I thought it would be worthwhile posting other reviews of Marc-André Hamelin’s stunning all-Liszt recital at the Proms on 24th August. The general consensus is that it was a superb evening: it certainly continues to resonate with me as I have discussed it with friends and colleagues, and listened to the concert again, via the BBC iPlayer.
I would also like to thank those people who have contacted me following the concert to comment on my review. Such positive feedback is always very welcome, and I am delighted that people enjoy my writing.
This time last year I wrote a piece for this blog arguing for a change of venue for the Proms, London’s two-month summer classical music festival. We’re a fortnight into the current season, and I have already attended two Prom concerts, courtesy of Bachtrack. One was at Cadogan Hall, a lovely venue just off Sloane Square, with comfy seats, a great view of the stage wherever you sit, a fine acoustic (it’s a converted church), and a champagne bar. Here I heard the young harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani give an exquisite and at times idiosyncratic performance of Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations (read my review for Bachtrack here). And then, last Friday, I attended the Proms ‘proper’, if you will, for a lively evening of Franco-Hispanic music by Debussy, Ravel and de Falla: from Bach’s Baroque world in microcosm to a sweeping panorama of Spain evoked in lively and atmospheric orchestral music.
As a child and teenager, I used to go to the Proms every year with my parents, who would pour over the programme as soon as it was published (this, of course, many years pre-internet, and the Proms booklet would be for sale in WH Smith). There wasn’t such competition for tickets then, although tickets for the First and Last nights were allocated by ballot. I heard a wide variety of music, and sometimes we would sit in the choir stalls behind the stage, affording one a wonderful view of the orchestra at work. About 10 years ago, I heard Lang Lang, playing Tchaikovsky, before he shot to superstar status, and before that Evgeny Kissin. The last time I was at the Proms, before last Friday, we sat high up in the vertiginous upper circle, where we sweltered, and from where Stephen Hough, the soloist, was but a speck on the stage, and Rach Three was rather lost in the vastness of the Albert Hall. In the interval we drank warm white wine out of plastic glasses and had to sit on the stairs near the ladies’ loo. Not especially enjoyable. The whole experience was rather tiring, fraught and effortful. After that, I decided I would avoid the Proms.
The Proms have not always been resident at the Royal Albert Hall. The concert series was pioneered by a Mr Robert Newman, and its first home was the Queen’s Hall. In those early days, the programmes were far more varied, and somewhat eccentric or lacking in coherence (a trawl through the BBC Proms Archive site reveals some interesting programmes, cram full with a huge variety of music in one single concert), and often included unscheduled musical offerings. For example, the violinist Fritz Kreisler liked to warm up both himself and the audience with an unprogrammed “appetiser” such as his own ‘Praeludium’. Robert Newman conceived the Proms to encourage an audience who would not normally attend classical music concerts, enticing them with the low ticket prices and more informal atmosphere. From the earliest days, promenading was permitted, as was eating and drinking. Smoking was also allowed, though patrons were requested “not to strike matches between movements or during quiet passages”. After Newman’s sudden death in 1926, Henry Wood took over the directorship of the concert series. The Proms took up residence at the Royal Albert Hall in 1942 after the destruction of Queen’s Hall, though they moved again during the war to Bedford Corn Exchange, home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1941, and remained at this venue until the end of the war.
What is so wonderful about the Proms is that the original spirit in which they were conceived continues today. Even as we approached the hall last Friday (I went with a friend who had never been to a Prom before), there was a buzz of excited expectancy amongst the people milling around the hall, queuing to “promenade” (pay a fiver and stand in the arena, or up in the gods), or for returns at the box office. It was a fine summer evening, the Albert Memorial gleamed in the setting sun, the park was still full of people enjoying the last warmth of the day, lovers strolling hand in hand, children running across the grass, a patient queue at the bus stop.
After picking up the tickets at the Press Office, we had a drink in the bar near door 9 and at the appointed hour drifted into the hall where we had excellent seats in the circle. Inside, the hall vibrated with the hum of 5000 people in that special state of eager expectation a few minutes ahead of the start of a concert. The orchestra were taking their places, the ‘prommers’ claiming their ‘pitch’ in the arena. Above the stage, a plush red and gold velvet swag proclaimed that these were the ‘BBC Proms’. Then the formalities began, first with the arrival of the assistant leader of the orchestra, then the leader, and finally the ‘master of ceremonies’, conductor Juanjo Mena (who takes over as principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in September). With the raise of his baton, the evening’s entertainment was underway.
I am well aware of the limitations of the Albert Hall as a music venue: small scale, chamber and solo recitals are often lost in its vast space, and its dodgy acoustic can give the sense that the music is being heard from a next door room. Even the full-size orchestra last Friday struggled at times to be heard, especially in the quieter passages of the opening piece (Debussy’s ‘Gigues’ from his Images for orchestra), but at other times, the woodwind and brass sections (who were particularly fine throughout the concert) sang through perfectly, clear, bright, melodious and mellow, while the strings were silky and translucent.
“Where are they off to?” my friend asked after the applause for Ravel’s wonderful Rhapsodie Espagnole and the orchestra started to drift off the stage. I pointed out it was the interval and therefore time for another glass of perfectly chilled rosé in the bar. Nick expressed his delight at being there, spoke intelligently about what he had heard and what we would hear in the second half. He seemed intrigued by the idea that I could have come to any Prom I care to, courtesy of Bachtrack. Around us people chatted and laughed; the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. Afterwards, walking back to the tube station along the tunnel at South Ken, we overhead other people’s responses to what they had heard (always useful grist to the reviewer’s mill!). We talked all the way home on the train and agreed that we’d had a great night out.
And this, to me, is what the Proms is all about. Too often people are put off attending classical music because they perceive it as stuffy, elitist and populated by (largely) snooty octogenarians who demand hushed reverence. The Wigmore audience is perhaps the very worst example of this, although it doesn’t bother me any more, and without those people the Wigmore probably wouldn’t exist. But at the Proms, everyone is welcome. In recent years, the programmes have definitely become more “populist”, with themed concerts such as a Dr Who Prom, and, this year, a Human Planet prom and forthcoming Horrible Histories and Spaghetti Western proms. Music snobs and critics may throw their hands up at this, but I think these concerts are a great way of introducing classical music to people who may have no previous knowledge or experience of it. The atmosphere inside the Albert Hall is very friendly and good-natured, with its special Prom traditions: the Prommers always yell “heave-ho!” as the piano lid is raised, for example. And if people applaud during movements, so what? To me, it’s a spontaneous, instant response to something they have enjoyed, and should not be sneered at as ignorance of “concert etiquette”. (The habit of not applauding between movements had not existed before the twentieth century.) So, hip hip hooray for the Proms and all they stand for, and long may they continue. You can be guaranteed a huge variety of music, from new commissions to old favourites, works on a vast scale (Havergal Brian’s monumental Gothic Symphony), to intimate chamber music and solo miniatures.
I am back at the Proms towards the end of August for a late-night recital of Liszt, including the beautiful Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, performed by Marc-André Hamelin. I am not sure how Liszt’s solo piano works will fare in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall, but I have little doubt that this is the kind of venue, and concert experience, of which Liszt himself would have thoroughly approved.
Say “Glenn Gould”, and most people will reply “Bach”. Horowitz? Liszt. Schnabel? Beethoven. Lipatti? Chopin. Many great pianists (and even some lesser ones!) have become associated with one particular composer, and this “composer connection” still prevails today: Mitsuko Uchida and Maria Joao Pires are noted for their interpretations of Mozart, Evgeny Kissin for Chopin, Alfred Brendel for the great Austro-German triumvirate of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (though there are far better interpreters of these composers’ music than Brendel!).
So, why is it that certain pianists become so closely associated with a particular composer, or group of composers? A definitive recording, a well-received concert tour, the praise of respected critics, all these factors contribute. Some pianists choose to devote their life to playing and recording the entire Chopin Etudes and Preludes, or the complete Beethoven piano sonatas (Brendel – three times, Barenboim – twice), while others prefer to play more wide-ranging repertoire. The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter seemed able to turn his hand to anything, from Bach to Britten, Handel to Hindemith (he claimed he had enough repertoire for “around eighty programmes”). Claudio Arrau is another noted all-rounder, along with Maurizio Pollini, who is also a champion of the sort of late twentieth-century repertoire many modern pianists of a similar stature won’t touch (‘The Pollini Project’, his personal survey of piano music from Bach to Boulez, draws to a close next Tuesday).
But is it also perhaps that some pianists choose to immerse themselves in one particular composer, or composers, because the music reveals something about their own personality? We talk of so-and-so having an “affinity” for, say, Bach, or Debussy. The word “affinity” originates from the Middle English affinite and the Latin affinitas which is defined as “connection by marriage”. This suggests an even more intimate connection between musician and composer, and perhaps it is that very intimacy which enables some interpreters to really get to the heart, and soul, of the music?
This sounds fanciful: of course, musicians pick up repertoire because they like it, not because they want to marry it! Why learn something you dislike, or because you feel you should? Even at the most junior level, with my students, I would never force them to learn music they do not like: it is wholly unproductive. I have clear memories from my childhood piano lessons of being confronted with the same dreary page of score week after week, my piano teacher insistent that I learn the damn thing. As a teenager, and, admittedly, a rather tiresome, smug, academic teenager, I claimed to love the music of Bach. I’d only scratched the surface of his oeuvre, but there was something about the tight construction of his music that appealed to my intellect. And still does. While at 16, learning a Chopin Nocturne (Op 37, no. 1) for Grade 8, I loathed what I considered its overblown sentiment. Now, I can’t get enough of Chopin, and studying and learning his music is an enormous, if difficult, pleasure (and, no, I don’t consider his music to be full of overblown sentiment any more!). Liszt has been another revelation – a composer I refused to touch until this year, for the same reason as my dislike of Chopin my teens. Again, I was wrong. Meanwhile, much as I love his music, Mozart remains a tricky option, the words of Schnabel never far from my mind “too easy for children and too difficult for artists”, and I’m not convinced I have the mindset for Mozart.
One of my adult students, a rather stiff, anxious woman, had a breakthrough recently learning Bartok (the Quasi Adagio from For Children, which is part of the ABRSM Grade 1 syllabus this year). While other students have struggled with the simple yet highly emotional nature of this piece, this lady has reveled in it, creating the right nuances and shadings, despite her inexperience, and bringing a plaintive poignancy to the tiny piece. So then we looked at ‘Kummer’ (‘Grief’) by Alexander Gedike (ABRSM Grade 1 2009-10 syllabus), and the same wonderful thing happened. She admitted that the sorrowful, minor-key nature of these pieces suited her personality, and it’s true that she plays both extremely well. So, maybe this is an example of the music “fitting” the personality of the performer?
Performers need to balance their own personality with the expression of the composer’s ego: there is, for me, nothing worse than going to a performance where it is all about the performer (Lang Lang, Fazil Say). It just gets in the way of the music and is, in my opinion, hugely egocentric. The best performances are those where the performer stands back from the music a little, with a “passionate detachment”, a little deferential, thus allowing the music (and its composer) to speak for itself. As conductor Mark Wrigglesworth says in his article which, in part, inspired this post, “the best results are of course when the personalities of both the piece and its performer lie in perfect harmony”. The one notable exception to this is perhaps Glenn Gould, whose personality is, in many ways, all over the music in his muttering and humming. Some people can’t bear this, but to me it’s a sign of Gould’s total engagement with the music, and his enjoyment of it too.
Richter playing the opening movement of his favourite Schubert sonata (G major, D894).
I’m reblogging a link to this wonderful video of Martha Argerich playing Liszt from Notes from a Pianist. Even if you don’t like, or know the music of Liszt (and if you don’t, this is the year to discover his music), this is fascinating viewing for it gives a close up of the pianist’s hands in action. Look out for the left hand thumb and hammer-like little finger in the opening measures which creates that extraordinary muffled tolling bell motif. And later, the sheer power in her hands in the ‘cavalry charge’.
The piece, the seventh from the suite Harmonies poetiques et religieuses, is an elegy written in 1849 in response to the suppression of the Hungarian uprising of 1848 by the Hapsburgs.
I have written before about synaesthesia and how it effects me personally, and relates to my experience of music, both playing and listening to it.
Synaesthesia is a physiological ‘condition’ (I hesitate to use this word, as I am in no way disabled by it), which literally means “a fusion of the senses”. Its incidence is considered to be about one in every two thousand people, though it may be far commoner, since its “sufferers” do not regard it as a condition for which they should seek help from a psychologist or neurologist. It is more common in women than in men. Musical synaesthesia is “one of the most common [forms], and perhaps the most dramatic” (Oliver Sacks). It is not known whether it is more common in musicians or musical people, but musicans are more likely to be aware of it. I have always had it, and until quite recently, I assumed that everyone else had it. It was only at dinner one evening, when I revealed that Monday is always red, Thursday is a brownish-mauve, and the key of B-flat major is sea-green, and my friends looked at me slightly askance and declared “You’re nuts, Fran!”, that I realised I was one of the one in two thousand….
From quite an early age, I suspect I was aware that my brain assigned individual colours to the musical keys – just as it does for letters of the alphabet, days of the week, months of the year, numbers etc. It seemed perfectly normal to me. I have met other synaesthetes, including those who share my particular version of the condition, though our ‘colour schemes’ are never identical. My particular colour scheme is unchanging: A is always red, no matter what background it is set against or in what context; F major is always a dusky mauve
As a musician, this makes for an interesting experience. At concerts, even if I do not know what key the piece is in, the music will conjure up colours in my head. And when I am playing music, the score is most definitely not black and white: chromatic passages, in particular, are extremely vivid and colourful. When I am working, I do not add my synaesthetic colours to the score – this would only add to all the other annotations that are scribbled on my music. But I am always aware of the colour scheme as I am working, and it definitely informs my practising.
A quick browse of the internet threw up some interesting articles, including colour analyses of some of Beethoven’s music, including the Kreutzer Sonata and the Pathetique. However, these are not the work of a synaesthete; rather a means of mapping the music in a more visual, easy-to-follow way.
Some facts about synaesthesia:
The most common form of synaesthesia is the experience of colours linked to letters and numbers (‘grapheme-colour’ synaesthesia), which is what I have.
Synaesthesia is involuntary and automatic
Synaesthetes are often highly intelligent, ambidexturous, creative individuals, with excellent memories.
Synaesthesia is believed to be due to cross-activation within areas of the brain, and is probably hereditary
The occurrence of synaesthesia is higher in women than in men
Synaesthetes are not mad! Nor is true synaesthesia a form of hallucination (though the drug LSD can induce temporary synaesthesia): for each synaesthete, their particular experience is unchanging.
Aristotle wrote that the harmony of colours was like the harmony of sounds. This set the stage for a later connecting of specific light and sound frequencies, as Aristotle’s works were translated and incorporated into European scientific study. From the late 15th century, academics, scientists (including Isaac Newton) and musicians were assigning colour schemes to notation, intervals, and the musical scale. Musicians who were genuine synaesthetes include Franz Lizst, American pianist and composer, Amy Beach (1867-1944), who had both perfect pitch and a set of personal colours for musical keys, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Olivier Messaien. Scriabin claimed to have synaesthesia, but it is more likely that he was simply responding to the then salon fashion for “colour music”, and the writings of Russian mystic Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society. Founder of the Futurist movement in art, Marinetti, aspired to have all the senses (he counted five) employed in “interactive synesthetic ecstasy”, and The Futurist Manifesto includes suggestions as to how colours, shapes and sounds combine, which has influenced composers and musicians, as well as artists. English composer Sir Arthur Bliss wrote a Colour Symphony, but this is not the product of a synaesthetic mind. Like Scriabin, he was influenced by the idea of “colour music”, though it was not a mystic association for him but rather a response to the symbolism usually associated with the colours of the English heraldic tradition.
Messiaen’s music, for me, vibrates with colour. The fourth Vingt Regard, which I am studying, is full of chords with rich layers of colours stacked atop one another, flashes of bright gold, orange, royal blue, deep red. Combinations of colours were very important in his compositional process. “I see colours when I hear sounds, but I don’t see colours with my eyes. I see colours intellectually, in my head.” He found that raising a note an octave produced a paler shade of the same colour, while lowering the note produced a darker hue. Only if the pitch altered would the colour change (my experience is identical). His colour associations were very consistent (as mine are), and so to help musicians understand his particular colour schemes, he annotated his scores with the precise colours he perceived. The piano part, in the second movement of his extraordinary and moving Quartet for the End of Time, written in a German PoW camp in 1940-41, contains the instruction to aim for “blue-orange” chords, a difficult concept for a non-synaesthete to grasp, perhaps.
I have yet to meet a fellow synaesthete who is also a musician. The subject fascinates me, in a non-scientific way, and I would be delighted to hear from other musicians who also see colours, either when they listen to music, or when they read it off the score. My experience tends to be more intense when I am actually reading music.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s colour scheme follows, one of several I could have included. My colours are in brackets. As a general rule, minor keys are a more muted version of their major counterparts. Enharmonic keys are different, however: while D-flat major is a pale greeny-blue, C-sharp major is deep red; F-sharp major is purple, which G-flat major is a pale yellow-orange.
gloomy, dark blue with steel shine (greenish-blue)
darkish (sea green)
clear, pink (deep red)
brownish-gold, light (whiteish-green)
green, clear [colour of greenery] (purply-blue)
green, clear [colour of greenery] (pinky mauve)
blue, sapphire, bright (orange)
dark, gloomy, grey-bluish (muted orange, with pink)
I am posting three YouTube videos which a colleague and fellow-blogger, Notesfromapianist, flagged up in her Twitter feed yesterday. For anyone studying the three ‘Sonnetti del Petrarca’ from Liszt’s Années, these video clips provide some invaluable food for thought, study and practising: hearing the original song versions has really informed my practising today. The piano pieces included in the second year of the Années de pèlerinage are Liszt’s resettings of his own song transcriptions (composed ca. 1839–1846 and published 1846). I am learning the Sonetto 123 at the moment….
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