Bach 50 shades

The best-selling “mummy porn” erotic fantasy 50 Shades of Grey (and its sequels) is notable for being short on culture and long on bad writing and naff BDSM sex scenes. I know this because I weakened, while bored on holiday at Christmas, and read the damn thing (a friend sent me a PDF of the book so I could read it in secret on my iPad!). Those who know me well – as a voracious reader of books on pianism and classical music, and the works of contemporary novelists such as Alan Hollinghurst, Ian McEwan, Helen Dunmore and Paul Theroux – are probably now, as I write, throwing their hands up in horror at this confession. However, as a reviewer and one who will join in noisily with a good debate around the dinner table, I believe it is necessary to read, hear or see the rubbish so that one can a) offer criticism based on knowledge, rather than hearsay; and b) really appreciate great literature, music or art when one comes across it.

50 Shades…. has been responsible for sending Thomas Tallis’s wonderful, soaring 40-part motet Spem in Alium to the top of the classical music charts (it’s the piece Christian Grey, the controlling, BDSM-obsessed ‘hero’ of the book, is listening to the first time he seduces our ‘heroine’, the irritatingly immature Anastasia). Another piece which has enjoyed a resurgence of interest thanks to the book is the ‘Adagio’ from J S Bach’s Concerto in D Minor after Marcello, BWV 974. Christian Grey, who is not only drop-dead gorgeous and richer than Croesus but also a talented amateur pianist (natch), is playing this piece (naked at the piano, I might add) the first morning-after-the-night-before:

I hear the music.The lilting notes of the piano, a sad sweet lament……

Christian is at the piano, completely lost in the music he’s playing. His expression is sad and forlorn, like the music. His playing is stunning……I listen enraptured. He’s such an accomplished musician….

When he’s finished, Christian tells Anastasia that it is Bach’s transcription of an oboe concerto, originally by Marcello.

I first came across this arresting piece on the soundtrack of a French film called ‘Je Te Mangerais’ (in English ‘Highly Strung’) about a couple of French lesbians (one of whom is a pianist), which I saw just after I’d done my ATCL Recital Diploma in December 2011. I was looking for some repertoire to keep me occupied while I was waiting for the exam results, and, by a neat coincidence, the entire Concerto was on the repertoire list for the LTCL, which I decided to attempt after I’d received my ATCL result.

It is the pure beauty of the Adagio, a limber solo melody over a hypnotic, repeating bass line, that makes it so compelling: a serene oasis between a witty, rhetorical opening movement and a Presto finale, an exuberant 3/8 romp, scored almost entirely in semiquavers.

Bach transcribed 16 instrumental concertos by other composers for solo harpsichord during the 1710s. Six were originally works by Antonio Vivaldi. Alessandro Marcello lacked the style and innovation of Vivaldi, and it is possible that Bach selected this concerto to transcribe to test his own skill and adaptive ingenuity. Bach’s transcription, like its original, is in the usual three movements of an Italian concerto. The shell of the first movement is clearly Marcello’s work, though Bach is quick to thicken the lean textures of the original, particularly in the middle of the movement where the writing is very dense.

In the Adagio, the right hand melodic line is highly ornamented, suggesting improvisation, and is perhaps an opportunity for Bach to show off the emotional possibilities of the harpsichord, as well as the technical prowess of the keyboard player. When I first started learning it, I was also working on Chopin’s Nocturne in E, op 62 no. 2, a piece in which a beautiful simple melodic line is decorated with ornaments and fiorituras. Chopin revered Bach, and learning the two pieces concurrently demonstrated the influence and inspiration Chopin drew from JSB.

As for playing the piece, a soft, light right hand and arm is crucial to achieve a beautiful singing tone in the melody. Keep the mordents and trills quite leisurely/lengthened, and the demi-semiquaver bars relaxed to create a sense of improvisation. I like to spread some of the chords – e.g. bars 5 and 13. Keep the LH chords soft – “floating chords” where the keys are depressed just enough to create sound – and think 3 in a bar (rather than 6 quavers). Throughout, the piece needs to ‘breathe’, so observe Bach’s phrasing where marked (there is limited phrasing in my Barenreiter edition) and don’t overdo the drop slurs (e.g. at bar 18), and don’t push the LH. Remember, this is 5 minutes of serenity between two dramatic and exciting outer movements.

For me, the benchmark recording of this work has to be Glenn Gould’s. His treatment of the ornaments is particularly fine, and the rest of the Concerto is splendidly orchestral. James Rhodes has also recorded the Adagio but to my mind it is an overly contrived, self-conscious reading of the piece. A quick trawl around Spotify threw up some other interesting interpretations of the work, including a ‘cello version with Rostropovich, and a rather smooth, “lounge” style improv by Gabriela Montero. When studying the concerto, it is worth listening to Marcello’s original to hear how Bach has handled the orchestral writing, and where he has stripped out material to highlight the capabilities of the harpsichord.

Download the score of the complete Concerto in D minor BWV 974 from IMSLP. For a simplified version of the score, click here

Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis

If you’re interested in reading quality erotic literature, take a look at the book reviews and recommendations at Mucky Book Club

David Nelson

***The inaugural Hebden Bridge Piano Festival, conceived by David Nelson, takes place from 19-21 April.

Further information and tickets here***

What is your first memory of the piano?

Age 5 picking out tunes on a neighbour’s piano. She encouraged my parents to get me an instrument. To this day I’m not sure whether she recognised my innate talent -or whether she just needed me to make that row in my own home!

Who or what inspired you to start teaching? Nothing really: I just wondered whether I could do it. Made a start and found that I could.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? My current teacher, concert pianist Paul Roberts. Also Katerina Wolpe at Morley College.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

Probably all the other musical things I do in addition to playing Classical music. So…jazz, pop, world music, playing guitar and bass, singing, writing music and lots more. All these things  help explain music differently and sometimes better than more formal routes, and add  vibrancy and colour to lessons (and to the music too)

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

The moment a student plays beautifully for the first time – in their piece, or in their lives perhaps. That’s when you know it’s all been worthwhile!

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

Keeping them going! They often demotivate when other aspects of their lives get tough. Musically: bridging the gap between what their highly formed musical minds know the music should go like –  and what their fingers are actually able to do!

What do you expect from your students?

Their best.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? I don’t really have a view on these things. I have a view as to whether they might benefit or be detrimental to the progress of each individual student which is based on their own needs, wishes and abilities.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

Perhaps the holistic nature of the intervallic relationship between notes. We read, see, hear, and (at the piano) feel them too. Oh, and rhythm obviously. I think these things might be the same regardless of the ability of the student.

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

It’s all good: I love it! Worst thing is when good students leave (for whatever reason)

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why? 

Those who are inspirational, with a good sense of humour and infinite patience! Their ability to go deeper into the heart of the music, but into the microcosmic detail too

David Nelson has been teaching piano for over 25 years, giving lessons to hundreds of students/pianists both in London and in West Yorkshire. A sizeable number of these have gone on to become professional performers or teachers, whilst others have become influential in jazz and popular music. Many others have continued to play long after their lessons had ceased and value the life-enhancing qualities of such activity.

More about David Nelson at


Gabriel Crouch

Who or what inspired you to take up you singing and make it your career?

My mother is a violinist, and one of my earliest childhood memories involves being asked what I wanted for my 4th birthday. My answer (“A violin!”, or hopefully “A violin, please!”) precipitated more than a decade of torment for everyone within earshot, but it also led me to choir school (for free violin lessons) and from there to singing. Since I first started singing in earnest, I’ve never wanted any other profession.

Who or what are the most important influences on your singing?

As a boy treble I was taught every day by the great Simon Preston. Those of us who grew up under his direction now aspire to make music with the same ferocious energy and personality, however exhausting it may be. Then I fell under the influence of Dr Richard Marlow at Cambridge University and his musical personality could not have been more different – a scholar-musician of great humility who taught his students to place themselves in the service of the music score and allow it to speak for itself. I hope I carry a little of both in me.

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

I would say that learning to adapt to the needs of my American students has presented me with my biggest career challenges and greatest pleasures. I conducted Princeton University’s staging of Britten’s Albert Herring recently, and for someone with zero experience in the world of opera this was absolutely terrifying. The score is mind-bendingly complicated, and when one is attempting to unite two groups of musicians who can’t see each other, and can only partially hear each other… well, I know why opera conductors get the big bucks.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

Never mind the clichés – it really is greater than the sum of its parts. My colleagues are some of the best in the field and each one has something to ‘teach’ the group. When the ensemble is socially harmonious, learning from its members, discovering things together, and making wonderful sounds… I don’t know anything that beats it.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

‘Dialogues of Sorrow’ is the recording that defines what I would like our group to be. It involves a little scholarship and a lot of adventure. Much of the music is completely unheard but it’s all ravishing and I hope our love for it comes across. The story behind the music is compelling too…

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

The main hall at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. It’s a beautiful hall and a great acoustic, but that has nothing to do with this answer. I have never felt such warmth from an audience, willing us to give our very very best. They are enlightened and educated, but completely unfettered by any sense of etiquette or propriety. They show their feelings in a way which makes them part of the music-making process. Being on stage there makes me realize what live performance could and should be. It’s been years since I was there so I hope it’s still the same!

Who are your favourite musicians?

I will travel a very long way to watch Martha Argerich play. The late Anthony Rolfe Johnson was the first singer I ever enjoyed listening to as a little boy, and I remain haunted by his singing. Closer to my own field, I love the way Robert Hollingworth talks about, thinks about, and makes music and I rejoice in all his latest crazy schemes. I don’t want to sound like the proverbial Geography teacher at the school disco, but Thom Yorke, Sufjan Stevens and James Blake have all made me wish I was a different kind of musician at various times…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are several King’s Singers concerts that stand out. There was the gig in Heidelberg where the audience were so insistent that we deliver that 7th encore that they were still yelling for it when most of us were changed and packed and ready to go. We went out to sing for one last time, and our bass strode out in immaculate jacket and tie, shoes and socks… but no trousers. The audience blew the roof off. At the more serious end, I can remember quite clearly the concert in Calgary where Simon Preston (see above) was in the audience. We knew he was there and were all desperately anxious to win his approval but we couldn’t pick him out in the audience. But towards the end of the concert, after we finished a piece by Byrd, there was a gasp of rapture from the balcony, and the voice was unmistakeably his. I think we were all ecstatic at this moment.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

I’m a terrible pianist but I love Brahms piano music and will often hack away at an intermezzo if nobody is listening. The second part of your question is impossible to answer I’m afraid. I don’t restrict my musical diet at all.

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

As a student (a brash one, with quite an ego) I thought it was all about me imposing my musical will and proving myself. I’m embarrassed to remember all that now, and I try my best to ward my own students away from this approach. Being truly ‘musical’ is not about the concentration of your musical ideas, rather it is about the empathy with which you interpret and deliver the score.

What are you working on at the moment?

Lassus – the ‘Lagrime di San Pietro’. It’s astonishing music – his last work, and what a way to finish.

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

I’ll be nearly 50… perhaps planning my eventual return to England??

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

How embarrassing and worrying that I have no answer to this question! I hope I’ll have worked this out by the time I next have to answer it…

What is your most treasured possession?

My dog, Moses (a pug who came with my fiancée as part of the deal…)

What do you enjoy doing most?

Standing at the counter of Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, taking in the smells and waiting for my first free sample of cheese.

What is your present state of mind?

Well you’ve made me think about cheese now. I’m hungry.


Gabriel Crouch is a Senior Lecturer in music at Princeton University, USA, and has been musical director of Gallicantus since its inception in 2008. He began his musical career as an eight-year-old in the choir of Westminster Abbey, where he served as Head Chorister and performed a solo at the wedding of HRH Prince Andrew and Miss Sarah Ferguson. After taking up a choral scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, he co-founded and directed the male vocal ensemble Henry’s Eight, and was offered a place in The King’s Singers in 1996. In the next eight years he made a dozen recordings with the King’s Singers on the BMG label (including a grammy nomination), and gave more than 900 performances in almost every major concert venue in the world, from New York’s Lincoln Center to the Suntory Hall in Tokyo.

In 2005 Gabriel was appointed ‘Director of Choral Activities’ at DePauw University in Indiana, since when he has maintained an active career on three fronts, as choral conductor, singer and record producer. In the last twelve months he has conducted at Choral Festivals in Washington DC (Chorworks Festival), Illinois (ECICF festival), Oregon, and at the University of Queensland’s Renaissance Choral Festival in Brisbane, Australia. In January 2008, the Gabrieli Choir’s CD The Road to Paradise, which Gabriel produced, was nominated for the title of ‘Best Choral Recording’ in the BBC Music Awards.

About the group

The core of Gallicantus is six highly motivated and skilled singers. Their will to found a specialist six-man group came from many years singing together in ensembles which include The King’s Singers, the choirs of Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, but above all the virtuoso ensemble, Tenebrae.

GALLICANTUS – ‘COCK CROW’ From the Aberdeen Bestiary – 12th Century

‘The crowing of the cockerel at night is a sweet sound, not only sweet but useful; like a good partner, the cockerel wakes you when asleep, encourages you when worried, comforts you on the road, marking with its melodious call the progress of the night. With the crowing of the cockerel, the robber calls off his ambush; the morning star itself is awakened, rises and lights up the sky; the anxious sailor sets aside his cares, and very often each tempest and storm whipped up by evening winds moderates.’

The main focus of 2013 will, of course, be the bicentenary of Richard Wagner (1813-1888) and the centenary of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), a composer whose music I have loved since I was a small child who was taken on holiday to Aldeburgh (where Britten could occasionally be spotted walking along the seafront with Peter Pears).

In all the excitement of the Wagner/Britten celebrations, many other composers, whose anniversaries also fall in 2013, may be overlooked. Here is a small selection:

Giles Farnaby (1563-1640) English composer and virginalist. His best-known works can be found in the ‘Fitzwilliam Virginal Book’, and include Giles Farnabys Dreame, Fancies Toys and Dreams, His Rest, Farnabyes Conceit and His Humour

John Dowland (1563-1626) Dublin-born English Renaissance composer, singer and lutenist. In recent years his music has undergone a huge revival of interest, and is today considered some of the finest and most profound music written for the instrument. His most famous works include the song ‘Flow My Tears’, and the Lachrimae (Seven Tears), a set of seven pavanes for five viols and lute, each based on a theme from ‘Flow My Tears’; ‘I Saw My Lady Weepe’; and ‘In darkness let me dwell’. The tenor John Potter created The Dowland Project to rediscover the essence of Renaissance song from the perspective of the modern performer. His album Care-Charming Sleep includes post-Dowland English and Italian songs, performed on Renaissance and modern instruments, including clarinet and saxophone.

Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) Russian pianist, conductor and composer who is perhaps best known for his transcriptions of Bach. His also transcribed works by Vivaldi, Beethoven, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.

Isidor Philipp (1863-1958). French pianist, composer and distinguished teacher, Isidor was also a grand-pupil of Chopin, via his teacher Georges Mathias. Other notable teachers include Stephen Heller (1813-1888, a pupil of Czerny), Camille Saint-Saens and Theodore Ritter (a pupil of Liszt). He met Claude Debussy while studying at the Paris Conservatoire, with whom he remained lifelong friends. Compositions include 6 Concert Studies after Chopin’s Études, Concert Étude after Chopin’s Minute Waltz, a concertino for three pianos, and a considerable number of works for left-hand only. The British pianist Phyllis Sellick studied with Philipp in Paris.

Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) Polish composer and conductor, Lutoslawski was one of the most significant European composers of the 20th century.. His early works show the influence of Polish folk music, but from the 1950s onwards, he began to develop his own characteristic compositional techniques, such as building harmonies from small groups of intervals, and ‘aleatoric’ processes in which the rhythmic coordination of parts are subject to chance. I first encountered his music via my father, who played some of his works for clarinet.


Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) Apart from Benjamin Britten, Alkan is, for me, the most interesting composer whose anniversary falls in 2013. Often misunderstood and little known by many, his piano music has been dismissed as unplayable, except by a select, skilled few. Yet he was one of the greatest pianists of his day, friend to Chopin (who greatly admired him and his work), he was venerated by Liszt, Busoni, Anton Rubinstein and the artist Delacroix, and was studied by Debussy, Saint-Saens, Franck and Ravel. His phenomenal pianistic technique is evidenced by the huge technical and physical demands his music places on the player: Liszt praised Alkan’s extraordinary technique, and admitted that Alkan was the only person he was afraid of performing to.

Charles-Valentin Alkan

He fell into obscurity for a century, largely because he himself withdrew from the concert platform and became increasingly reclusive. In the mid-twentieth century, the British pianist Ronald Smith (1922-2004) was responsible for a revival of interest in the piano music of Alkan, and recorded many of his works. Latterly, the French Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin has championed and recorded his music. In 2013, a number of pianists will be exploring his music, including Karl Lutchmayer and Jonathan Powell.

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 130,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career

I remember hearing a tape recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in my dad’s car when I was very young, and I simply could not believe how good it was. I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t being played on every radio station! The result of this exposure was that I began to experiment at an old Blüthner piano that we had in my house at the time, and soon began taking lessons with a private teacher when I was about 8 or so. And with regard to making it my career, I think composing and performing has always been such an all-consuming interest for me that I didn’t have a choice!

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

If I were to narrow it down to a list of three pianists, they would be Sviatoslav Richter, Murray Perahia and Krystian Zimerman. Richter for his notational precision and incomparable technique, Perahia for his extraordinary clarity, and Zimerman for his delicate phrase endings. I also admire them for their naturalness and dedication to live performance.

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

I suppose one of the main challenges is that very often people tend to think of classical music as a genre or style of music, which it isn’t. I try to encourage people to both appreciate the vastness of the term, which covers many extremely diverse approaches to music making across hundreds of years, and to discover a style period that they find musically engaging, which they inevitably will if they are a curious person and maintain an open mind. I am also a staunch believer that you do not require years of music training to appreciate and enjoy classical music, and this is something else I try to communicate.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

I did a recording of some compositions of mine with an ensemble that I brought together last March, and really enjoyed the experience. Irish traditional music represents a major stylistic influence in my work, and so a large part of the instrumentation featured for the recording was traditional instruments such as the Uilleann Pipes, Button Accordion and Irish Harp. I found it very stimulating to work with authentic players from a completely different musical background to my own, and learnt a lot from them, especially with regard to the improvisatory ornamentation that is such an indispensible feature of Irish music.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

I think the most attractive venue I’ve ever played was the Oak Room in the Mansion House in Dublin. It’s a small, intimate room that seats around 100 or so, with two spectacular chandeliers, as well as an oak-panelled wall decorated with the coat of arms of every Lord Mayor of Dublin since Daniel O’Connell.

Who are your favourite musicians?

A musician that I really admire is Keith Jarrett. His improvisations are always imaginative and evince a wide range of musical sources. And not only is he one of the outstanding improvisers in contemporary Jazz, he is also an accomplished classical performer, and is seemingly just as comfortable playing classical repertoire. Check out his harpsichord recording of Bach’s C-sharp minor Prelude and Fugue (Book 2 of the WTC) on YouTube to see what he is capable of. I copied out this fugue a few years back, and am familiar with many of the technical intricacies as a result; Jarrett absolutely nails them.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Finishing out the last of my cycle of 12 Études at a concert I gave in July as part of the “10 Days in Dublin” arts festival. It had been a hectic few weeks leading up to the concert, and I had been feverishly working to get all of the music composed on time. I was worried that I had tried to fit in too much in too short a space to time for my brain to subconsciously process everything, and that as soon as I went on stage to play it would all somehow conspire against me. But the first few went reasonably well, and gradually I began to ease into the performance. And then suddenly there I was, with 11 behind me, and it really felt like I had reached the home stretch.

I had been aware during the composition of this last piece that I was not drawing 1 isolated piece to a close, but rather a cycle of 12 pieces. I tried to reflect this sense of gravity technically through the use extensive dramatic pauses in juxtaposition with a sparse, monophonic texture, both of which are salient features of the Sean-Nós singing tradition that inspired much of the cycle. This economy of material lent itself well for improvisation, and allowed me to be spontaneous in the closing moments of the concert in a manner that would have been much harder to achieve if I had continued to compose in strict polyphony.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

I enjoy playing and listening to lots of different styles of music from lots of different periods. Recently I’ve been listening to Handel’s Oratorios a lot, Fantasias by Sweelinck, as well as the Bossa Nova album “Getz/Gilberto”. I hate to use the word eclectic, so I won’t use it.

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

For musicians generally, try seek self-reward through intrinsic improvements in your craft, rather than improvements in ranking against your competitors.

For performers, when practicing, aim to isolate and focus on the technical and musical areas where you are weakest, and keep run-throughs of an entire piece to a bare minimum.

For composers, firstly try to accumulate a wide array of knowledge about style periods and their composers, secondly compose in imitation of the style of some of these composers, and lastly try to express your own voice and creativity through this absorbed knowledge of craft.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just finished composing a set of 3 Continuo Songs, which I wrote as a part of collaboration with a friend of mine, Conor Leahy, who is a very talented poet. The songs vary somewhat in style; the Sean-Nós influence is still there, but the continuo harmonies are infused with exotic jazz chords and Bossa Nova-style rhythms. I’m very excited about the project, and we’re getting some of the members of the Trinity Orchestra on board for the performance. Keep an eye out for updates by following Louis Ryan Music on Facebook, or alternatively @louisryanmusic on twitter.

Louis Ryan is a 22-year-old professional composer and pianist based in Dublin. He has just completed a B.A. in music at Trinity College Dublin, where he specialised in composition and attained 1st class hons. Other relevant qualifications include a Licentiateship in piano performance held with Trinity Guildhall School of Music in London, as well as winning 1st place and a prize of 1,000 Euros in an inter-varsity piano competition at the Lord Mayor’s house in Dublin in November 2011. He has given several public recitals across Dublin, the most recent of which was given as part of the 10 Days in Dublin arts festival in the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where he premiered his cycle of 12 Études for solo piano. All 12 are now posted and available to watch on YouTube (see attached links below).

Further videos in the series can be viewed here