Wigmore Hall – you are spoiling us!

The Wigmore Hall’s 2017/18 season has been announced, and in addition to a really splendid variety of chamber music and performers, piano fans can look forward to a fantastic line up of pianists including Sir Andras Schiff, Peter Donohoe, Imogen Cooper, Steven Osborne and Angela Hewitt, as well as young rising stars Daniil Trifonov and Pavel Kolesnikov, amongst many others. 

Sadly, there are only four women pianists in this impressive roster.

The full list is here: 

Reflections on turning 50

56167176-house-number-50I believe it was the pianist Claudio Arrau who said that passion intensifies with age, and I am sure this is the case when one hits a significant birthday, as I did last winter.

50 – it feels like a large number. It’s half a century, and for a while leading up to my Big Birthday, it felt very significant. Admittedly, I felt the same when approaching my 40th birthday – in fact, I felt worse because at that time I was going through a difficult period in my life, trying to find my identity after emerging from the fog of the early years of motherhood and feeling invisible to everyone but my child. But at 40 I returned to the piano seriously, with a passion, after a break of over 15 years, and I quickly realised I had been waiting for this creative impulse to awaken in me again. Repressed for the years while I was first working in London, moving house, getting married, starting a family, it now re-emerged with the maturity which comes from age and experience, and which has, over the last ten years, led me to fully immerse myself in music and writing, which is where I had always truly wanted to be.

When I was a teenager I wanted to be a professional musician (I also wanted to be a published writer….), but a dismissive comment by a school music teacher quickly scotched that desire. Looking back, he was probably being realistic, but the comment stung and has remained with me into adulthood, becoming the spur which urged me into the place where I am now, professionally (a piano teacher and writer on music). I’m neither a concert pianist nor a novelist, but I do perform, gaining satisfaction and pleasure from doing so, and this blog and my concert reviewing and other writing more than satisfies the writerly itch. Now, at 50, I am realistic about my capabilities, but I do not feel that the entry into my second half-century should be a time when I sit back and rest on my laurels.

The decade of my 40s was an interesting one. It was a time when I learnt that the boundaries of one’s emotional life are not completely impermeable, and that being married does not make one immune to another person’s attention and admiration. It was also the decade during which I established an identity (and not just my writerly nom de plume), now that my son was growing more independent, and I could explore and re-explore the things that I cared about as a teenager and young adult (music, art, literature). Establishing this blog (in 2010) marked my decision to share my activities with others in a wider public forum, and it has led to many fascinating and inspiring encounters with wonderful musicians (via the Meet the Artist series) and forging new connections and friendships with fellow writers, bloggers, concert reviewers, teachers, amateur pianists and music lovers.

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As a musician, maturity (in terms of years, rather than attitude) gives one perspective, the ability to take the long view, and not sweat the small stuff quite so much (because there is Big Stuff looming: old age and what that brings with it…). I think the “passion” Arrau speaks of comes from the realisation that one has a finite amount of time left, that one should seize the day and make the most of it. For me this has led to a greater sense of mindfulness about what I do, being fully “in the moment” when I play the piano (and indeed elsewhere in my life), trying to always look forward rather than going back over what has been, combined with a maturity of outlook which enables me to really appreciate what I have now.

Maturity can also bring confidence and the self-assuredness of knowing one has found one’s niche and metier. In my musical life, the single most significant and confident step I have taken as I’ve matured is that I’ve ceased constantly comparing myself to others (a toxic habit which can fuel resentment, jealously, and lack of self-esteem), and instead try to follow Schumann’s advice:

As you grow older converse more with scores than with virtuosi

As we mature, it is important to recognise the value of what we have to say, personally, as musicians and to measure that against the score, rather than other people’s perceptions, preconceptions or interpretations of the music. Thus the challenge becomes between oneself and the music, rather than constantly seeking or needing validation from peers, audiences or colleagues (though I do have a handful of trusted friends, colleagues and a teacher/mentor whose opinions I value and respect), and one appreciates that it is more important to gain approval from the works themselves by living with them and in them.

I have much to look forward to in the next decade (and beyond, I hope), with a number of personal projects on the horizon this year which will offer new challenges, both intellectually and musically. And, all things considered, 50 is just a number……

If you listen to one thing this week…..


Our times maybe troubled, deeply troubled, but thank goodness we can still gain pleasure and solace from music – and Daniel Grimwood‘s recently-released disc of piano music by Adolph von Henselt offers over an hour of unalloyed bliss.

If you didn’t know the name of the composer beforehand – and many may not – the opening notes of the first track might have you confidently exclaiming “oh it’s Chopin!”. There’s the same ominous tread in the opening as Chopin’s Op 49 Fantasie. And then you might think “it’s Liszt!” on hearing the tumbling virtuosic passages which sparkle under the lightness and precision of Daniel Grimwood’s touch.

Other works recall the bittersweet lyricism of Schubert or look forward to the richer textures of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. But this is Adolph Von Henselt, a little known Bavarian-born composer whom Grimwood champions.

Organised in the manner of an old-fashioned recital disc, there is much to savour and enjoy in the variety of works explored here. Virtuosic concert pieces sit comfortably alongside elegant miniatures, offering the listener a broad flavour of Henselt’s style and oeuvre. The Nocturnes, Impromptus and Études prove Henselt was every bit a master of these genres as his contemporaries Chopin and Liszt – and he made similar technical and interpretative demands on the pianist too. There are passages of vertiginous virtuosity which appear sweeping and effortless rather than merely showy with Daniel’s acute sense of the scale and pacing of this music. It’s lushly expressive but Daniel’s clarity and delicacy means it is never cloying or too heavily perfumed.

This disc would go into my “lateral listening” recommendations: if you love Chopin, I guarantee you’ll love Henselt just as much.

This is the second of Daniel’s recordings for the Edition Peters label and it has delightful cover artwork by Janet Lynch and comprehensive liner notes. As Daniel himself says of this disc: “It’s my small way of restoring Henselt…..to his rightful place in the repertoire

Highly recommended

Breathtaking pianism: Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich at St John’s Smith

Brahms and Messiaen do not immediately strike one as natural concert programme companions: Brahms teems with polyphony and darkness while Messiaen is about light, timbre, vertical chords, vibrant colour – indeed Messiaen hated Brahms, declaring that “it’s always raining” in Brahms’ music.

But unlikely or daring juxtapositions can create interesting and unexpected contrasts and connections, as one work shines a new light on another, enriching both listener and performer’s experience – and this was certainly my take on this remarkable concert by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich at St John’s Smith Square which combined Brahms’ Sonata in F minor, Op 34b with Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen.

If there are connections to be made between the music that made up this large-scale programme it is that both works are mighty musical edifices, two great mountains which transcend mere notes on the page and which demonstrate each composer’s wish to remain in long moments of emotional distress, relaxation or ecstasy. Both works also display a high level of perfectionism in their structures and organisation, replete with many details, motifs and musical pathways which could easily become blurred in a lesser performance.

Read my full review here

 

(picture credit Neda Navaee)

 

A feast of pianism at the Southbank Centre

The Southbank Centre (SBC) yesterday announced its 2017/18 programme and there’s an embarrassment of riches for lovers of the piano and its literature with concerts featuring established international artists and rising stars. I am particularly looking forward to performances by Maurizio Pollini, Vikingur Olaffson, Leif Ove Andsnes, Mitsuko Uchida and Artist-in-Residence Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who will be performing Ligeti’s Etudes.

Young virtuosos

This year’s rising stars, Katia Buniatishvili, Alice Sara Ott and Benjamin Grosvenor offer a kaleidoscope of contrasting personalities and styles, while Bertrand Chamayoux makes his International Piano Series debut in the opening concert of the season.

Music from the North

As part of the festival Nordic Matters, Vikingur Olaffson makes his debut in this year’s series  with Brahms’ Piano Sonata No.3 and its five movements containing echoes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, alongside that most quintessential of Nordic performers, the Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes.

The unmissable virtuosos

Enjoy a tremendous range of musical masterpieces while being thrilled by virtuosity with world-famous figures such as Maurizio Pollini, Stephen Hough and Paul Lewis.

A new partnership

Two recitals continue Southbank Centre’s partnership with Mitsuko Uchida. Renowned for her outstanding interpretations of Schubert, this piano legend embarks on the first of her recitals featuring the piano sonatas, from the boundless energy of the G major Sonata to the emotional depths plumbed by the sonata in B major.

Offering a different perspective, Southbank Centre Artist in Residence, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, throws light on 20th century scores with his performance of Ligeti’s Etudes as part of a weekend to celebrate the composer’s music.

These events go on general sale at 10am on Thursday 23 February.

Source: SBC website

Meet the Artist……Keith Burstein, composer

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

My parents were both professional violinists, so the likelihood is that I was an embryo even as my mother played in the midst of all the instruments- quite an introduction to music! In addition my aunts were also musicians and so it seemed that music was the stuff of life.

To be a composer was the earliest desire I recall having for myself, although after that I tried many other ambitions as a growing adolescent, including going into politics.

I think a turning point came when I discovered Mahler at age 16, that’s when I understood what music can be more fully than before. Then when I went to study at the Royal College of Music, I was introduced to the avant garde of that time, i.e. Stockhausen etc, and I saw how music can be at the cutting edge. Since then I have attempted to redefine the cutting edge as once again melodious and to rededicate music to what it does best – the expression of emotion.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I would cite the late romantic era as the single greatest influence – the grandeur and vision combined with the emotional intensity are hall marks of that era.

But as a child of the mid 20th century I was also deeply influenced by film music Bernard Hermann, John Barry, John Williams, Ennio Morricone – and of course these were in turn influenced by the late romantic.

I would also mention the great American musicals

Amongst people who have influenced me, firstly my parents who provided an environment in which music making was like the air I breathed, whether it was my parents accompanying one another on violin and piano or playing the Bach double for two violins or my father playing the accordion, or both with my aunts on piano or violin not forgetting my brother on drums, or my older cousin Paul Lewis who is a distinguished composer of TV and film music and now increasingly of concert music. Then I should mention my extraordinary piano teacher in Brighton, the late Christine Pembridge. She taught at Roedean girl’s public school and privately at home in Port Hall.

A remarkable musician and teacher, she transmitted her passion for music with a northern directness. It was she who animated my ability to play and through her I gained direct exposure to the great music of Bach Beethoven Schubert Debussy and Rachmaninov. Among her other pupils, before me, was composer Howard Blake of ‘The Snowman’ fame. Her fine teaching prepared me for the Royal College of music which was my next great field of influence. Here I met contemporaries and great friendship with William Mival, now head of composition there. William was a devoted connoisseur of new music and introduced me to Tippett, Stockhausen and Boulez. I would later go on to rebel against the atonal establishment as I came to see it, but the initial stimulus of exposure to its heartlands and the decade I then spent exploring and writing in its styles was the essential formative experience that made my later enlightenment possible.

Once this rebellion happened I was in trouble but almost immediately found a distinguished friend in the form of the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. I was introduced to him in the mid 90s by his publisher and we got on immediately. I believe he identified with my struggle having had a struggle himself to escape the Soviet Union. He liked my music and gave me very direct help by splitting a commission fee with me to write music for the 900th anniversary of Norwich Cathedral. He wrote ‘The True Vine’ and I wrote my Missa Brevis. A remarkable man of vision and personal humanity.

Then a few years later, while working with South Bank Sinfonia I discovered their patron was the legendary Vladimir Ashkenazy when he came to conduct them. I asked for and was given an introduction. We found affinity immediately on the issue of tonality and he wrote to me positively about the music I was writing for the orchestra. Within a couple of years he arranged for my Symphony ‘Elixir’ to be recorded and released on Naxos. He remains a great friend and support.

Another great friend was the actor the late Corin Redgrave of the Redgrave clan.He produced my opera Manifest Destiny at the Tricycle Theatre and Ralph Steadman designed the sets. Corin, an activist campaigner along with his sister Vanessa Redgrave and wife Kika Markham( my close friend) have all supported my sometimes controversial pathway. Without them it would have been much more difficult and lonely.

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

For the first decade of my career broadly my twenties i ran an ensemble for the performance and commission of new works, The Grosvenor Group. We made some radio 3 recordings and were well supported by various trusts. Then as I approached 30 I underwent a Road to Damascus type conversion to Tonality as I began to compose more full time myself.

Simultaneously I understood that the unmitigated tonalism of my works would not be acceptable to the new music establishment as serious new music and thus began the greatest challenge of my career.

The establishment view was – and remains – based in the atonal paradigm. To challenge this is the same as challenging any establishment- very dangerous.

I felt that I needed not only to produce the work but at the same time to speak out- or even demonstrate. In particular I became involved in a group who booed a Birtwistle opera in 1994.This produced the most incredible outcry and rumble in the press that went on for years

This was captured on television here

and eventually led me to have to sue News International for libel which I did successfully in 2000.

The in 2003 I wrote with playwright Dic Edwards my opera ‘Manifest Destiny’ about suicide bombers who renounce violence and become peace makers. The press nevertheless accused me of glorifying terrorism , a serious criminal offence. Again I sued this time the Daily Mail Group. I won in the High Court but was defeated at Appeal and bankrupted by Associated Newspapers Ltd

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Knowing that it will be performed and I will be paid.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Having the opportunity to work within a dialogue in which changes and adjustments can be made as part of the working process

Of which works are you most proud?

I would have to cite first ‘Manifest Destiny’. This is a work which aspires to reflect and process the current geo-politics and translate then into a convincing human drama and then transmute the content onto a higher plane of transcendence. In this regard the opera seems to serve its purpose having had over 30 performances and several productions. With Dic Edwards the librettist we also managed to produce a work which has proven prescient to this day.

Also ‘The Year’s Midnight’, a meditation on the Holocaust which was broadcast on radio 4 on the first Holocaust memorial day in 2001; my music in memoriam the 51 people who drowned in the Thames in the Marchioness river boat disaster of 1989, Requiem for the Young; and my music in memoriam the former Leader of the Labour Party John Smith,  ‘A Live Flame’ .

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Super Tonal

How do you work?

I type straight into the computer like writing a letter, with no sound, just hearing in my head

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Prince, Miles Davis, John Barry, Eminem, Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner, Bach, Elgar, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Scriabin

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Karl Bohm conducting the last three Mozart Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Royal Festival Hall in 1978 – life changing visionary experience.

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

Music is a unique portal into the human soul

Keith Burstein was born in Brighton, England. He came from a musical family; both parents were classical violinists who played for Sadlers Wells Ballet, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Ulster Orchestra and the Halle Orchestra as well as for the Royal Opera House. (Originally of Russian-Jewish extraction, the family name had been anglicised to Burston). Burstein held two scholarships at the Royal College of Music in London where he studied composition with Bernard Stevens and John Lambert. Post-graduation, he continued his composition studies with Jonathan Harvey. This was a period of great discovery for him.

Read more about Keith Burstein here

Moving house? Make sure your piano is properly protected

Moving house can be a stressful business without the additional worry of moving your piano (grand or upright). A specialist mover can help make the process much easier, ensuring your precious instrument is properly cared for before, during and after its move……

10 ways to protect your piano during a house move

Your piano is one of your most precious possessions – and could well be the most valuable. So it’s fair to assume to don’t want it to get so much as a scratch during a house move. Here are some tips on protecting your piano that will help your move go without a hitch – and keep your instrument pristine.

IMG_1951

1. Don’t move the piano on its casters

These tiny wheels look nice. But they’re only designed to move the piano very short distances, and won’t take the weight for long.

2. Check whether your home insurance covers you for moving

Some insurance policies will cover your piano during transit, but many don’t. Check the small print on your insurance policy. Or, better, call your insurance company and double-check. If you’re not covered automatically, you might want to consider paying an extra supplement.

3. Choose an experienced removal company

A good, professional removal service makes all the difference. The more experienced, the better. Try to compare at least three different movers to get a range of quotes. That way, you can rule out any that are suspiciously low.

4. Let the removal companies visit your house to assess the move

Once you’ve spoken to a few movers, let them come to your house to do an assessment in person. That way they can see how big your piano is – as well as how many stairs are involved, plus any access issues outside your property. Removal companies need to know this so they can work out how many movers and what size vehicle to send on moving day, as well as what equipment they’ll need. Speaking of which…

5. Check your removal company has the right equipment

An experienced mover will want to protect your piano using a padded piano bag or think blankets. Ask if they have padded piano bags of the right size. Do they also have a piano shoe (also called a piano slipper)? This is a heavy-duty wooden sledge with straps used to securely move your piano in your house or flat. They also need a piano skate, dolly or trolley. These are to move your piano from your property to the van. Whatever wheeled conveyance your removal company has, ask if it has brakes.

6. Check your removal company’s insurance

Your removal company must have public liability and goods in transit insurance. The latter will cover you in the event that your piano is damaged during the move. But make sure to check how much the company is covered for. Smaller removal companies may need to call their insurers to arrange for more cover when transporting an expensive grand or baby grand piano – so be sure to check.

7. Review your removals company’s terms and conditions

Before making the final choice on your mover, check their term and conditions. While it’s tempting to pack or wrap your piano yourself to save money, this could make it harder to claim on your mover’s goods in transit insurance in the event that anything does go wrong. In most cases, if your mover doesn’t see the condition of piano before the move, you won’t be able to make a successful claim. Discuss this with your removal company.

8. Prepare for the move ahead of time

Before moving day, take care of the basics. Lock the lid of your piano if you can to keep the keys protected. Before the movers arrive, clear a path in your house or flat so they can manoeuvre the piano more easily. If you can, make sure the path is clear in your new property as well.

9. Take photos of your piano before the move

This will help you check the condition of your piano once the move is done. And it will also alert you to any existing scratches or chips that you might not have spotted – so you don’t blame the removal company for something that isn’t their fault!

10. Get your removal company to check out the piano after the move

Good specialist piano removers will do this as a point of honour. Many of them will even tune your piano after the move as part of the service. This is a nice touch that ensures your piano is not only in good physical condition, but ready to play as soon as you are. If in doubt, ask. Even a good smaller or non-specialist remover will likely have an agreement with a local piano tuner so they can offer this service.

These top tips have been compiled by buzzmove.com, a site for people to easily compare removal companies in one place.

 

This is a sponsored post. All information was supplied by buzzmove

Disclaimer: The Cross-Eyed Pianist does not necessarily endorse organisations that provide sponsored posts which link to external websites, and does not endorse products or services that such organisations may offer. In addition, The Cross-Eyed Pianist does not control or guarantee the currency, accuracy, relevance, or completeness of information found on linked, external websites. However, every effort is made to ensure such information contained on this site is accurate at the time of publication.

Meet the Artist……Bernard Hughes, composer

bh-colour-leaning-lr

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

I started composing of my own accord at about the age of 8, without anyone particularly inspiring me or suggesting I do it. I just started writing things down on bits of manuscript paper lying around the house. I remember once making up a key signature which combined sharps and flats and showing it to my father, who said there was no such key signature. I didn’t understand why that was, or why I wasn’t allowed to make up my own key signature. As to making a career from music, that was never intended. Most people who write music stop at some point, and I just never stopped.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I had an influential music teacher called Gwynne Lewis when I was about 10. He didn’t especially inspire me to compose, but he communicated a love of music and the joy of being involved in music. I have had a number of excellent teachers along the way, but the inspiration above all has been Igor Stravinsky. I didn’t discover his music until the shockingly late age of 16 or 17, but once I heard the Rite of Spring I never looked back in my devotion to his music. First hearing the Symphony of Psalms was an unforgettable experience.

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

As with all composers, the challenge is to have your music heard. In this I have been pretty lucky, but every composer wants more and higher profile performances and commissions.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Having a particular occasion or performed in mind can really help to shape a piece. I had a commission that got more and more precise; in the end it had to be a wordless choral work based on a visual work of art by an artist I knew. And the piece turned out to be quite unusual as a result.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I’ve been lucky to work quite often with the BBC Singers. When you have a piece sung by them you can be confident they will get it right – working with children as I do much of the time, there is always the possibility for a collapse. But technical expertise is only half the battle; it is particularly fun to work with groups and individuals who enjoy the challenge of new music.

How would you describe your compositional language?

A question composers tend to dread. First, I would certainly say that my language is different from piece to piece, depending on the circumstances and context. Next, I would say that I am interested in using tonal materials in a non-tonal way, if tonality is interpreted narrowly as meaning music that has a sense of home key and a hierarchy of other keys, and that modulates away from and back to the home key. Under this narrow definition, Steve Reich’s music, for example, is not tonal, although it uses diatonic chords. This is a fertile ground for me (although my music sounds nothing like Reich). For example, my choral pieces often use diatonic chords, but I am rarely able to write a perfect cadence. I am also interested in the use of modes, such as the octatonic collection, or invented modes. In summary, my musical language tends to be a bit ‘safe’ for those who like hardcore modern music, and a little bit tricky for those who like straightforward ‘classical’ music.

How do you work?

I use a mixture of pen and paper and computer. I am at the tail-end of the generation trained pre-computer notation – I first got Sibelius in my 20s, when it was a new (and by today’s standards, primitive) software. I now don’t know how I ever managed without a computer. First thoughts for a piece usually come on my feet, either walking round the block or in the shower. Notes will often first come at the piano, sketched onto manuscript. I also often print out music at an intermediate stage and write onto the printout with amendments. I think it is so useful to have visible drafts – one of the downsides of a computer is that once you change a note, the original is gone. But the main use of the computer is for checking the pacing of a piece – which is, for me, the ultimate challenge. Do the events of the piece happen at the right psychological moment?

Which works are you most proud of?

It would have to be the two large-scale pieces I have written for the BBC Singers. ‘The Death of Balder’ in particular, is an original conception – a ‘radio opera’ for choir on a Norse myth – and I am happy with how it turned out, after a great deal of uncertainty while composing it.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

As mentioned above, I am a huge Stravinsky fan, and always will be. Of contemporary composers, I really love Judith Weir’s music (she is also an extremely kind and generous person), Magnus Lindberg, Thomas Adès, Julian Anderson and a French composer called Guillaume Connesson, who I only discovered through reviewing a CD.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I was lucky enough, as a child living in Berlin in the 1980s, to be taken to hear the Berlin Philharmonic a few times. The two occasions I particularly remember were hearing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and – the first time I went – Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 21. I was about 10 and both completely blew me away, just the sound of the orchestra, and I still love both pieces. I also remember, at one of those concerts, the second half being a Shostakovich symphony, which I hated; Shostakovich symphonies still don’t do it for me.

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

I think it is a responsibility of composers to listen widely, and to music that is not necessarily instantly amenable. I think too many people, young people in particular, are too narrow in their range of listening. In one sense there is no excuse for not listening widely – my excuse as a youngster was that it was difficult to access music, apart from Radio 3 and my local library’s tape collection. But the flip side is that there is so much music available now that it can be difficult to wade through it all. But it is important for composers to have open ears.

‘I Am The Song – Choral music by Bernard Hughes’ was released in April 2016 on the Signum Classics label. More information

‘The Knight Who Took All Day’ from the book by James Mayhew with music by Bernard Hughes will be performed on Sunday 29th January 2017 at Hertford Theatre, Hertford, conducted by Tom Hammond. More information

Bernard Hughes studied Music at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, graduating with a first-class degree. He subsequently studied composition at Goldsmiths College, London under Peter Dickinson, and privately with Param Vir. Bernard Hughes was awarded a PhD in Composition from Royal Holloway College, London, studying with Philip Cashian. Bernard Hughes is Composer-in-Residence at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London.

Bernard Hughes’s music has been broadcast on Radio 3 and King FM in Seattle, and he appeared as a conductor on the Channel 4 series Howard Goodall’s Twentieth Century Greats. Bernard writes regularly for theartsdesk cultural review website.

More about Bernard Hughes here

An Autumn Sonata – part 4: Andantino

A personal journey through Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (read previous posts here)

With a good deal of reading, of both the score and books and articles on this sonata and Schubert’s piano music in general, and listening, and thinking, by late November 2014, it was time to embark on some serious note learning……

As noted in an earlier post, Schubert’s late piano sonatas are large-scale works: their first movements alone, with exposition repeats intact, can last as long as an entire sonata by Beethoven, and this “heavenly length” can pose problems for the performer in terms of stamina (it takes me around 43 minutes to perform the D959 in its entirety, with repeats), retaining a clear sense of the cyclic elements which recur throughout the work, and appreciating the overall narrative of the work. From my reading of the score, and other materials, I had concluded that the second movement, the infamous Andantino was the most “difficult” (though this is all relative when considering such a large piece of music!). This is the movement which provokes the most discussion and theorising amongst pianists, musicologists, critics and audience members, many of whom believe this movement is the clearest indication we have of Schubert’s emotional and mental instability, probably due to his advanced syphilis. Musically, it feels like an aberration in the overall scheme of the D959, which is generally warm-hearted and nostalgic in its character and prevailing moods, and it is unlike anything else Schubert wrote. “Its modernity is incredible even today” (Andras Schiff, Schubert Studies). It has a “desolate grace behind which madness lies” (Alfred Brendel), the lyricism of the outer sections providing a dramatic foil to the savage intensity of the middle section. Its position in the overall structure of the sonata creates a striking contrast between the majesty and expansiveness of the opening movement and the quirky, playful Scherzo which follows it. In my own practical approach to this movement, I decided to ignore much of the psychobabble and work with what is given in the text.

The movement is in straightforward ABA (ternary) form, the A section reprised with a more intricate left-hand accompaniment and a haunting triplet figure in the treble.

The middle, B, section unfolds initially like a Baroque fantasia (bars 73-86), with descending diminished seventh arpeggios which take the music into C-minor. Gradually all the elements speed up (Schubert indicates this through note sub-divisions, striking modulations and volume of sound) and the music continues to build with increasing savagery via extreme registers and the use of trills to sustain tension, eventually arriving at C-sharp minor and culminating in dramatic fortissimo chords (bars 120/121). A short recitative-like section follows, interrupted by dramatic chords, before a serene passage reminiscent of the G-flat major Impromptu (D899/3). The A material returns at bar 159.

The opening A section combines a barcarolle bass line with a right-hand melody redolent of several of the Heine songs and ‘Der Leiermann’ from Winterreise, while its expressive qualities and character relate to the song ‘Pilgerweise’, also in F-sharp minor. Some pianists like to treat this movement as a barcarolle with a storm in the lagoon (the middle section). Daniel Barenboim has called A section “a melancholy folksong”, a description which I particularly like: the lilting style of a folksong is implied by the recurring bass figure and the simple melody from which is unleashed the turbulent and chaotic middle section.

A rather chilly, tread-like quality in the bass is created through the use of staccato on the first note and the slur on the second and third notes, with the third note lighter (although this is not indicated specifically after bar 2, we can safely assume that this is what Schubert intended throughout). I found it helpful to think of this in terms of a cello or bass pizzicato figure: it needs resonance but should also be balanced with the right-hand melody. I don’t sustain the staccato note with the pedal here, and indeed the pedal is used sparingly throughout this section. The repeated use of falling seconds and a limited range, together with largely understated dynamics, create a feeling of stasis and melancholy contemplation. With so many repetitive elements in this section, it is necessary to create contrasting musical colour (for example between bars 1-8 and 9-12). At bar 19 the music moves into A Major, one of those magical Schubert moments where the mood seems at once warmer and yet even more poignant because it is expressed pianissimo. I like to use the una corda pedal for this pianissimo passage, and the corresponding passage at bars 51-54 to create a sense of other-worldliness.

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Page 3 of the Andantino with my annotations
Other details worth noting throughout this section (bars 1-32) are the inner voices in bars 7, 15, 16, 25, 29 and 31 (and then at bars 39 and 57), and the ornaments which should be played on the beat (though many celebrity pianists prefer to do otherwise, admittedly to beautiful effect). For example, in bar 15, the A sounds with the E sharp on the beat and the turn at bar 23 begins on the note above, but need not be pedantically with the bass C sharp. (See David Montgomery Franz Schubert’s Music in Performance for more on ornaments.)

At this point I feel it’s important to mention the overall tempo of the movement. It is marked Andantino, and needs a sense of forward propulsion. Despite this, some pianists tend more towards Adagio, and at this speed there is, in my opinion, a very fine line between the music sounding meditative or funereal, or even boring, which I do not feel is appropriate. I have aimed towards a metronome mark of quaver = c90 bpm. A quick browse through Spotify reveals quite a broad range of tempi, with some versions of the Andantino coming in at well over 8 minutes (Schnabel, Pollini, Uchida, Perahia) and others at around or under 7 minutes (Lupu, Schiff, Goode).

Here is Uchida

And Lupu

 

And so on to the B section, which leads to the most passionately and extraordinary part of the movement and indeed the whole sonata. It is typical of Schubert to create sections in the music which are vividly contrasting yet also complementary: the A sections are reflective in their lyrical subject while the middle section completely destroys this frame of reference, only for it to return at the reprise of the A section. It is the strong contrast between the A and B sections which makes this movement so arresting and so powerful.

The bridging passage begins at bar 69, and is preceded by three bars whose dark, descending chords mirror in their reverse movement the chords which form the opening sentence of the sonata (and a figure which recurs elsewhere). I like to create a sense of mystery in bars 69-72 with a wetter pedal effect and a little rubato to suggest improvisation as the music unfolds. The main difficulty I encountered in the entire B section was maintaining a sense of the underlying 3-in-a-bar pulse and clarifying the different note hierarchies, while also continuing the improvisatory/fantasia feel. In order to achieve this, I drilled the section strictly with the metronome for several weeks, a tedious but necessary task for once the note hierarchies and subdivisions were well learnt, I could let the music break free, particularly in bars 102-122, to create a rising sense of hysteria. 

A clear sense of pulse is required through bars 124-146, as the recitative section takes over. After all the “busyness” of the previous page, I like to create a sense of the music being restrained once again, with the contrasting disruption of the FFz chords. At bar 147 the music arrives in C-sharp major in a passage which seems directly drawn from the G-flat Impromptu. At bar 159 the A section returns, this time with the more elaborate LH figure and the triplet figure in the RH, which should have the quality of a separate, “other” voice. Throughout this section, it is important to retain a sense of the opening melody and a similar lightness in the LH to that in the opening bass figure (note the demi-semiquaver rests at the end of each bar). Bars 177-182 the RH accented E’s sound as tolling bells above the melody, and once again I like to use the una corda pedal here to give a more ethereal quality and to create contrast with the forte chords in bars 185/66 and the descending figure in bar 187. The movement closes with dark, arpeggiated chords which echo those at bars 65-68, and which are transformed into sparklingly joyful spread chords in the Scherzo which follows. I try to keep these in tempo until bars 198/9 at which I introduce a rit. to signal the close of the movement. The dynamic landscape here is very quiet and muted, and I feel una corda is perfectly acceptable in these closing statements.

It took me three months of fairly consistent work to bring the movement to a point where I felt confident enough to perform it for others (for friends at home). I then “rested” it for some weeks while I turned my attention to the first movement, the subject of the next article.

The Idle Pianist

While I took a few weeks off teaching and playing the piano in general over the Christmas break, I reflected on the very modern phenomenon of “busyness”

We are all so busy these days. Musicians, by necessity, tend to be busy people – busy practising, performing, creating performing opportunities, meeting and working with colleagues, applying for funding, teaching, preparing lesson plans, doing admin….. The peripatetic nature of our working lives means that we are often trying to keep a variety of balls in the air at the same time, and many of us feel that being busy validates what we do. As a fellow musician tweeted on Christmas Eve,  “does anyone else find Christmas slightly angst-inducing? Feels odd not working.” Because for most musicians work shapes every hour of the day.

But that’s not all….

In today’s modern society many of us seem caught in a “busy trap” – and one which is almost entirely of our own making. Idleness, or doing little or nothing, is considered A Bad Thing because it is perceived as unproductive, while being busy reassures us that we are doing something useful or purposeful with our time. Many of us are busy because of our own ambition or anxiety, or because we’ve become almost addicted to being busy and dread what we might have to face without it. Telling others that we are busy also helps to endorse our activities: I have a concert pianist colleague who emails me on a fairly regular basis to tell me how busy he is with concerts, reeling off lists of works and venues. At first glance, this seems terribly exciting and wonderful that he is keeping so well-occupied doing the thing he loves. On another level, I wonder if it is a perverse form of attention-seeking, a complaint disguised as a boast. In an ideal scenario, I suspect he’d prefer to do less, to have more time to listen to and enjoy music, go to concerts rather than always be the one giving the concert, read, spend time with family and friends, and maybe even embrace idleness now and then as an antidote to the relentless, and self-imposed, treadmill of his profession.

Of course as musicians we need to practise: this article is absolutely not a suggestion that we stop practising and simply loll around in our practise rooms eating chocolate truffles. Music students can often get very quickly caught up in the “busyness” of practising, where things are “done” – scales and exercises rattled off, pieces played through relentlessly –  and these habits of practising are carried forward into their professional lives, with little consideration whether such a regime is truly productive. In our working lives, where so many of us are freelance and peripatetic, it is often necessary to accept work because you don’t know when the next lean patch will come. This can result in us becoming suffocatingly over-scheduled, which in turn can lead to ill-health and anxiety.

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Social media doesn’t help either: seeing what others are posting, sharing details of their exciting concerts, events and activities, and broadcasting their seemingly vibrant and busy lives across Facebook and Twitter et al may make the rest of us wonder if we are really doing enough. In addition, there’s an avalanche of email that needs to be read and replied to right now, because turning on an auto-reply message may look as if we’re not busy nor sufficiently engaged…….And smart phones, tablets and laptops mean we remain connected 24/7 with no division between our working day and time off. Filling our lives with activity can be exhilarating and invigorating – until that activity, that busyness, becomes overwhelming.

So maybe some of us need to reappraise how we use our time. Sometimes a life event forces such a reappraisal: a friend of mine had a gardening accident at the beginning of 2016 and had to have surgery on her back. While recuperating at home, unable to do much more than potter around her house, she made several important decisions about her working life. The result of this enforced period of reflection led her to leave a job she disliked and set up her own consultancy business. She now works from home – and she works less and achieves more, with a much better work-life balance, with time for her family, herself, and extra-curricular activities such as music and sport which she enjoys.

Much is made of “me time”, but too often this feels hard won, desperately shoe-horned into our over-scheduled days as a rare indulgence rather than something that might actually be beneficial, enabling us to work and function better. Taking time off, a “me time” day, can feel like a guilty pleasure, when all around us others are keeping busy. But idleness is good for us: not just an indulgence nor a vice, it is in fact indispensable to the brain, and the space and quietness of idleness can create unexpected connections, resolution of seemingly intractable problems, and those Eureka! moments of inspiration which are crucial to the creative person’s day-to-day life. In addition, our brains require down time to process the information with which we are deluged every day, consolidate memory, reinforce learning, and to recharge the batteries. Even Seneca, writing in the first century, recognised busyness as both a distraction and a preoccupation:

“No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied … since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it”

From the outside, creative people – musicians, writers, artists – quite often seem to be “doing nothing” when they are not actively and, more importantly, obviously engaged in making music, attending book launches, or exhibiting their paintings. But it is that very idleness which triggers new ideas, sparks creativity, and helps develop more focused attention – all important considerations for the musician.

For the idle pianist, may I suggest the following ‘unbusy’ activities which may actually be beneficial:

  • Practise intelligently. We’re constantly being reminded of the benefits of intelligent practise, but all to often we engage in mindless, repetitive note-bashing, which may feel like practising, but is rarely truly productive
  • Exercise more self-compassion and be kind to yourself. So what if you didn’t complete the full three hours of practising this morning because you’re tired from last night’s concert? Allow yourself time to recuperate and recharge: your practising will almost certainly be more productive as a result.
  • Take time away from the practise room to enjoy music. A number of professional pianists whom I’ve interviewed as part of my Meet the Artist series have expressed frustration at the demands of a profession which can rob them of their love of music. Re-connect with the music you love through listening or going to concerts.
  • Time away from the instrument reading scores, listening and simply thinking about the music (playing through sections in one’s head, for example) is always useful and allows one to stand back from the music and consider it more objectively
  • Take regular exercise. This seems obvious too, and yet many of us are too busy to include exercise in our daily routine. Walking or swimming can be particularly beneficial to the musician: it is enforced time away from the instrument while the rhythm of repetitive physical activity can free the mind to process issues encountered during practise, allowing us to work through them in a more considered way.
  • Schedule “doing nothing” time, or even a day off, into your working week, in the way you schedule a task like practising, and don’t feel guilty about it.

My New Year resolution for 2017 is to do less, to be more selective about which events and concerts I attend, to make time for regular exercise, to not feel guilty if I don’t always get in as much practise time as I would like, and to enjoy periods (if only 10 minutes in a day) of idleness. Already this new regime seems to be working: my head is full of new ideas for blog posts and I’ve been inspired to learn some new music from simply spending time listening rather than playing.

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(Lolcat by Sylvia Segal)

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture