran out of music as I devoured everything!! My parents had friends who were Dutch baroque musicians who recommended I start learning a string instrument. I said I wanted to play the biggest – as they didn’t have an estate car at the time they lied, so I am a cellist not a bass player!
I went to Chethams’ School of Music at 9 years old but had only really been playing cello for a year.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Early on I would say Jacqueline du Pré, like many cellists of my generation. I became obsessed with new music after hearing Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘Gawain’ for my 10th birthday at the Royal Opera House, so I suppose this experience changed my musical direction.
I met my former husband, the composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, at 22 years old. His music always meant a huge amount to me and I was lucky he wrote for me a lot. We also both shared a huge passion for jazz and as he worked with musicians such as John Scofield and Peter Erskine this had a huge influence in the music and players I was interested in playing and collaborating with.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
There have been many challenges but for me it has been building the self-belief and confidence which has very much effected the timing of my career. I was all set up and ready to launch into the profession in my early 20’s, but it felt much more natural to support someone else, especially someone whose work I really believed in. Once I had the children I began the usual work/family life struggle everyone has. I have been a single mother now for three years so I have been trying to rebuild my life as well as restart my career on top of bringing up two very young children – to be honest every day is a struggle! Their father has moved down the road which has helped hugely and we organise diaries so the children are generally with one of us whilst the other works. Mark is a very hands on Dad and I am also lucky to have some incredibly supportive friends, mainly musicians, who have stood beside me during the challenging times.
Which recordings are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of a chamber music disc I did for Toccata Classics of all of Hugh Wood’s chamber music with the London Archduke trio, Paul Silverthorne and Roger Heaton. We recorded it at Champs Hill a few years ago. I adore Hugh’s music and chose to perform his Cello Concerto with the Royal College of Music Sinfonietta when I won the concerto trials in my last year of college.
I’m also proud of jazz recordings I have done as those sessions have always been a massive musical learning experience for me. Ian Shaw, Judith Owen and Barb Jungr’s albums, on which I have featured, I still enjoy listening to as their artistry is so wonderful! Most of the time I find it almost painful hearing old recordings.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
The two things I really enjoy doing and suppose feel comfortable with now are the polar opposites musically. I have always loved working with classical contemporary composers – the stranger the music and the more demanding the better. I play lots of Lachenmann and Xenaxis when I can choose my own programmes. This is the music which I have always felt very natural interpreting, probably more so than anything else.
On the other end of the spectrum, I love my work as a session ‘cellist. I like making the switch between styles and improvising does not fill me with dread. I relish the speed needed in interpreting something fast that has normally just been printed off and placed in front of me. Working closely with the artist and great producers in the moment can be very thrilling.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I tend to try and programme the same group for a run of concerts or festivals as it’s always nice working with the same players and programmes for more than a one-off performance. I work in so many different capacities as a ‘cellist the kind of booking I get will determine the repertoire. I feel quite passionately that if people are kept ‘safe’ from new music and not exposed to it because of their demographic/concert venue, then how will people ever get a chance to make a judgment themselves? I have been known to present a programme of Vivaldi, Stravinsky, Bach, Earth Wind and Fire and Kaija Sarriaho as I believe in every piece as good music. The musicians I work with on these programmes play each piece with the same passion and integrity which is crucial.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
My favourite venue would have to be The Forge in Camden, north London, with whose owners I have had a close relationship with since they opened. I love the fact it’s run by musicians and is down the road from me as I am a north London girl now. I have launched both my duo ‘G Project’ with percussionist Genevieve Wilkins and my show ‘Gabriella Swallow and her Urban Family’ there, and both have been happy occasions.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I love playing Helmet Lachenmann’s Solo cello piece Pression. I was fortunate enough to work with Helmut intensively on the piece and was invited to perform it for his 75th birthday in the Konzerthaus, Berlin. He essentially made me grow new ears: he hears music in the most intense way and transcribes and describes what he wants so perfectly.
I always get a wonderful musical lift from playing Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances with my Quintet – Lizzie ball on violin, Pedro Segundo on drums, Bartek Glowacki on accordion and Dave Maric on piano. Every time we play it it’s slightly different. The tunes are so strong they keep going round my head for days after a show.
I tend to listen to music I don’t get a chance to play much – recently I’ve got obsessed with Ry Cooder after I returned from a trip to make an album in LA. Harry Shearer and a number of the artists featuring on the album are big fans and spent one evening playing me all their favourite songs. I’m also a big D’Angelo fan and recently saw him live for the first time at Hammersmith Apollo.
Who are your favourite musicians?
A very tough question as I’m meeting them all the time and I could list many.
The musicians with who I am in groups with I have a huge amount of respect for: Genevieve Wilkins from G project, Judith Owen and her band, all my Urban Family collaborators, cellist Guy Johnston, Lizzie Ball-we share similar values and musical tastes and all stand out as people I like to work with and spend time with too. The two classical singers (although they do so much more!) I admire are Ruby Hughes and Lucy Schaufer.
I became a member of the Gwilym Simcock Quintet over two years ago now and I would say without a doubt Gwilym is one of the greatest musicians I have worked with – the whole quintet actually (Thomas Gould, Yuri Goloubev and Martin France) are amazing and I always look forward to our concerts.
Recently I have probably learnt the most from Leland Sklar, probably the most famous session bass player on the planet. When I have worked with him in sessions or gigs it’s pretty much been a masterclass every time.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There have been so many it’s almost impossible to say but for very personal reasons I would say my Urban Family Concerts both at the Forge and at Wilderness Festival last summer. I am musician who has spent most of my career playing for different artists’ projects and groups so it felt incredible that so many colleagues wanted to support me at these events. Also seeing classical musicians let their hair down at Wilderness Festival because I brought them there to make music was one of those life-affirming moments!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Follow your own path – don’t look over your shoulder as everyone’s journey both musically and in life is different.
There is work out there – you have to be inventive sometimes and even create your own work. The profession changes constantly so it’s wise to be diverse and say yes to everything when you start out, especially during this financial climate.
Obviously everyone is different but I would strongly advise anyone who went through both the music school and music college system like I did (17 years in one unbroken stretch) to take some time out to experience life and truly find out what YOU want to do. This is one thing I really wish I had done differently – even though in my case I would still have probably ended up being a musician. I only started really mixing with non-musicians when I went to antenatal classes!
The damage psychologically of being institutionalised is almost the hardest thing to overcome; I think it took me til 31 to really make the decision for myself to be a ‘cellist and then work on having the confidence and belief to go for it and enjoy it fully.
What is your most treasured possession?
Letters my father wrote to me before I was born. He died nearly 5 years ago and I miss him terribly. I was very lucky to be given a collection of letters he wrote to me as a 49-year-old, half a year before I was born. He told me what kind of person he was, his fears and the love he already felt for me. He didn’t want me to read them whilst he was alive so I was given them for my 30th birthday just after he died, but I could only bring myself to read them two years later when they then gave me so much strength: it was almost like he was speaking to me.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Apart from the obvious things like spending time with my kids and playing great music, it has to be boxing. I have always loved to box since I was a teenager but for the past year I’ve been training with a professional boxer, Tony Milch. It keeps me fit both physically and mentally and I love watching him in his matches – it’s a real buzz even if I can barely look!
Gabriella Swallow has emerged as one of the most versatile and exciting cellists of her generation. She studied at The Royal College of Music with Jerome Pernoo. She was awarded the coveted Tagore Gold Medal and performed the Hugh Wood Cello Concerto in her final year. As a soloist Gabriella went on to make her South Bank debut with the London Sinfonietta in the world premiere of ‘About Water’ by Mark-Anthony Turnage. In the same year she performed Paul Max Edlin’s Cello Concerto with the South Bank Sinfonia, which firmly launched her place as a leading performer of contemporary music. This has led her to commission and work with many of the major living composers of today.
In 2013 she made her Wigmore Hall debut with the soprano Ruby Hughes and in the same season performed at the La Jolla SummerFest in San Diego, the Aldeburgh Festival with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the Cambridge Jazz Festival as a member of the Gwilym Simcock Quintet.
Gabriella is the string curator of Music Orbit’s string night ‘Strung Out’ and performs frequently at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club ‘Classical Kicks’ night curated by violinist Lizzie Ball and at Gabriel Prokofiev’s Nonclassical club nights.
As a recording artist she has recorded all the chamber music of Hugh Wood for Toccata Classics with the London Archduke Piano Trio, which was released to critical acclaim in 2009. 2012 saw the release of ‘Ivr d’amour’, a disc of Massenet Songs where she appeared with soprano Sally Silver and celebrated pianist Richard Bonynge for the Guild label and also soprano Lucy Shaufer’s debut disc ‘Carpentersville’ for ABC Classics where Gabriella features as soloist. This CD was launched with a concert at The Aldeburgh Festival 2013.
In 2010 she co founded the duo ‘G Project’ with percussionist Genevieve Wilkins. They made their debut with a sellout concert at The Forge in Camden and continue to perform regularly in the UK and Europe. Alongside her classical career she regularly crosses over in the fields of jazz and pop and is a sought after session musician appearing on many movie and television scores. She has recorded with many of the leading Jazz musicians on the UK scene including Ian Shaw, Barb Jungr, Liane Carroll, Guy Barker, Laurence Cottle, Pedro Segundo, Graeme Flowers, Jannette Mason and Claire Martin OBE. She has performed and recorded with Skunk Anansie, Sade, Dionne Warwick, Charlotte Church and has been a member of Judith Owen’s band since 2007. This year she continues her collaboration with Gwilym Simcock’s Quintet, whose members include the violinist Thomas Gould.
Gabriella is also a passionate broadcaster and arts commentator and has been a regular guest on BBC 4’s coverage of The Proms, Radio 3’s ‘In Tune’ and ‘Music Matters’. She has been a guest speaker at the Bath Literary Festival and ‘The Battle of Ideas’.
Gabriella plays a cello by Charles Harris Senior built in 1820 and an electric cello by Starfish Designs.
This excellent initiative was started by Australian piano teacher and composer Elissa Milne. The purpose was to promote and implement the concept of students learning a huge quantity of piano pieces in one year to allow students to learn, experience and perform far more pieces than our exam-focussed culture tends to allow. Known learning outcomes from the exercise include improved sight-reading skills, greater independence in learning, and enhanced musicianship and music appreciation.
Another similar initiative is the Go-Play Project, in which US pianist and teacher Catherine Shefski set herself the task of learning (or relearning) a piece of piano music each week over the course of a year (she recorded the pieces and uploaded them to SoundCloud). Like many piano teachers, Catherine felt she was not spending enough time at the piano for herself amidst all the teaching and admin that goes with running a piano teaching studio. I followed Cathy’s project with interest and told myself that one day I would do something similar.
A new year, and a number of pianist friends and colleagues have embarked on their own 40-Piece Challenge. Despite, or because of, the fact that I have set myself a vast learning challenge in Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (D959 in A), I decided it was time to try my own 40-Piece Challenge. My motives for doing so are slightly different from the original purpose of the project:
What kind of repertoire?
The Schubert sonata is a big work in four movements, which takes c.40 minutes to play, and the learning process is by necessity long and detailed. It would be foolish to add other very advanced works to my musical diet, so the premise is to learn shorter and “easier” works for the challenge. And the pieces selected do not necessarily have to be “new”: as part of the exercise, I am revisiting some pieces I learnt a few years ago. There is much to be gained from reviving previous repertoire, as new insights and ideas about the music are revealed.
To guard against boredom and retain variety in my practising
I would be crazy to devote all my practise time to the Schubert alone. Adding a variety of shorter works is a supplement to my main learning and a way of ensuring I retain interest and excitement in the piano.
To extend my repertoire
When one is working for exams or diplomas, there is a terrible tendency to focus only on the set pieces. This is not healthy, as too much focus on a narrow repertoire can lead to familiar pieces growing stale. One often finds that even the most disparate repertoire will inform other works. I also wanted to have a “bank” of pieces I could call on for the occasional concerts I give.
Each piece will be recorded and uploaded to my Soundcloud
Recording is an excellent way of evaluating one’s playing and an opportunity to listen in a different way, allowing us to make judgements about which areas need revision or improvement. By insisting on recording each piece, I am forcing myself to prepare each work carefully. This in itself is a useful exercise: just because the repertoire is “easier”, it should still be prepared to a high (concert-ready) level.
Update 1 – September 2015
With 27 pieces recorded and uploaded to Soundcloud, I am nearly three-quarters of the way through the project. There was a slight hiatus during the summer break when I was devoting much of my practise time to the Schubert Sonata in order to meet a personal deadline to have the entire sonata in the fingers by the end of June. Also, the piano was in need of a tune and I didn’t want to make any further recordings until it had been tuned.
Learning outcomes so far:
The project has encouraged me to learn “fast and smart”
I have become slightly less hyper-critical than usual about my playing, resulting in, I think, fresher and more imaginative recordings.
It has given me a focus in that each week I consider which works should be prepared for the challenge and add them to my practising diet.
It has made my work on the Schubert more enjoyable because there is variety in my practising regime
Update 2 – December 2015
I completed the project in early December – ahead of my deadline – and 40 pieces are now uploaded to my SoundCloud. I enjoyed the project very much, in particular the discipline of learning shorter pieces quickly and carefully. I am now considering a new 40 Piece Challenge for 2016 during which I will learn and record 40 new pieces of music (rather than a mixture of new and revived works).
For those considering a similar challenge, I offer some repertoire suggestions (intermediate to advanced level):
J S Bach – Kleine Preludes, Two- and Three-Part Inventions
Chopin – Preludes, Waltzes, Mazurkas, Nocturnes
Beethoven – Bagatelles
Schubert – Moments Musicaux, Ländler, Waltzes
Heller – Etudes
Rachmaninoff – Preludes, Moments Musicaux, 6 Morceaux Op 11, Etudes-Tableaux
Scriabin – Preludes, Etudes and other shorter piano works
Prokofiev – Visions Fugitives
Bartok – Mikrokosmos (later volumes)
Ligeti – Musica Ricercata
Debussy – Preludes, Children’s Corner
Scarlatti – Sonatas
Single movements from sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.
When I was a child my father had in his LP collection a Schubert album with Richer on Monitor Records. That was one of the very few record labels that was offering artists from the then USSR to the West. During the height of the ‘Cold War’ it was a very esoteric thing to have. I remember the fast movements were so exciting and electrifying. Being a young person, with a young person’s taste, I would ignore all the wonderful slow movements. (PU)
One of my top 5! But he was a very scary man when he was doing our assessments in Moscow. Gilels on the other hand was a pussy cat! I recall his recital in Warsaw……when he arrived late (weather conditions in Moscow and Warsaw) and went straight on the stage, and after an incredible recital played Prokofieff’s 9th Sonata again, this time as an encore!! What more can one say about that?! (AF)
I have a huge stash of Richter recordings, along with video, and both Monsaingeon’s documentary and the book based on it. I have to say, I don’t always agree with his choices or artistic decisions, but I always learn something new listening to them. I know I’m not alone in that view. There really aren’t many musicians one could say that of, don’t you think? (JG)
I have always admired Sviatoslav Richter since the time I was a little boy and learned how to pronounce Sviatoslav! (PC)
Richter was the reason I became a musician. My father heard Richter many times in Budapest in his prime in the 1960s. The concerts were without announced programs–he announced the selections from the stage. People thronged to get tickets. My father came back with such stories of Richter’s aura and magnetism: “he had only to walk on stage for the electricity to happen.” These impressions brought me to the piano… (ZB)
He was a risk-taker: there are very few players on the international circuit today who would be prepared to do what Richter did…. He was truly a musical polymath (FW)
…there will never be another pianist like him in my view….a true philosopher of the piano, although even that does not do him full justice… I was lucky enough to see him in live performance almost 25 times and each concert remains indelibly imprinted in my memory. Such a mercurial, ‘bel canto’ touch, such thunderous power combined with the most delicate phrasing and infinite shades of colour. One was always surprised in his concerts and it always felt like one was hearing the piece for the first time…that global, birds-eye view of the work….one felt one was being taken by the hand and led along a path of discovery…it really felt like that…I will take those memories with me to my grave… (LL)
I know he never had a thirst for fame, narcissism……On the contrary, he was constantly dissatisfied with himself, and, sometimes when he come back home after the success of a concert, he could spend all night at the piano, in order to achieve the desired sound. He was a great worker like Mozart, like all geniuses. He was always moving from internal to external, that is his interpretation of music first born inside him, and after this he begin to embody it into performance. I think this is the true path of art
Thank you to everyone who contributed to these Recollections of Richter posts. Follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #Richter100 – and please feel free to add further reminiscences, sound and video clips, photographs and more.
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