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)

© Paul Body

On the centenary of the death of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, American pianist Garrick Ohlsson concluded his two-concert “Skryabin Focus” at London’s Wigmore Hall with a recital of works which spanned the final two decades of Scriabin’s life.

It is hard to explain exactly what makes Scriabin’s music so compelling: far easier to explain why his music is not for everyone. It is the music of excess, ecstasy, tumult and passion. It is excessive, overripe, decadent, heavily perfumed, languorous and frenzied, lacking in structure and sometimes downright bizarre. The music of extremes, it is hyper everything, and as such it defies description or categorization. Its language is complex, often atonal and frequently almost impenetrable. For some listeners, and artists too, it is this “over-the-top-ness” that is off-putting; for others, myself and my concert companion included, it is this sense of excess and rapture that is so compelling. By his own admission, Garrick Ohlsson is a true Scriabin fan, the result of hearing Sviatoslav Richter perform the Seventh Piano Sonata. Ohlsson’s studies with a Russian teacher enabled him to regard Scriabin as “mainstream repertoire” and the composer’s music remains a mainstay of his repertoire.

Read my review here

On the centenary of the death of Alexander Scriabin, a guest post by David Gordon

Musicians who write about playing music can easily get themselves into hot water, but in this case I’m happy to bathe in the opportunity to gather my thoughts about the latest project I’ve embarked on with my jazz trio, entitled ‘Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band’.  We are of course celebrating the life of Alexander Scriabin on the centenary of his death, at the same time trying to locate his music in the context of popular music in and around 1915.

I first came across Scriabin’s music in the 1980s through a beautiful interpretation of his A minor Prelude Op. 11 no. 2 by the jazz giant Chick Corea www.allmusic.com/album/trio-music-live-in-europe-mw0000188008.  Clearly this is an area that has continued to interest him, and in a recently posted video, Corea workshops his ideas about another of Scriabin’s preludes in front of an audience.

This represents a harmonious meeting between the totally distinctive soundworlds of Scriabin and Chick Corea.  With a far less distinctive personal soundworld I’ve even tried this myself with a Scriabin-inspired composition, ‘Snakes and Ladders’ which the trio recorded on the CD ‘Angel Feet’ (Guild Records ZZCD9819).

With this current project, what started as whimsy – noticing that the ‘Prelude for Left Hand Op. 9 no. 1’ lent itself to an interpretation calling upon early tango and the jazz style of Errol Garner, and then noticing that a project that would include ragtime could bear such a fortuitous (for us) name – has become a more serious study of the connections between Scriabin’s music and popular music of the time.

The first concerns geography.  Whilst the life of the wretched five year-old Israel Berlin fleeing with his family for the USA from some far-flung burning village in Russia could hardly be more different experience from Scriabin’s rarefied aristocratic Moscow upbringing, perhaps we can ascribe something to a sense of place.  That is, if we accept that part of where music comes from is the land, the air, the birdsong, the language, then, by dint of geography, the music of Irving Berlin and Scriabin might be loosely connected by these things at least.  And it was not just Berlin but many of the other originators of the Great American Songbook who hailed from Russia or Russian immigrants.

Meanwhile the estimable anthology ‘Jazz in Print 1856-1929’ by Karl Koenig gives one example after another of how Afro-American musicians looked to the Russian people, and their folksong in particular, as a model for culture-building that inspired many of those involved the ragtime revolution.  And in a recent interview the Cuban pianist genius Chucho Valdes cites Rachmaninov’s music as one that naturally fits with, and can be seen as part of the heritage of, the vast and cosmopolitan tapestry that is Cuban music.

But now to brass tacks: let me enumerate some of the specific technical considerations that unite these two worlds.

  1. Scriabin makes use the AABA form, with each section 8 bars long, so beloved of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songwriters. And, going back to geography, ‘I Got Rhythm’, regarded as a template for this type of song, was written by the child of then recently-arrived Russian immigrants, George Gershwin.*
  1. Altered dominant harmonies, rightly regarded as Scriabin’s pioneering achievement.  But it also prefigures a great deal of jazz harmonic theory, and Scriabin’s harmonic system reads more easily when viewed in that light.  The so-called ‘Mystic Chord’ turns out to be just a specific voicing of the 7#11 chord. Scriabin’s use of interlocking tritones, so tonality-threatening to early 20th century ears, are water off a jobbing jazz musician’s back. And the octatonic – for jazz musicians, the diminished – scale is often in the background of, and occasionally present in some of his later music.  This scale which once appeared so tonality-obscuring, is now heavily associated with dominant harmony in mainstream jazz circles – indeed, a jazz musician’s best friend.
  1. Scriabin’s use of ‘rootless’ harmonies happens to be one of the innovations credited to jazz pianists such as Bill Evans in the 1950s.  The harmonies themselves were used by composers as far back as Liszt, but hearing these chords without their bass note, as Scriabin used them, was at that time unprecedented, as far as I know. The opening of the left hand part of Scriabin’s Fourth Sonata, for example, could easily pass for a transcription of Evans’s playing.  Did he know Scriabin’s music? (We notice that Bill Evans was half Russiann from Ukraine; the speculations start to pile up).
  1. Some of Scriabin’s later music prefigures even more advanced jazz innovations. The ‘Dance languide, Op. 51, no. 4’ seems to recall, or predict, the uncompromising sound-world of Thelonius Monk.  And a very slight configuring of the harmony of ‘Prelude Op. 67 no. 2’ gives us the hard edged dark harmonic world of the ‘60s or even later to produce an improbably hip post-bop workout.

These are to some extent naïve, not researched, connections, but they enable us to dream when approaching his music from a jazz standpoint.  The fact that this or that signature in the music reminds us of something – the ‘Album leaf Op. 45 No. 1’ works well as an early funk or Motown groove, because of its descending chromatic figure in the bass – in itself may not be good enough reason to play it thus.  On the other hand it might!  But interpreting some of his pieces as choro, jazz-samba or north European style modal jazz, etc. allows them to speak to us in a different way and, when we record and perform it in this way, should give his music a new public (albeit a small one, given the size of the jazz audience!)  And I very much look forward to putting some popular music from 1915 alongside this music: we will attempt ragtime, of course, but also, tango, choro, danzón, perhaps – if we can find a way – even the Original Jelly Roll Blues, published in that same year.

Would Scriabin have liked jazz, which his early death deprived him of hearing, by a whisker?  Perhaps the earliest jazz of his time would not have appealed, and it’s hard to see the blues doing much for him. But perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to think that the unstoppable, transcendent flow that the best modern jazz achieves, the ecstasy and transformative power it strives for – the fire and air elements that characterize e.g. Keith Jarrett’s playing – yes, it’s possible.  And if his music helped in some way to shape that language, perhaps that should come as no surprise.

Finally, I have just put the finishing touches to our signature song, Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band, which is a light-hearted summary of the whole project, and finds the trio in full-throated song.  I am very excited by this new project, which is unlike anything I’ve tried before, and which I hope will be as entertaining for the listener as it has been instructive for me.

Work in progress video:

*For those of us who like to take things as far as they will go, doesn’t the Rêverie Op. 49 No. 3 bear a resemblance to Gershwin’s ‘Nice Work if you can Get it’? Or am I just imagining things?

www.davidmusicgordon.com

My first concert of 2015 was an all-Scribian recital by American pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who, by his own admission, is a ‘Scriabinophile’, an obession which grew from hearing Sviatoslav Richter playing the ‘White Mass’ Sonata in the 1960s.

To mark the centenary of the composer’s death is Garrick Ohlsson’s ‘Skryabin Focus’ at Wigmore Hall, and the two-concert celebration opened with a recital held, appropriately, on the composer’s birthday, which in the Julian calendar (to which Russia then subscribed) is Christmas Day. This fact alone suggests we are dealing with an unusual personality, and as time went on, and Scriabin’s egocentric obsessions increased, he began to regard himself as a second Messiah whose music would have a purifying, unifying and life-changing effect on all mankind. Add to this his interest in spirituality, the theosophy of Madame Blavasky, the writings of Nietzsche, his synaesthesia (which is what originally drew me to his piano music) and his assertion that there was an aesthetic connection between musical harmony and shades of colour, and we have an extreme personality at work. This heady mix produced music which is languorous, sensuous, demonic, enigmatic, erotic, febrile and over-heated. Hyper-everything, his music is lush, gorgeous and inspired, always ecstatic. It is these aspects which many listeners, and artists, find off-putting, and the reason why Scriabin’s music is so rarely performed today.

Read my full review here

Alexander Scriabin

This week I had the pleasure of a “house concert” at my home, during which the pianist Anthony Hewitt played Alexander Scriabin’s Preludes, Opp 11, 13, 15, 16 and 17 on my lovely antique Bechstein. This was an opportunity for Tony to put the programme before a small invited audience of friends ahead of public concerts and a recording. It was a very enjoyable evening of “music amongst friends”, enlivened by beautifully rich, textural and colourful playing.

Scriabin was following in a great tradition of prelude writing which stretches back to Bach, and beyond to the Renaissance, when musicians would use an improvisatory Praeludium (Prelude) as an opportunity to warm up fingers and check the instrument’s tuning and sound quality. Keyboard preludes began to appear in the 17th century as introductory works to keyboard suites. The duration of each prelude was at the discretion of the performer and the pieces retained their improvisatory qualities.

German composers began pairing preludes with fugues during the second half of the seventeenth century, and of course the most famous of these are Bach’s ’48’ from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which influenced many composers in the following centuries, most notably Fryderyk Chopin who based his 24 Preludes op 28 on Bach’s model, traversing all the major and minor keys. Chopin freed the Prelude from its previously introductory purpose, and transformed these short pieces into independent concert works, which are widely performed today, both in programmes and as encores, and remain amongst Chopin’s most popular and well-known pieces.

Other notable composers of Preludes were of course Debussy and Rachmaninov, as well as Olivier Messaien, whose Huit Preludes hark back to Debussy in atmosphere and titles, but also look forward to his later piano music in their colourful harmonies and unusual chords. Shostakovich followed both Bach’s and Chopin’s models by writing sets of Preludes and Fugues and Preludes, and Nikolai Kapustin has written 24 Preludes in Jazz Style, Op 53, and a set of Preludes and Fugues. It seems the genre is alive and well.

Scriabin wrote some 85 Preludes, and his Op 11 set (1896) follow Chopin’s in their organisation (cycling through all the major and minor keys) and even make direct reference to Chopin’s music. Indeed, such is their closeness to Chopin’s model in style, texture and harmonies, many could easily be mistaken for Chopin’s own music. Some appear to “borrow” directly from Chopin – one opens with the unmistakable motif of the Marche Funebre from Chopin’s B-flat minor Piano Sonata – while others seem more akin to Chopin’s Études in their technical challenges and sparkling passagework. The Opp 11, 13, 15, 16 and 17 are sometimes called The Travel Preludes, though they were not explicitly a travelogue by the composer; rather examples of how his travels around Europe allowed him to absorb different musical styles. (It is easy to forget, given Russia’s turbulent history in the 20th century, that at the end of the 19th century, the country was a major player in western European culture.) These Opuses also demonstrate how rapidly Scriabin’s musical style was developing at that time. The later Preludes are more redolent of Scriabin’s piano sonatas and show the influence of French music in their sensuous colourful harmonies and lush textures. All share one distinct characteristic: they are, in true Prelude style, short works, some so fleeting they last barely a minute.

In our house concert, Tony presented the Opus 11 set in the first half of the concert, and the Opp 13, 15, 16 and 17 in the second. As my husband commented afterwards, what was so charming about this programme, was that one was able to enjoy a huge variety of music in one sitting, and the programme was sufficiently involved not to require any additional material, such as an Etude or other short work.

Anthony Hewitt performs Scriabin’s Preludes at the OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, on Tuesday 18th March. Further details here. He will also be recording the complete Preludes of Scriabin, for release in 2015, the centenary of the composer’s death.

Music and Synaesthesia

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.

Historical precedents:

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.

B major gloomy, dark blue with steel shine (greenish-blue)
Bb major darkish (sea green)
A major clear, pink (deep red)
Ab major greysh-vioket  (pinky-red)
G major brownish-gold, light (whiteish-green)
F# major green, clear [colour of greenery] (purply-blue)
F major green, clear [colour of greenery] (pinky mauve)
E major blue, sapphire, bright (orange)
Eb major dark, gloomy, grey-bluish (muted orange, with pink)
D major daylight, yellowish, royal (deep sky blue)
Db major darkish, warm (softer sky blue)
C major white (red)