Tag Archives: Shostakovich

Like a Chemist from Canada: when Isaiah met DSCH

A new play by Lewis Owens

In 1958, at the height of his artistic ability and reputation, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich was invited by Oxford University to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Music, along with fellow musician Francis Poulenc and other dignitaries. From the initial invitation by Oxford to Shostakovich in Moscow, the story is a fascinating, humorous and poignant portrayal of the clash of two distinct, and distinctly insular, worlds: the Byzantine rituals and orotundity of Oxford University and the unsmiling officialdom of Soviet Russia. When Shostakovich finally arrives in Oxford for his three-day stay, hosted by Sir Isaiah and Lady Berlin, we are presented not only with a unique insight into the inner personalities of Shostakovich, Poulenc, Berlin, Trevor-Roper and others, but also a searing reminder of the value of art in the Cold War period.

The play is based on the official correspondence and telegrams surrounding the visit, first published by Dr Lewis Owens in 2004, including Berlin’s astonishing ruminations on the significance of Shostakovich’s visit.

This story has never been staged before and includes the music of Shostakovich and Poulenc (including performance by internationally acclaimed pianist Colin Stone – see interview below).

Pianist Colin Stone talks about significant teachers, influences, recording and performing:

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I was only four when my mother started giving me lessons, I don’t think I had a great deal of choice in the matter. I always loved the sound of the piano and I was certainly inspired by her playing but equally I remember many family rows caused by my reluctance to practise and eventually I was sent to the junior department of RCM.
Who or what are the biggest influences on your career as a pianist?
I believe we always owe more to our teachers than we realise. Norma Fisher in particular was pivotal in helping me acquire some mastery over the instrument. Later, when I went to Oxford I was extremely lucky to be introduced to André Tchaikowsky, the most prodigiously gifted musician I have ever met. His death in 1982, my last year at Oxford, was not only a huge loss to the world of music but a personal tragedy as well. My last teacher was Edith Vogel. All three of them made deep and lasting impressions on me as a musician.
What has been the greatest challenge of your career so far?
Anyone who tries to make a career in music is facing a huge challenge. The biggest challenge can be simply planning one’s time. If you accept too many commitments, in the form of students or concerts, and you have a family as well, you suddenly find that there are not enough hours in the day. In terms of specific musical challenges I would put my performance of the 24 Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich somewhere near the top. Without doubt the most nerve-wracking performance was a live broadcast premier with the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Rob Keeley’s piano concerto. I still don’t understand quite how it came together with so little rehearsal. A real testament to the amazing skills of that particular band of musicians and the conductor Grant Llewellyn.
Which recordings & performances are you most proud of?
I’ve made a number of solo piano recordings some of which I find difficult to listen to with the passing of the years. I prefer to listen to my collaborations with other musicians.
I am very proud of the duo with my dear friend Rustem Hayroudinoff. The CD we made for Chandos of Shostakovich’s fourth symphony in its version for two pianos was a real highlight.  Similarly, the recordings I made with the London Mozart Trio, in particular our recording of Smetana’s trio, give me cause for optimism.
Which works do you think you perform best?
I have no idea what works I perform best, I think that is for others to judge. I will say that I am most happy playing music with strong contrapuntal interest.
Favourite pieces to listen to? And to perform?
There is so much wonderful music, I have always thought that compiling a list in the manner of Desert Island Discs would be a complete torment. I find that I have occasional cravings; perhaps to hear a late Beethoven string quartet or a Bruckner Symphony or perhaps something played by Oscar Peterson but appetites change.
In my mind a number of performances have merged together. I have a very vivid and special memory of playing Schuberts B-flat trio. Vivid in the sense that the physical place was not important but the atmosphere in that glorious slow movement has somehow distilled itself into my mind. Without wishing to sound unduly pretentious that music really does transport one to another place.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
I have been trying to write a book about the numerous things I wish my students knew. I think my biggest concern is that there is a YouTube culture that interferes with the process of students learning how to read a score. I have to beg my students not to rush out and listen to random performances of the pieces they are about to learn. I have nothing against them listening to other performances after they have studied the score but I do find it a problem when they treat the process of learning music as an aural tradition. I think the imagination is best served by discovering the music afresh, direct from the score.
Tell us more about working with Lewis Owens on his new play?
Lewis is a remarkable man. His erudition on the subject of Shostakovich is well known but I was surprised to discover that he has such gifts as a dramatist. It has been very easy for me to work on this with him, he had a very clear idea of what he wanted and in those few areas of uncertainty he was brilliant at finding the solutions by picking the brains of his colleagues.

“The life of Isaiah Berlin contained several episodes that cry out for theatrical treatment, and Lewis Owens here dramatises one of them, co-starring Shostakovich, with intelligence and flair.” Dr Henry Hardy, Isaiah Berlin’s editor, Wolfson College, Oxford

“A very imaginative and unusual play.” Peter Bien, Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Dartmouth College, USA

“The play portrays, in sharp focus and with an immense attention to detail, not only the visit of Shostakovich to Oxford but, and as significantly, the various machinations that lay behind the apparent success of the visit. There are surprises too, both musically and politically speaking.” Alan Mercer, DSCH Journal editor

Performances include the play in the first half and a recital of music for piano and ‘cello by Liszt, Poulenc and Shostakovich in the second half.

13th June, 7pm – Lilian Bayliss Studio, Sadlers Wells Theatre, Roseberry Avenue, London EC1R 4TN. Tickets

14th June, 7pm – The Dukes Hall, Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5HT. Tickets

3rd July, 7pm – The Sheldonian Theatre, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3AZ. Tickets

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Concert review: Quartet for the End of Time at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Olivier Messiaen in 1930

The fascinating Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre has now reached its mid-point, with the focus on music created out of oppression and war. In Friday night’s chamber concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall two pieces written in the most straitened circumstances during the Second World War were presented: Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio, a haunting lament for the tragic victims of the war and conflict in general, and Messiaen’s extraordinary Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”), composed and premièred in a German prisoner of war camp. The works were performed by world-renowned musicians – French brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon (violin and cello respectively), Denis Kozhukhin (piano) and Jörg Widmann (clarinet). They offered a highly emotional, profound and concentrated performance which demonstrated their commitment to and understanding of this difficult, meaningful repertoire.

Read my full review here

Guest post: Composers – but not as we know them

by Madelaine Jones

Say the name Balakirev to a musician and the first word to pass their lips will most probably be Islamey, the terrifyingly difficult Oriental Fantasy that the composer is most renowned for. Try Wagner, and Tristan and Isolde or Tannhäuser will closely follow suit. Dare to mutter the name Schoenberg, and horror at the thought of yet another piece of serialist, ‘plinky-plonky’ atonal music will turn them pale. And yet Balakirev has over 100 published works (and a great deal many more surviving manuscripts), Wagner wrote symphonies, piano sonatas and choral works as well as his operas, and Schoenberg didn’t write any atonal music at all until 1908, when he was 34 years old. It’s the same for almost any composer: we have a set handful of things that we most associate them with, and we mentally fill in the blanks from there, meaning that there is a whole catalogue’s worth of music that musicians don’t play, explore or programme because they simply don’t look beyond the obvious choices.

I decided last year that I was going try something a little different, so over the past 6 months, I have purposefully searched for some pieces I had never heard of before by (fairly) well-known composers and set out to learn them. As a result, I have had the pleasure of studying some fantastic pieces of music I would never have been exposed to had I not ventured a little off the traditional path. Here is a selection of pieces I’ve come across on my hunt for new repertoire:

Saint-Saëns: Mazurka in G minor, Op. 21

We all know Chopin was a prolific mazurka writer, but it turns out Saint-Saëns actually wrote a small handful of them too. Three separately published mazurkas written by Saint-Saëns exist, the earliest (the op. 21 in G minor) written in 1862, 13 years after Chopin’s death. The G minor Mazurka is full of cheekiness and wit, from the repeated ‘ping’ of the bass line to the waltz-like lyrical middle section. The whole thing sparkles with charm, and makes a great little character piece, or alternatively, the three in a set make an interesting item for any programme (the other two mazurkas, op. 24 and op. 66, are also both full of character and rhythmic intrigue). The link I’ve included is not necessarily the best recording of the work I’ve heard, but it’s a recording by Saint-Saëns himself, which I personally found remarkably interesting to listen to.

Balakirev: Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor

As I mentioned earlier, we tend to know Balakirev for his Islamey and nothing else, but he was in fact a prolific writer for piano and a far greater figure in Russian music history than we frequently credit him for. After listening to a BBC podcast about Balakirev last year, I heard a short clip of the B Minor Scherzo and became determined to learn it, despite having to have the music shipped in from Russia (and finding only one recording on Amazon!). The piece was written in 1856, and juxtaposes a fierce, majestic opening with a beautifully poignant, lyrical middle section. Dainty filigree in the right hand is then followed again by rich, virulent chords, the calm of the middle succeeded by a drama and passion with a triumphant coda to finish. In my opinion, the piece easily rivals the famous Chopin Scherzos for its dramatic outbursts, twists and turns, though with a distinctly Russian feel to the harmony. Learning-wise, it’s not an easy piece: the octaves are an absolute killer (a struggle for anyone with small hands, definitely!) but it is well worth struggling through for the sake of learning such a wonderful piece of music.

Shostakovich: Aphorisms, Op. 13

While pianists probably know Shostakovich best for his Preludes and Fugues, a modern take on the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier, there are some delightful (yet slightly more experimental!) sets of pieces by Shostakovich out there. His Aphorisms, Op. 13, was written in 1927, and consists of 10 short ‘character’ pieces which are, interestingly, far more atonal that some of his later works. The work is kicked off with the Recitative, a contrapuntal yet lyrical introduction, with the set going on to include a Nocturne (in free-time, very improvisatory), an 8-bar Elegy, a Dance Of Death (the initially child-like tune mixed with the Dies Irae theme proves to be very macabre) and a Lullaby (surprisingly soothing despite the innovative choices of harmony). The set really shines a different light on Shostakovich, allowing us to see how his remarkable nature for innovation developed from his artistic experiments as a 21-year-old, and the set is a wonderful work to play, being both technically challenging and stretching the imagination with regard to interpreting the titles.

Madelaine Jones is currently a student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, studying piano and harpsichord with Penelope Roskell and James Johnstone respectively. Her ensemble experience as a pianist has included working alongside the BBC Singers, the Medway Singers and the Walderslade Primary School Choir, and she has performed as a harpsichordist and chamber organist in the Greenwich International Early Music Festival alongside Trinity Laban’s various Early Music Ensembles. Madelaine is a recent recipient of an LCM London Music Schools and Teachers Award, and is also a keen writer in her spare time.

Twitter: @madelainemusic