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.


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′

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.

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

In the tapas bar before the concert, there was much discussion amongst fellow diners as to what time She would be on. “I thought She was on at eight”, said my companion. “Oh no, She’s definitely on at nine – ’til eleven” said someone at the next table. This was confirmed by another couple. So we ordered more drinks and tapas, knowing that arriving at the venue too early would mean jostling for a place at the overcrowded bar or listening to a mediocre support band.

Inside the venue, the foyer was heaving with concert-goers, and upstairs in the circle bar, it was positively throbbing. We drank our drinks out of plastic cups and enjoyed half an hour of people-watching. More used to refined surroundings of the front bar at the Wigmore, and its largely superannuated clientele, I was fascinated by the demographic. Yet, there were similarities with the classical music crowd: we were all there to enjoy the music, and the shared experience of music-making.

She emerged, through smoke, from an Anish Kapoor-style soft sculpture, which bore more than a passing resemblance to the female anatomy, and pranced to the front of the stage, all sequins and spangles and feathers: in her shiny cape, tight leggings and platform shoes She looked like a rare, exotic bird. As the raw opening beats of the first song began, the crowd cheered and whooped in recognition of the song. Of her. The heavily amplified music vibrated in my chest and the pit of my stomach; my ears hurt. I was loving it.

Formed in 1999, a duo between singer Alison Goldfrapp and composer Will Gregory, Goldfrapp specialises in electronic music, but they are more than that because with the release of each new album (and there are five – I have them all), they have always cunningly reinvented themselves, while retaining their distinctive style and sound. Seventh Tree, the-last-but-one album (2007-8), is folksy, down-tempo and ambient, with a greater use of acoustic guitars than on previous albums. The latest release, Head First, is a nod back to the synthpop of the 1980s, while Black Cherry, their second album, shows the influence of glam rock.

Throughout the concert, I was struck by the many musical influences Alison Goldfrapp draws on, and, like the music of Schubert or Messiaen, her music ranges from a whisper to a scream. It’s redolent of early Pink Floyd, T-Rex, Donna Summer, Kate Bush, Portishead and the Cocteau Twins. Wider influences include Polish disco, and the cabaret music of Weimar Germany, and indeed Alison Goldfrapp’s on-stage presence owes much to burlesque and cabaret. Her music is dreamy, erotic (especially in the use of the Theremin), surreal, raunchy, hypnotic, quirky, while her lyrics are inspired by films, her childhood, her sexual fantasies. Most impressive is her voice, which croons one moment, growls the next, then switches to a high-pitched aria of almost heart-stopping beauty.  Around her, the band look like throwbacks to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era, in their shiny catsuits and platform boots, and, as they play, she stomps and struts, prances and pirouettes, like Marc Bolan or Mick Jagger, her amazing costumes creating weird and wonderful shadows on the walls.

This article, an interview with pianist James Rhodes, which appeared in The Independent today, was flagged up on Radio 3’s Breakfast programme this morning: the lovely Sarah Mohr-Pietsch invited listeners to comment on whether or not they felt concert soloists were “stuffy” people. I texted the following: “It’s not so much the stuffiness of the soloists as the stuffiness of the venue and audience. Classical music presented in more informal settings (such as the Red Hedgehog in Highgate) makes for a far more relaxed, shared experience for everyone.” It chimes with an ongoing discussion thread which has been exercising myself and fellow Musbook users: “Is classical music elitist?”.

Many people, who are not “in the know” – and even some who are! – regard classical music as elitist and its practitioners as either stuffy fuddy-duddies, or pretentious so-and-so’s who have set themselves up as demi-gods, garnering praise and adulation wherever they go, and never stooping to acknowledge their adoring public who queue patiently at the green rooms of the concert halls of the world to meet them. Classical music has, until recently, not helped its cause: many of the “traditional” venues are frequented by mostly elderly, mostly uber-middle class people, who exude pomposity, who sit through the performance in hushed reverential silence, and who tut and purse their lips if anyone dares to applaud in the wrong place (harumph! Such ignorance!). Being surrounded by such people can be very off-putting for the classical music ingenue. Then there is the venue itself: the Wigmore is all Edwardian gilded curlicues and red-velvet plushness, with its Constance Spry flower displays and that gold rail along the edge of the stage which serves to set the performers apart from the audience and further promotes the “us and them” attitude.

In reality, most professional musicians are fairly ordinary people who, admittedly, can do extraordinary things with a mechanical contraption of wood and wires, scrape beautifully on a stringed wooden box, or blow down a metal pipe with valves, and create magical and wonderful sounds. We tend to forget that these people are just doing their job: the difference is they do not spend hours at a desk in an office. Instead, they spend hours and hours and hours, often entirely alone, with only dead composers for companions, honing their art (and I have blogged previously about the life of the musician: the low pay, the unsociable working hours, the travelling). I have been fortunate to meet a few professional musicians in my time: the pianist Peter Donohoe was a neighbour of the mother of a friend of mine (who famously and amusingly said once, “he can’t be that good if he has to practice so much!). My friend, not musical, a quantum physicist by training, often used to go down the pub with Peter, and reported that he was a perfectly ordinary bloke – who played the piano, extremely well. He did not live in an ivory tower, nor some silent cloister, but in a normal house on an estate outside Birmingham. Many professional musicians have families, just like the rest of us, they live in ordinary homes, in ordinary streets. Some may have a special room set aside for their activity, but many do not. (My teacher, who is a busy concert pianist, has her piano in the family sitting room, surrounded by books and prints, mementos from family holidays, magazines and DVDs.)

Meet the soloist in the green room after the performance, and you generally find someone who is pleased to share your experience of the concert, and who would prefer the adoring public to be a little less awestruck. Many people, going backstage to meet the performer, often say silly, nervous, or irrelevant things; or their anxiety about meeting the performer makes them tongue-tied (not so, when I met Ian Bostridge – two glasses of Sauvignon had loosened my tongue considerably!). Sometimes people ask, with a weird, admiring light in their eyes, what it is like, being a concert soloist. Most performers will reply truthfully, downplaying the pleasures of a musical career, while emphasising the less glamorous aspects of the job. But more often than not, people coming to the green room are fresh, honest and spontaneous, and, for the performer, it must be gratifying to have one’s efforts measured against people’s responses.

Many performers are making conscious efforts to break down the barriers, real or imagined, that exist between performer and audience. The traditional concert attire of white tie and tails for the men is seen less often now (though the women are still expected to turn out in sparkly dresses) as many, understandably, prefer comfort over formality. Quite a few performers like to introduce the music they are playing in advance of the performance, explaining its provenance and its meaning, or its special or personal connection to them. This can be very engaging, arousing the audience’s interest before a single note is heard, and reminding us that this is to be a shared experience. At smaller venues I have attended, the performers often come to mingle with the audience afterwards, sharing a glass of wine and conversation.

While I am not wholly convinced by James Rhodes’ entirely casual approach (though his attitude to his music is by no means “casual”: he is committed and diligent), I do think he is doing good things to further reduce the stuffiness that surrounds classical music. If dressing like a student, in jeans and Converse trainers, gets students, more used to “moshing” at a rock concert, into the classical concert hall, then I am all for it. However, playing with an iPad propped up on the music rack strikes me as pure, crowd-pleasing gimmickry, and has no place at the piano, as far as I am concerned. I am posting a video clip of James Rhodes performing at this year’s Cheltenham Festival to allow readers to form their own opinions on this: