Tag Archives: Debussy

Stepping Back in Time at Wigmore Hall

For one night only, audiences at the Wigmore Hall were treated to a glimpse of the hall’s origins, in those pre-First World War days when it was Bechstein Hall and home to the German piano maker C. Bechstein’s London showroom.

bechstein-hall

When Bechstein Hall opened in 1901, Bechstein was Europe’s leading piano maker (it produced 5000 pianos in 1901),  its instruments preferred by most pianists outside America, where Steinway predominated. The Bechstein piano company built similar concert halls in Paris and St Petersburg to showcase its instruments and the leading performers and singers of the day. With its special barrel roof “shoebox” design, beloved of many musicians, the hall still boasts a fine acoustic, while its small size (its capacity is c600 seats) makes it the perfect place to enjoy intimate chamber and piano recitals.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Bechstein Hall on London’s Wigmore Street was promoted as the best of places for intimate music making, and boasted unrivaled comfort and facilities for patrons and artists with its elegant green room up a short flight of stairs behind the stage (so that singers did not arrive on stage breathless). At the time of its opening, concert life and leisure in general in London were enjoying something of a revolution. Theatres and music halls were opening across the west end, a wide public was being introduced to the experience of shopping for pleasure in the new “department stores” (Selfridges is a mere 10 minute walk, at the most, from Wigmore Street), and with cheap and efficient public transport, it was easy for people to enjoy these delights in the centre of the metropolis. A new breed of international concert promoters, agents and impresarios, such as Robert Newman, who with conductor Henry Wood founded the world-famous Proms, were dedicated to organising high-quality recitals, and Bechstein Hall alone scheduled two hundred concerts a year.

During the First World War, it became increasingly difficult for Bechstein Hall to trade viably. Strong anti-German sentiments and the passing of the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act 1916 led to the hall’s closure in June 1916, and all property including the concert hall and the showrooms was seized and summarily closed. The hall was sold at auction to Debenhams, was rechristened Wigmore Hall and opened under its new name in 1917. Today Wigmore Hall enjoys an international reputation for high-quality music in an elegant and intimate setting.

To give the modern audience a flavour of those halcyon pre-war days of concertising in London, the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave a concert on an 1899 Bechstein grand piano, a piano which may well have been sold out of the Bechstein piano showroom next door to the hall on Wigmore Street.  The concert, which included music by composers active at the time when the Bechstein piano company was at the height of its powers, was preceded by a talk with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Peter Salisbury, a leading piano technician who restored the piano, and composer Julian Anderson, whose work ‘Sensation’, written for Pierre-Laurent, had its London premiere at the concert.

As Pierre-Laurent Aimard explained, the event was the culmination of a long-held dream: to present a concert of the kind of repertoire and composers – and instrument – contemporary with the hall when it first opened. Peter Salisbury talked about the difficulties of preparing a piano for a specific hall, for each space has its own distinct acoustic and the piano must be adjusted and voiced to suit venue, performer and repertoire. When the 1899 Bechstein was brought into Wigmore Hall, Peter noted how closely instrument and venue suited each other, evidence that Bechstein built concert halls to showcase their instruments at their best – and vice versa!

Prior to the First War, piano design and manufacture was still evolving, and each make had its own distinct sound and character. Bechsteins of this period are notable for their special resonance and projection, which result from their manufacturing process. Pierre-Laurent commented on the piano’s uniquely rich palette of colour and tones, combined with great clarity. Every note seems to have “many overtones”, resulting in an orchestral sound which is rich but not cloying.

For composer Julian Anderson, the Bechstein piano has a special place in his life: his own piano is a 1913 Bechstein, passed on to him from his father, and is the instrument on which he composes. He admitted a “great affection for the Bechstein tone”, and that it has a range of colour which “encourages metaphor” and makes it easier to imagine other sounds or instruments when composing.

The 1899 Bechstein has been restored by Peter Salisbury and retains the original soundboard and bridge. A new mechanical action was fitted to provide technical accuracy, with new hammers voiced according to Bechstein’s original sound concert. An attractive instrument with a polished black case with scrolled details, the piano has turned legs and a fan-shaped music desk. The instrument is 275 cms (9 foot)long, with 88 notes (not all pianos were at that time – my Bechstein has 85 keys), and it took 3 months to rebuild it fully. For Peter the piano represents “a portal to the past, a lost era of tonal distinction”.

Peter Salisbury’s 1899 Bechstein concert grand on the stage at a Wigmore Hall

After 1910, piano design and manufacture became standardised across makes, and today most concert pianos (most commonly Steinway) have a consistency of sound and touch which enables performers to move fairly effortlessly between a piano in a Tokyo concert hall and one in London or New York. Concert pianos have also grown bigger to project into larger halls, and in the 10 years that I’ve been going t concerts regularly, I’ve noticed the sound of these pianos is, generally, much brighter and often quite strident.

As the owner of a 1913 Bechstein model A, I was very curious to hear this slightly older piano in a concert setting in an acoustic for which it was built. The programme included music by Liszt (the first version of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses), Scriabin and Debussy (both of whom owned Bechstein pianos), Julian Anderson (b.1967)!and Nikoly Obukhov, a colouristic Russian composer whose music bridges the Russian and French compositional traditions of the first decade of the twentieth century. The first half of the concert proceeded without interruption for applause (something with several audience members near me seemed to find quite “difficult”, though I enjoyed the flow of music from one composer to another). From the first notes of the Liszt, I felt I was hearing my own piano in concert – those distinct resonances and layers of colour which drew me to my instrument when I first played it in my tuner’s workshop were made more explicit in Pierre-Laurent’s hands. A surprisingly deep bass resonance, but clear and bell-like, without the chocolatey Sachertorte richness of a Bosendorfer, and a remarkable sustain with unexpected harmonics evident in the sound decay. In the Scriabin pieces, the piano’s multi-faceted sound came to the fore, responding perfectly to Scriabin’s sensual textures with harmonies superimposed on different registers and layered overtones.

The selection of Debussy’s Études was particularly fascinating. Here Pierre-Laurent balanced clarity with tonal sensitivity and the studies burst into to life with delightful shifting colours. The sweet lucid treble was wonderful, so different to the rather strident treble sound one finds in modern instruments, and there were further opportunities to enjoy this sound in the works by Julian Anderson and Nikolay Obukhov. Despite the piano’s resonance and sustain, there was no sense of the sound being too big or overly domineering (again an issue, for me at least, with modern concert grands in medium-sized or small venues). For me, the highlights of the evening, aside from the opportunity to hear this period piano in concert, were the works Debussy and Obukhov – had I not seen the programme, I would have thought the latter was post-Vingt Regards Messiaen, yet this was music written prior to the Russian Revolution, avant-garde and way ahead of its time.

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Wigmore Hall today (photo: The Telegraph)

D is for….

“D” is for Duet, a piece for two players. In the case of piano duets the players share the instrument and enjoy closer physical proximity than was generally allowed between bourgeoisie young ladies and horny composers. Mozart and Schubert delighted in the possibilities of the form, but the next generation seriously dropped the ball – Chopin and Schumann were undoubtedly too gauche, and Liszt simply wanted the whole piano to himself. Subsequently, the duet was particularly popular with French composers, with Bizet, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and Messiaen all contributing to its survival.

There are many great composers with names starting with the letter “D”, not least Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812), a Czeck composer who made the mistake of not settling in Vienna at the height of the Classical Era. Instead his career ranged freely across Europe from London to St Petersburg, but subsequently his music largely dropped off the radar. He wrote 34 Piano Sonatas, which vary in style from easy-going melodic writing through to crazy experimentation. Worthy of rediscovery…

Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960) was hailed early on in his career as Hungary’s best hope since Liszt. His works include the ridiculously gorgeous Piano Quintet in C minor Op.1, two criminally neglected Piano Concertos, about four hours worth of brilliant solo piano music and a couple of Symphonies. However, he is best remembered for the rather more facile “Variations on a Nursery Song Op.25” for piano and orchestra, and (with less affection) for his “Essential Finger Exercises”. Between composing and touring as a virtuoso pianist and conductor, Dohnanyi became perhaps the most successful piano teacher in history, with students including György Cziffra, Annie Fischer, Andor Földes, Géza Anda, Sir Georg Solti, Istvan Kantor and Joseph Weingarten (my own teacher).

“D” is also for Dampers, the little felt things inside a piano that stop a string vibrating when you release the key. The Damper Pedal lifts these across the full range of the piano so that the strings continue to sound until they fade or the pedal is released. Strings not struck are also free to vibrate “sympathetically”. With care, artistry and sophistication, use of the damper pedal can transform the instrument into an infinite magical sonic colour machine.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918), the French composer and notorious bounder, knew a thing of two about sonic magic, and although he supposedly hated the term “impressionism” it appears to have stuck to his music like superglue. Several of his pieces have established themselves in the hearts of music lovers all over the world, in spite of a temporary setback when the Japanese synthesizer freak Isao Tomita released his electronic renditions on the hit LP “Snowflakes are Dancing”, which soiled several of Debussy’s most popular works.

On the subject of French keyboard composers, Jean-Henri d’Anglebert (1629-1691), whose music nicely bridges the transition between Chambonnières and Rameau, deserves an honorable mention. Judging from contemporary portraits, had he lived a few more years he might have become the original “Cross-eyed pianist”.

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs his independent teaching practice Keyquest Music www.keyquestmusic.com. An active social networker, Andrew founded and ran “The Piano Cloud” (2011-15), the Piano Network UK Facebook group (2014- ) and his latest project Pianodao www.pianodao.com

D IS FOR DEVIL

There’s flaming strings and smoke

From a dance at a village inn

Mephistopheles made an appearance

Grasping Faust amidst the din

There’s Prokofiev’s suggestion

And there’s Dante’s dark crevasse

There are witches, whims, and fancies

At a candle-lit Black Mass

There’s a shooting for a soul

Which Weber bravely traversed

There’s a sabbath and a bonfire

That’s Idée Fixe immersed

There’s a night atop a mountain

Where a Russian mist grows thick

“There’s Totentanz and Danse Macabre”

Chime in Saint Saens and Liszt

There’s a horseride that ends horribly

The face of death stares back

There’s destruction from an ancient bird

Who leaves an amber track

 

There’s walking to the gallows

As bells ring death and sin

There’s an eater of young children

You’ve mistakenly let in

So, before you sit and listen

With your headphones blasting sound

Lock your doors and bolt your windows

You’re going under ground

To a place that’s dark and evil

Where the devil tempts your soul

Where tritones, dims, and augs reside

Where music pays your toll

Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson is an Australian pianist, composer and writer. Find out more at danieljohnsonpianist.com

 

Francois-Frederic Guy at Wigmore Hall

Brouillards swathed the Wigmore audience in mist, yet the sound was never foggy”

Photo credit: Guy Vivien
Photo credit: Guy Vivien

Occasionally one comes across an artist who seems so at one with the music, that one can almost hear the composer at the artist’s shoulder saying ”yes, that is what I meant”. Such was the effect of French pianist François-Frédéric Guy’s performance of Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, the Op.111, at London’s Wigmore hall on Friday night: a performance replete in insight and an emotional intensity which comes from a long association with and admiration for this composer and his music.

Read my full review here

Takemitsu’s musical landscape

Toru Takemitsu (source: Wikipedia)

“My music is like a garden – and I am the gardener”

Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996)

It was rather wonderful to wake to the sounds of the music of Toru Takemitsu on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on Friday morning. An unexpected pleasure, as such music is usually reserved for the wilder shores of Radio 3.

Takemitsu was a composer, but he was also a writer on aesthetics and musical theory. His music is delicate and refined, as beautiful as Hokusai print or a carved jade netsuke. Largely self-taught, his music combines elements of Japanese and western philosophy with the subtle manipulation of instrumental and orchestral timbre, using both western and traditional Japanese instruments, and the use of defined silences to create a unique and extraordinary soundworld.

Takemitsu admired Debussy and Messiaen, as is evident in his piano music, and was drawn to composers who were themselves deeply influenced by the musical and philosophical culture of Asia, including John Cage. After my very positive experience with Messiaen for my ATCL Diploma programme, and my love of the piano music of Debussy, the desire to explore the piano music of Takemitsu seemed a natural one.

Takemitsu composed his Rain Tree Sketch II in 1992 in memory of Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992), the French composer who had a strong influence on Takemitsu. The work was composed for a concert “Hommage à Olivier Messiaen” at Les Semaines Musicales Internationales d’Orleans, France, and was premiered by Alain Neveux on 24 October 1992. The name of the work was probably inspired by a quotation from a novel by Kenzaburo Oe about the miraculous rain tree, whose tiny leaves store up moisture and continue to let fall raindrops long after the rain has ceased. The work is also a dreamy meditation on the flow of life, and was the last piano piece Takemitsu wrote (his first Rain Tree Sketch was written in 1982). It is in a clear ABA (ternary) form, with a rhythmic opening which is reprised, in shortened form, after the melodic middle section. Its tonal language is redolent of Debussy and Messiaen, with chords used for colour and timbre rather than strict harmonic progressions, and, like its dedicatee, Takemitsu employs recurring motifs (such as an ascending three-note broken chord figure) and well-placed silences to create a carefully nuanced atmosphere and colouristic shadings. Directions such as “celestially light” and “joyful” contribute to the metaphysical nature of this work.

There are some written in pedal markings, and these should be adhered to as the composer directs. Elsewhere, use of the pedal is at the discretion of the pianist. I tend on the side of restraint and use half or one-third pedal to avoid obscuring the clarity of the chords and melodic figures. Regarding the bars of silence, these should sound expectant and anticipatory, rather than dead; using the pedal to allow sounds to “ring” will help achieve this.

The metronome markings in the piece are somewhat ambiguous. On the dedication page of the score, the duration is given at 5 minutes, but if one adheres to the metronome markings exactly, the piece comes in at around 3 minutes. I have opted for a calm moderato, a sense of the music moving forward, but without pressing ahead. In my Diploma programme, this piece comes between the Bach D minor concerto BWV 974 and Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511. The contrast is, to me, rather special, and I feel it works well.

While researching the programme notes on this piece for my Diploma, I came across an interesting piece of research in which the author discusses the suggestion of traditional Japanese instruments in this work, and other piano works by Takemitsu, specifically the Taiko drum (the low D pedal point at the opening of page 2), and the long zither koto and the short-necked lute biwa (the ascending arpeggio figure suggests the plucked sound of these instruments). The article contains many interesting thoughts about Takemitsu’s piano music, and is definitely worth exploring further.

As for performances of this work, when I heard Noriko Ogawa perform it at the Wigmore last autumn, I was struck by the incredible soundworld she managed to achieve, producing “droplets” of notes and really evoking the miraculous rain tree (my review here). The recording I have been using for reference in my study of this piece is by Ichiro Nodaira: I particularly like the relaxed tempo of the opening melody.

The pianist Paul Crossley has recorded Takemitsu’s complete piano music, sadly, now out of print, though available via some music streaming services and Spotify.

 

Further listening:

Rain Tree Sketch

Litany

Les yeux clos

Piano Pieces for Children: No. 2. Clouds

The first page of Rain Tree Sketch II (Schott Music)

An A to Z of Debussy……

Claude Debussy

Pianist and writer Christine Stevenson is marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy by exploring an A to Z of Debussy’s piano music in a series of blog posts. Each entry contains interesting facts about the pieces discussed, as well as analytical and stylistic notes, video and sound clips. Alongside this well-written and well-researched blog, Christine has been performing piano repertoire by Debussy in a series of recitals.

Explore Christine’s blog here

Twitter: @notesfromapiano

 

Overwhelmed by Debussy: Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Cadogan Hall

In a recent interview for Reuters, French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard described Debussy as a “hedonist” of sound, and this definition was clear in Aimard’s performance – one of incredible precision, intensity, sensitivity, and sensuality, which showed Debussy to be a composer of great complexity, a profound and dark artist, and a revolutionary of sonority and musical colour. Read my full review here

Pierre-Laurence Aimard (photo credit: © Marco Borggreve)

Reblogged: I is for Images – Debussy’s Images I

Here is a beautifully written, informative and informed post about Debussy’s first book of Images, by pianist Christine Stevenson.

Christine is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth by exploring an A to Z of Debussy’s piano music in a series of blog posts. I am working on Hommage à Rameau as part of my LTCL Diploma programme, and I found Christine’s notes on this piece particularly helpful and well-expressed.

I is for Images – Debussy’s Images I.

Debussy at the piano, with friends

Erotic & Exotic: François-Frédéric Guy and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet at Wigmore Hall

In a neat piece of programming, Monday’s Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert brought together two French master-pianists to play two French masterpieces for the ballet, Debussy’s erotic and ecstatically playful Jeux, and Stravinsky’s “beautiful nightmare”, The Rite of Spring. Read my full review here

Listen to the concert via the BBC iPlayer here

[Image credit: François-Frédéric Guy © Guy Vivien, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet © Paul Mitchell]

Concert review: Leon McCawley at Wigmore Hall

Leon McCawley (Photo credit: Clive Barda)

British pianist Leon McCawley presented a programme of music by Chopin, Debussy and Schumann, all played with evident relish and enjoyment, at a charming lunchtime recital at London’s Wigmore Hall.

Read my full review here

Leon McCawley kindly participated in my ‘Meet the Artist….’ series. Read his interview here