The Indefatigable Elisabeth Leonskaja

Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja is not one for extravagant or flamboyant gestures: she strides across the Wigmore stage in the manner of a collective farm worker who has recently descended from her chugging tractor, her meaty, potato-pulling arms disguised in a soft brown velvet jacket. Seated at the piano, she is self-contained and workmanlike. There is barely a moment’s silence after the applause which greets her has died down before she begins, as if she is impatient to get on with the evening’s work. But from the sweeping opening measures of Schumann’s suite Papillons, there is no doubting her commitment, both to the music and the performance.

Papillons is a young man’s composition, written when Schumann was just 20. A suite of miniature dance pieces, it draws its inspiration from Schubert’s waltzes and four-handed polonaises, and the novels of 19th century writer, Jean Paul (whose pseudonym was Johann Paul Richter), and can be considered an early example of “programme music”. It looks forward to later  suites such as Carnaval, Waldszenen and Blumenstuck, while the influence of Schubert is obvious in the colourful and inventive harmonies, and the rapid changes of mood, dynamic and tempo.

This suite may be written by a student, but it is definitely not ‘student music’. After an introductory figure, not unlike the opening motif of Chopin’s First Ballade, the first piece is 16 bars of fast right-hand octaves, and many of the following movements employ similar devices, while others are lyrical and songlike. Elisabeth Leonskaja gave each movement the appropriate measure of weight, strength, delicacy, warmth and colour, highlighting the full range of Schumann’s moods, and his twin personas Eusebius (passionate, flamboyant, impulsive) and Florestan (dreamy, poetic, controlled)

The Etudes Symphoniques Op 13 are even more ‘bi-polar’. Written in the form of a theme and variations, these are Etudes in the manner of Chopin – i.e. intended as concert pieces which investigate the possibilities of technique and intonation. These are not variations in the sense of Mozart’s, but rather draw influences from Beethoven’s monumental Diabelli’s Variations in their arrangement and construction: aspects of the theme are used in subsequent variations, amplified and transformed, as opposed to a straightforward variant on the opening theme. There are moments in this work where, even if one knew nothing about Robert Schumann’s mental state (he suffered from what we now call “bipolar disorder”, one has the sense of a troubled mind at work. Some movements are simply manic, or thrillingly virtuosic (the 9th Etude is marked “Presto Possibile“, literally, “as fast as possible”!) Others are light and airy, or dark and sombre. An Allegro Brillante Etude brings the suite to its exciting, noisy conclusion.

This is “big” music, both physically in the demands it makes on the pianist’s hands with its rapid octave passages and wide hand-stretches, and, at times, in sound. Leonskaja harnessed the full force of her powerful, tractor-driver’s arms for the loud passages, while bringing delicacy, lightness and sweetness to the quieter sections. It is no accident that the Etudes Symphoniques are considered some of the most difficult music in the repertoire: Leonskaja made them look alarmingly easy. Added to that is her technical assuredness: there was not a smeared nor split note that I could detect in the entire performance, despite some unpleasant harmonics from the piano which at times displayed an alarming “twang”.

After such a grand, dramatic, and varied first half, we had a drink in the front bar, and looked forward to the second half, which was Schubert’s Sonata in G, D894.

I have heard Leonskaja play Schubert on several previous occasions, the first time being a fine performance of the last three sonatas. She has been criticised in the past for bringing a “Beethovenian” feel to her Schubert-playing, but I like the robustness. It also reminds us that Schubert admired Beethoven’s music, while striking out on his own after the Old Radical died in 1827. The G major sonata has an unusually expansive first movement, which contains a mixture of contrasting material, from the calm, hand-filling chords of the first subject, to the pretty and lyrical second theme. Marked “Molto moderato e cantabile”, it looks forward to Schubert’s last, great sonata in B-flat, the D960, in both its tempo and its deeply serene atmosphere, only briefly interrupted by a fff moment of violence in the development section. The subsequent movements are gentle, melodic, and largely untroubled, while the finale has the feel of a string quartet in the organisation of its textures and styles.

As in the first half, Leonskaja gave the full range of emotions and colours, highlighting Schubert’s extraordinary and unexpected harmonic shifts, and his innate lyricism. She is mistress of the velvet touch, perfectly judging exactly how much weight should be brought from finger to key to create exactly the desired sound, and despite more unpleasant twangs from the Wigmore Steinway, the Schubert sonata was memorable, moving and completely wonderful.

In true old-school Russian pianist tradition, she gave two encores, the first Debussy’s final Prelude, the other the second impromptu from Schubert’s D935 set. She played with the bouquet she had been presented at the end of the main performance on the lid of the piano, the pink and white flowers in their crisp cellophane wrapper reflected in the gleaming inside lid of the Steinway.

Elisabeth Leonskaja returns to the Wigmore Hall in 2011, for a concert with the Artemis Quartet on 17th May and a solo Schubert recital on 27th May, to include the Allegretto in C Minor D900, the Sonata in A D664, and the Wanderer Fantasy.

Click on this link to read a review of this concert on Classical Source.

Coping with Performance Anxiety

I wrote these notes for my adult students to help them overcome their anxiety about performing in my forthcoming concert. They are coming to my home a couple of days before the event for an evening ‘soirée’ of music and wine – an opportunity to play their concert pieces in (I hope!) a non-threatening environment, amongst friends.

First, it’s ok to feel nervous! It is normal, and it is a sign that the body’s “fight or flight mechanism” – i.e. the production of adrenaline – is working properly. Performance anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways; the most common physical symptoms are:

  • Dry mouth
  • Moist hands
  • Trembling hands
  • Nausea
  • Palpitations

I find Pilates-type deep breathing (“thoracic breathing”) very useful for dealing with anxiety. The physical act of breathing like this calms you down. It also forces you to focus. When I am playing and I make a mistake, or I find my concentration slipping, I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. This helps me refocus.

Learning to deal with performance anxiety is a useful skill, and will make any kind of public performance, musical or otherwise, easier to deal with.

1.    Before you perform, take time to remind yourself that you have practiced to the best of your ability, that you know the piece intimately, and that even a small slip is not going to put you off. Confidence comes from knowing the piece intimately. Before the main performance, play it for family and friends and imagine yourself in a concert situation.

2.    Do not be self-critical. Do not pre-judge the event or draw conclusions about what just happened or what might happen. Self-criticism is pointless because it destroys your focus and takes you out of the here and now. Rather than judge your playing, simply observe it without saying anything. Do not over-analyse, play from the heart.

3.    Avoid inner dialogue. Do not distract yourself with the “what ifs” and the “maybes”. Focus on the music. Hear it in your head and imagine your fingers on the keyboard.

4.    Do not pre-judge the audience’s reaction. Remember, no one is going to boo, slow hand-clap or heckle. Most people who go to concerts, whether given by professional or amateur musicians, are full of admiration for anyone can get up on stage and do it. Everyone who comes to our concerts is there because they want to be there, to support the performers and to enjoy the music.

5.    When you go to the piano, acknowledge the audience – without them it would not be concert! – but then try to blank them out: look straight ahead at the score.

6.    When you sit down to play, take a moment to compose yourself. It is up to you when you start – the audience must be patient. Think about where your hands should be on the keyboard. Get acquainted with the look of the piano – if it’s an unfamiliar instrument.

7.    Just before you begin, take a deep breath and breathe out slowly. As you exhale, allow your fingers to float onto the keys – and then begin. Remember to breathe when you’re playing – it’s amazing how many people hold their breath when they are playing! If you feel your focus slipping, use the deep-breathing technique to help you.

8.    When you have finished, let your hands float off the keyboard. Wait for a moment and then stand and acknowledge the audience again

Cue rapturous applause!

Mapping the landscape of Bach

At my piano lesson this week, I played the first two and a half pages of the Toccata from J S Bach’s 6th Partita, BWV 830 in E minor. I have not played any Bach to my teacher before; indeed, I have not played any Bach seriously since I was about 14, when I learnt the Prelude & Fugue in D minor BWV 851 from the WTC as part of my Grade 8 repertoire. I’m not sure why Bach dropped off my pianistic radar – it’s not as if I don’t like his music, because I love it, and, if it was up to me, I would programme a whole three hours of continuous Bach for the Radio 3 Breakfast show. To me, there is nothing more enjoyable than waking up to a steaming mug of Redbush tea, a grey Burmese cat purring by my head, and a Bach Cantata or one of the Brandenburgs, or any of the keyboard music playing quietly on the radio at my bedside. Sadly, Rob Cowan, the most regular presenter of the show, favours lively orchestral music to open the show at 7am, and when I switch from argumental John Humphries on Radio 4, I often find my ears assaulted by Viennese ‘oom-pah’ music or some fussy, overblown Wagner.  (By the way, I am sure I am not alone in finding John Humphries’ recent malapropism “Peasants and phartridges” hilarious; the best part was hearing James Naughtie snorting audibly on the radio and then the pair of them dissolving into silent giggles – a case of what a friend of mine calls “laughing in church”. A great radio moment.)

Part of my revisiting of the music of Bach came about because I have recently taught two of his keyboard pieces to a couple of my older students. I did one of the Small Preludes with a student in the summer term, encouraging her to overcome her timidity and play it with a sweeping grandeur, as if she were seated at the great organ of a great Baroque church of Mitteleuropa (another of Fran’s famous “visualisations”!).  And this term Bella, who is my most advanced student, has learnt a simplified version of the first Prelude of the WTC (simplified only in that the semiquavers have been replaced with quavers and the closing phrase has been shortened), a piece she plays with wonderful colour and texture, a piece which she clearly loves. (She is opening my Christmas concert with it next weekend). Working on this piece, alongside Debussy’s Prelude from Pour le Piano, a piece which draws many influences from the Grand-daddy of them all, reminded me of how much I like the architecture of Bach’s music, his voices, and textures. It’s incredibly satisfying music to play, and requires a high degree of cerebral input, which appeals to the ‘intellectual pianist’.

A brief aside – I am no Bach purist, and will happily listen to his keyboard music played on harpsichord, organ or concert Steinway. To me, Bach was a revolutionary and an innovator: I am fairly certain he would have loved to have been able to compose for the modern piano, fully utilising all its capabilities.

The Toccata from the Partita No. 6 has a grandiose introductory section, the arpeggiated and dotted figures of the opening bar setting the tone, and style (here is another opportunity to imagine one is playing a great organ in another great Baroque church of Mitteleuropa!) before a shift in mood into a tightly-constructed three-part Fugue. Although called a Toccata (from the Italian “toccare“, to touch, and featuring lightly-fingered, fast-moving, virtuosic passages or sections to demonstrate the player’s dexterity: the third piece from Debussy’s ‘Pour le Piano’ suite is a fibrillating Toccata which requires immense fleetness of touch – I haven’t attempted it yet….), this is really a ‘Toccata and Fugue’ in the manner of the (in)famous, D-minor Toccata and Fugue. The introductory material is recapitulated at the close of the piece: the middle section is all fugue.

I played as far as bar 34, just after the subject and counter-subject of the Fugue are heard for the first time; this is all I have learnt so far (and I know this piece is going to be a long and satisfying learning process). My teacher complimented me on my playing, my phrasing and ability to highlight the ‘voices’ (I have never been keen on “monochrome” Bach-playing). We did some work on the opening measures, and then she turned to me and said “Can you explain the structure of a Fugue to me?” – and for a moment I was a 12 year old again, back in Rickmansworth, with my previous teacher, Mrs Murdoch, one of the “48” open on the music rack in front of me, a diagram of the construction of a fugue pencilled-in at the top of the page, which looked something like this:

Fugue Subject__________________________________________

______________Counter-Subject___________________________

_____________________________________Stretto___________

_______________Free Counterpoint_________________________

I managed to prevent myself from woffling about subjects, counter-subjects, stretto and suchlike to my current teacher, and admitted that I had not had to study a Bach fugue since A-level music, over 25 years ago. But as I spoke the various elements that make up the fugue in the Toccata from the BWV 830 seemed to spring out of the music before me, and as Penny asked me to identify the Subject, Answer, Counter-Subject, Codetta and so forth, I found myself playing each example as it appeared. Three pages in, and the music becomes more close-textured, and I was really enjoying this game of “hunt the Fugue”. Meanwhile, Penny was busy writing out my “homework” for me.

On my food blog, I have written about two “deconstructed pies” I recently cooked, where I took the constituent ingredients of two classic pies (steak & kidney and chicken & mushroom), and reconstructed them so that the key elements (filling, pie crust) were obvious and separate. In the same way, my teacher has set me the task of deconstructing Bach’s fugue, identifying the constituent elements and laying them out in such a way (on manuscript paper) so that each one stands alone. By highlighting each element, and writing it out in a different colour, I will be able to fully comprehend the architecture of Bach’s fugue, down to the tiniest detail, and will, I hope, know the piece intimately before I actually play it – rather like stripping out all the curlicues, traceries, columns and pediments of a great Baroque church of Mitteleuropa to see how it was built.

“I’ll start this on the way home” I thought excitedly as I left my teacher’s home and began my great trek back to south London. With a 90-minute commute in prospect, I could get quite a lot done, but tiredness overtook me by the time I reached Waterloo and I spent most of my homeward journey listening to Murray Perahia’s marvellous recording of the Partitas. In the Toccata, under his fingers, we hear great arches of sound (that Baroque church again), a lulling inner-heartbeat, and a middle section redolent of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, with its fanciful codettas and cadenzas. This is one of the things I love about Perahia’s playing – his ability to highlight all the interior architecture, the harmonies, textures and voices. He does it with Chopin too, reminding us that Fred’s music is not just about “laahvely melodies”.

Meanwhile, as I traversed the London Transport system and considered the notes my teacher had made for me to set me on the task of mapping Bach’s landscape, with the different elements of the fugue highlighted in different colours, it occurred to me that my map of the fugue might not be so different from the London Tube map – coloured lines converging and veering off again, each with a distinct place, and role, in the construction of the whole. Just a thought….

I’m off to buy coloured pencils and a big pad of manuscript paper: I’ve got homework to do!

Explanation of a Fugue

Postscript – a note on Bach’s ornamentation:

When I played the opening measures of the Fugue for my teacher, I played “old school” mordents, the decoration beginning ON the note. This is how I was taught to play such decorations when I first encountered Bach, way back when…..  Modern scholarship (within my pianistic lifetime) suggests that a mordent should begin on the note ABOVE (thus, in the example given here, the decoration starts not on E but on F-sharp), thus creating some wonderfully crunchy harmonies and moments of tension.

Links

Bach’s Ornament Table

Listen to This

Alex Ross’s new book. ‘Listen to This’, has been languishing on the floor by my bed since it dropped through my letterbox from Amazon a week or so ago. With an hour’s commute to work in prospect yesterday, I put the book in my briefcase, and read the first chapter on the way to Notting Hill, and the chapter on Schubert (‘Great Soul’) on the way back. I hardly noticed the commute – in either direction….

I did not read Ross’s previous book. ‘The Rest is Noise’, though I expect I will one day (too many books, not enough time – just like the piano repertoire!). I have read various articles by him, as well as the text of his Royal Phiharmonic Society Lecture, given at the Wigmore earlier this year (download the text here).

Alex Ross is no musicologist, nor is he a dry, ‘old school’ music critic, but his breadth of knowledge is clearly very wide, covering not just the world of classical music, but also that of jazz, rock and pop. His writing is lively and erudite, and his engaging style piqued my interest from the very first line.  The opening chapter debunks much of the mythology and traditions of Classical music, reminding us that concert conventions took a rather “anything goes” attitude until the mid- to late-19th century, when concert-goers and promoters took it upon themselves to impose a more formal etiquette on classical concerts, demanding reverential silence and no applauding between movements, a convention that continues to this day (he expands on this subject at length in his RPS lecture).

Likewise, the chapter on Schubert also attempts to unravel some of the traditionally-held views, and urban legends surrounding this composer (Was he homosexual? Did he have syphilis? Should we care?), reminding us of Schubert’s deep love of poetry, his ability to spin the agony (and ecstasy) of his desire in his extraordinary melodies and harmonic shifts, and his prolific output. The subject is sensitively handled by a writer who clearly loves this composer’s music. As Ross says, “[Schubert’s] music is another thing altogether. Its presence – its immediacy – is tremendous…..he could play the entire gamut of emotion as one ambiguous chord, dissolving differences between agony and joy……There were no limits whatsoever to his musical imagination.”

The book is a collection of essays, which makes it easy to dip into, and I am looking forward to grazing my way through it over the weekend. It would make an excellent Christmas gift for anyone with an interest in music and culture.

Repertoire Update, late November

Debussy – Voiles: This is one of the pieces for my students’ concert. It feels “concert-ready” to me – I hope my teacher will agree when I see her on Wednesday.

Debussy – Pour le Piano (Prelude & Sarabande): Both these pieces are at a fairly early stage, though I have made useful inroads in the last week or so. I am looking forward to having my teacher’s critical ear on them this week.

Chopin – Ballade in G Minor: I feel I’ve reached an impasse with this, partly because I over-practised it last month and ended up with a return of the tenosynovitis in my right hand. Some time away from it should renew my interest in it. It is not part of my Diploma repertoire.

Bach – Toccata from 6th Partita: It’s very satisfying to be playing Bach again after a long absence from his music. I hope my teacher will agree this piece will make a good opener for my Diploma recital. I love the intricacies of Bach – to me, playing it is like looking at the traceries of a Baroque church. I’ve only learnt two pages of this so far. Murray Perahia’s recording is a constant source of inspiration – he is so good at highlighting all the intricacies and nuances, interior architecture and harmonies, textures and ‘voices’ in the music (this is also true of his Chopin-playing).

Messiaen – Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus, no. 4: Hearing Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ recently inspired me to learn some of his piano music – and this piece is on the Diploma repertoire list. It is a strange little lullaby, shot through with premonitions of Jesus’s fate. I have done little more than read through it. Not sure how it will fit into my Diploma programme….

What do I do?

At a party I attended recently, several guests, who I had not met before, asked me “What do you do?”, displaying that peculiarly English middle class need always to define one by one’s job.

Some years ago, before I reinvented myself as a piano teacher, when I was just beginning to emerge from the fog of being a first-time (and only time) parent, I was a freelance secretary, but my work was so peripatetic that it hardly constituted a “proper” job, so when asked the dread question, I would cast around for something that sounded convincing, eventually copping out by replying “Oh, I am a full-time mother” and then apologise for this, embarrassed, as if I was a skulking member of the grey economy. I am pleased to say I never subscribed to the tag “stay at home mother”, or, worse “schoolgate mum”, that particularly offensive term coined by Tony Blair and his cohorts which suggests women like myself spend all day hanging around the schoolgate with nothing better to do than chat inanely about panty pads and drink Starbucks takeaway coffee. Ugh!

Lately, when asked, I say I am a piano teacher. To say I am “a pianist” sounds a tad pretentious, though I can claim that role too: I am a pianist. As Charles Rosen says in his excellent book ‘Piano Notes’, anyone who plays the piano is a pianist (that’s what I tell my students!). Sometimes, when I’m feeling cheeky, I say I am “a gentleman’s companion” which usually elicits some raised eyebrows. It’s just a fancy of way of saying I am an assistant to an elderly gentleman writer, indeed no more than a glorified secretary, who has the good fortune to work in a smart house in Notting Hill half a day a week.

At the party, it was both gratifying and flattering to be introduced by the hostess, a friend and student of mine, as “Fran, my piano teacher” or “This is Fran. She’s a piano teacher”. What was even more enjoyable and ego-massaging was that several people had actually heard of me, either through the hostess, or via the grapevine that exists at the local primary school gate. The majority of my students attend this school, and my son is a recent graduate from it. It has been a wonderful source of pupils – and continues to be – and just goes to prove that “schoolgate mums” can be gainfully employed AND look after the kids at home! When they learned what I did, several guests expressed a keen interest, or said, slightly wistfully, “Oh I had piano lessons as a child. I wish I’d kept it up!”. Others told me they had wanted their children to come to me, but had been told – again, through the local grapevine – that I had a long waiting list (not true – it’s a small waiting list, but a waiting list nonetheless). They had heard about my termly concerts, my eccentric pets, and, indeed, my own slightly unorthodox teaching habits. One woman, whose children were learning with another local teacher, told me she reached Grade 7 in her teens and then gave up. She had tried to play the piano recently and “couldn’t remember anything!” and maybe I could help her? She asked me how I’d got back into playing seriously, and I explained that after a 15-year absence from the keyboard (apart from occasional visits to a friend with a grand piano), I had set myself the task of getting myself back up to post-Grade 8 standard by just putting the hours in. There had been a few hiccups on the way: a run-in with a very suspect teacher, who I later discovered was probably a pervert, put me off finding a teacher for a year; and a chronic injury to my right hand, which set me back three months. Otherwise, there’s no magic formula: just hard work, every day, if I can, for several hours, fitting in the piano practice and studying with the “reality tasks” of family life.

So, what do I do? Each day, when I sit down at the keyboard, or before I get there, I plot the day’s practising, going back over the previous day’s work and highlighting elements which need attention. Because I have limited time, I am very strict with myself to ensure that each of the pieces I am working on currently gets the right amount of attention. I do not keep a written practice diary – though I probably should. Like the information about my students, much of the detail about the music I am working on is retained in my head. I make notes on the score to remind me – my students seem fascinated by my annotations, my secret code, my arrows, stars, circles and exclamation marks. Some are even discovering their own: Saskia delighted me last week when she arrived with her own marked-up score of ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’.

When I am not physically practising, I try to read around the music I am working on. This helps my understanding of the structure and nature of the music – an A-level in music has given me basic proficiency in musical analysis, but there’s always more to be gained from reading around the subject. I am less interested in other people’s emotional and subjective responses: like the highly hypothetic discussions as to whether Schubert and Chopin were gay or not, I do not find such analyses helpful. A familiarity with the music, which comes from simply spending hours and hours with it – playing it and listening to it – offers far greater insights, in my view. I try not to listen to the pieces I am studying too often as one can be easily swayed by a particular interpretation and while one may admire Claudio Arrau’s Beethoven piano sonatas, or Mitsuko Uchida’s readings of Mozart, one does not wish to emulate or imitate these pianists. Recordings are a useful guide:  for example, I have been struggling with the pulse of Debussy’s ‘Voiles’ and a listen to Stephen Osborne’s ethereal rendering of this piece is helpful from time to time…

What else do I do? When not doing my own work, I teach other people’s children, and a handful of adults, how to play the piano. Again, many people have a misguided and simplistic view of the role of the piano teacher. A lesson may last half an hour (in reality, about 20 mins of actual work after pleasantries etc) but I spend a great deal of time when not physically teaching thinking about and planning lessons. While most of my students are at a similar stage in their learning, they are all individuals, and one of my specialities as a teacher, is to try and tailor my lessons to each student’s particular needs. I do not keep written records and rely on students to remember their practise notebooks each week to remind me of what everyone is doing, but I know each of my students pretty well now and have a notion of what needs to be done each week, in advance of their lessons. Towards the end of term, when the serious work is done, things get a little chaotic and sometimes we spend a lesson learning how to conduct, singing, or setting teacher scale marathons. Anything, as far as I’m concerned, to keep their interest!

There are times, of course, when it just doesn’t go the way I want it to. I can sit at the keyboard for an hour or more and my playing feels forced, wooden, my fingers stiff and unresponsive. I can practice the same phrase 20 times and still it is not right. Sometimes it can be so frustrating I bang my forehead on the music rack or hammer the keyboard with my fists. At times like these, the best antidote is to walk away from the piano and go and do something else, something completely different. I find running very therapeutic – it offers me precious head-clearing time. Ditto cooking. Writing about my activity/activities also helps – hence this blog. It can be lonely and cold in my conservatory/piano room, with just the cats for company, the same page of music confronting me day after day. I am sure I am not alone in feeling that, as a pianist, one can feel trapped in a gilded cage with music an omnipresent landscape. Yet, without my practising regime, my days can feel directionless, without focus. Most days, though, I enjoy it. It’s escapism, of a sort, it takes one out of oneself; it’s mentally and physically challenging; and, more often than not these days, rewarding. Yesterday, when I was working on the Prelude from Debussy’s Pour le Piano, a marvellous thing happened and all the elements I had been struggling with for weeks and weeks – the jagged, urgent opening bars, the Bachian motif in bars 1-42, the triumphant, climactic C major chordal section from bar 43 with its whole-tone scales – all came together, almost perfectly. It was deeply, deeply satisfying, and reminded me, if I need such a reminder, of what I have to do, and what I like to do…..

Snapshot of a life – Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas

One does not often have the opportunity to hear all of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and ‘cello (nor indeed the 9 duo sonatas for piano and violin) at one sitting in a single concert. It’s something of a musical marathon, for performers and audience alike, yet it’s a fascinating  and absorbing experience because to hear the sonatas played in chronological sequence, one is offered a unique window onto Beethoven’s creative and compositional development: it is a journey through Beethoven’s life.

The Opus 5’s are a young man’s works: fresh, vibrant, colourful, energetic, humorous. They are clever and witty – take the false cadences in fast movement of the G minor sonata – but nor do they lack depth, or emotion. They also remind us that Beethoven was a fine pianist, and the Opus 5 sonatas were composed at a time when Beethoven was carving a career for himself as a virtuoso. The F Major and G Minor sonatas are works for piano with ‘cello, not the other way around, and the piano definitely gets the greater share of the virtuosity: Beethoven was clearly not going to allow himself to be overshadowed by some ‘cellist! Over and over again in these sonatas, the piano seems to lead, and the ‘cello replies.

The A major sonata, the Opus 69, is from the middle, most productive, period of Beethoven’s life; yet, it was at this time that the composer wrote his moving Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he contemplated suicide. His deafness was now acute, if not quite total. The Opus 69 marks a turning point, particularly in the variety and organisation of its thematic material, and its improvisatory nature. It was composed during the same year as the Violin Concerto and the  Opus 70 piano trios, and the completion and publication of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. It is an entirely classical sonata in its measured, well-proportioned construction, and, in contrast to the earlier sonatas, where the piano and ‘cello are, more often than not, engaged in witty musical repartee, the first movement of the Opus 69 opens with the ‘cello alone; variations of its expansive main theme and a pair of contrasting secondary motifs allow much contrapuntal and melodic interplay between the two players. This an equal sonata for cello and piano, and the material is distributed between the two instruments with perfect symmetry. And at this point, Beethoven had invented a new genre not seen again until Brahms. (Previous ‘cello sonatas were either ‘cello solos with continuo, or like the Opus 5 sonatas: piano sonatas with ‘cello obbligato.)

The final pair of sonatas, the Opus 102, dating from the beginning of the “late” period of Beethoven’s life, sit alongside the beautiful, pastoral Opus 96 violin sonata, and the last three piano sonatas – all truly miraculous works. Like the sublime Opus 110 piano sonata, these sonatas seem to inhabit another world entirely, and exude an almost transcendental spirituality. And like the Opus 96 violin sonata, and the Opus 110 piano sonata, they are imbued with a sense of “completion”, of acceptance (but most defiantly not resignation) created by a composer finally at peace with his life and his God. (As my friend Sylvia says of the Op 110, “there he was, deaf as a f—–g post, unlucky in love, and he still managed to write that!)

The last ‘cello sonata, in D major, contains a prayer in its slow movement, offering an almost Messiaenic vision of eternity: yet the final movement is a life-affirming fugue, that most stable and triumphant of musical devices, bringing us emphatically back to earth.


15 composers in 15 minutes

This is adapted from something a friend posted on Facebook (15 Authors in 15 Minutes).

The Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen composers and/or musicians who have always influenced you and will always stick with you. List the first 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes, and they don’t have to be listed in order of relevance to you.

Beethoven

Bach

Chopin

Schubert

Mozart

Debussy

Satie

Haydn

Albeniz

Handel

Liszt

Brian Eno

David Byrne

Alison Goldfrapp

Claude Challe

 

Please feel free to post your own ’15 in 15′

And so farewell, Henryk Gorecki….

On Friday 12th November, the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, died aged 76. Gorecki is perhaps best remembered for his Third Symphony, the ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’, a work of sacred minimalism whose dominant themes are motherhood and separation through war. More often than not, this work is considered to be a meditation on the Holocaust, but it is more than that. Each movement is sung by a soprano: the first is a 15th century Polish lament of Mary, mother of Jesus, while the third is a Silesian folk song of a mother searching for her child killed in the Silesian uprisings just after the First War. The second movement is a message written on the wall of a Gestapo cell during the Second War, and has become a ‘soundtrack’ for the Holocaust after a canny film-maker picked it up and used it in the 1990s. Along with Part’s ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ and ‘Fratres’, this piece more than any other seems to express the inexpressible about this dreadful rupture in modern European history. Sadly, it has been given the “Classic FM treatment”, and its wonder and beauty has now been somewhat devalued through over-exposure.

The music is very approachable, perhaps surprisingly so, since Gorecki’s earlier music drew influences from the dissonant works of Stockhausen and Nono, and this has undoubtedly contributed to its popular appeal: it is not “difficult” music to listen to. It is reasonably straightforward in its construction and its harmonies, and makes use of Medieval musical modes. Premiered in 1977, it remained relatively unknown, except amongst  connoisseurs, until 1992, when a recording was released with the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman, with the soprano Dawn Upshaw. It topped the classical charts in the UK and US, and has sold over a million copies.

For me, its Medieval influences, the simplicity of the thematic material and, more than anything else, the soprano line which soars above the orchestra, are what make it so remarkable. It is “tingle factor” music par excellence, and I only need to hear a few bars to feel the hairs rise on the back on the neck. Admittedly,  the greater part of its power comes from its association with the Holocaust. Hear a few bars, and one is forced to pause and meditate on that genocide.

Dawn Upshaw’s clean soprano voice is has a wonderful translucence on the 1992 recording. She lacks the heavy vibrato of “old school” sopranos like Dame Janet Baker or Renée Fleming, and there is an innocence in her voice which reinforces the “story” of the music with an almost painful clarity. The rising, scalic motif in the second movement, sung by the soprano and supported by the orchestra, drives the music forward until the voice climaxes on a top A flat. According to the composer, the soprano voice should “tower” over the orchestra, and there are places in this movement where she almost seems to take flight, soaring ethereally above the orchestra. Beneath the voice, the music pulses and “breathes” with an almost audible “lub-dub” beat of the human heart.

It is a shame that the Third Symphony has largely eclipsed Gorecki’s other music, much of which is very fine indeed, and it would be a great pity if he were remembered only for this work, except amongst more esoteric music lovers and scholars. What is certain is that the Third Symphony, and all that it expresses, will continue to resonate with many people for years to come.

A new name for ‘Classical’ music?

In the opening chapter of his new book, Listen to This, Alex Ross declares that he “hates” ‘classical music’ – “not the thing, but the name”. He argues that it “traps a tenaciously living art in the theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today. It banishes into limbo the work of thousands of active composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it is they do for a living….”

So what else can we call it?

“Serious music” seems inappropriate, since there is a good deal of ‘classical music’ which is humorous, comical and witty.

“Intellectual music” smacks of elitism – and aren’t we supposed to be trying to dispel the elitist image of classical music?

“Great music”? By doing that, we exclude the greats of the jazz, rock and pop genres – and not forgetting World music…..

“Art music”? But some of the songs of Kate Bush, the Cocteau Twins or Goldfrapp (who I heard last night) could be considered “art music”.

And some suggestions from Radio 3 listeners:

“the People’s Music” (since “so many people can participate in it”). Sounds a bit communist to me!

“Ephemeral music”

As Ross says, all these terms are useful, but are not its defining characteristics. Classical music can also be crazy, confused, stupid and vulgar.

Readers: can we find a new name for classical music?

Your thoughts, please – clever, witty, humorous, vulgar or just plain stupid!

 

Alex Ross

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture