Saturday, February 6, 2016

Christian Blackshaw in Mozart

Where was Christian Blackshaw all these years? He was born in 1949, and tutored by Clifford Curzon (who wasn't a person for taking on pupils, by all accounts), but absent from the concert platform for many years. It was only in 2011 that he returned, playing the Mozart piano sonatas in a series of concerts that resulted in one of the finest recordings of the sonatas in recent years. I innocently picked up one of the recitals on Radio 3 and was immediately arrested by the playing (superb control of a warm, rich sound palette) and the interpretation. 

But no, I'm not posting any of the sonatas. They are available commercially. But to give you a taste of the playing, I'm posting the magnificent quintet for piano and winds. I cannot recall ever loving playing a piece as much as this. Mozart was justly proud of it – he wrote to his father that it was the best thing he had ever written. I can only attribute its lack of popularity to the forces required. There are very few piano and wind quintets, and even fewer that are first rank masterpieces. 

This is quietly masterful playing. Just a single example: listen to the coda of the last movement. The piano figuration is simply perfectly judged – if it doesn't make you smile with pleasure, there's simply no hope for you.

Mozart : Quintet for piano and winds - Christian Blackshaw, Royal Northern Sinfonia Winds
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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Abrahamsen : Let me tell you - Barbara Hannigan

I've been listening to this over and over again for the last week. Hans Abrahamsen's piece for soprano and orchestra "Let me tell you" is based on a novel by Paul Griffiths that tries to tell the story of Ophelia in Hamlet in her own words. And by "in her own words", Griffiths means "using only the 481 words that Ophelia utters during the play". Abrahamsen's text is extracted from the novel. 

At the centre of this performance is the remarkable Canadian artist Barbara Hannigan. Hannigan is not just a singer of astounding stature. She is also a pianist and conductor. She utterly animates this haunting and difficult score. The music, often using the higher voices of the orchestra, veers from ethereal through operatic, into stammering hysterical madness, and ultimately into oblivion (“Snow falls. So: I will go on in the snow. I will have my hope with me.”). The tiny vocabulary creates a strangely allusive text in which Ophelia tries to tell us, tries to appear, but remains an insubstantial revenant. 

It's astonishing. You should be ordering the album now. 

This post is a live recording, in beautiful sound, taken from the radio. So you can marvel, in addition, at the sheer flawless perfection of the performance, done with no retakes, no breaks. Make no mistake, this is going to be album of the year. Go get! 

Abrahamsen : Let me tell you (2013)
Barbara Hannigan, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Andris Nelsons
Broadcast 03.07.2015, text after Shakespeare by Paul Griffiths
320 Kbs

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Brendel plays Schubert - Live

Alfred Brendel - An all-Schubert recital

I remember listening to a recording of Brendel playing the Hammerklavier, live, and suddenly realising what it was like. It was like someone who knows a cathedral like the back of their hand, taking you on a tour. Now, the problem with tour guides is that they tend to get lost in the detail or lost in personal anecdotes. The best guides are the ones who point out the relevant detail but always in the context of building up a picture of the whole. And that's what Brendel was doing. In the first movement, he slowed fractionally and created just a little emphasis around the modulations that act like gigantic hinges in the movement's structure. They don't just herald the arrival of new material – pointing that out would be rather silly – but they also are the points of inflection, the points where the small-scale and the large scale intersect. I was delighted to feel that I 'got' something about the large-scale shape of the sonata that I had hitherto missed.

Prior to that, I had liked Brendel but perhaps not listened to him with the same attention. Nothing striking about his playing, I thought. And I still think so. The trick is to lead the listener without seeming to dictate what they ought to be listening to. They're listening to the music – obvious. 

And I share Brendel's profound disgust at the playing of Glenn Gould, a man whose ego dominated his every note. Gould's Bach is a man obsessed with the idea that his Bach is The Bach, giving you a note-by-note lecture. It's like being trapped in a lift with a trainspotter. I hate it, hate it, hate it. Indeed, I was once so enraged by the sound of Gould playing one of the French Suites that I learned the whole thing to efface the memory! 

Brendel, showing his estimate of the musical stature of Glenn Gould

And, of course, I read with pleasure Brendel's essays on music. I treasure them. Like his keyboard playing, they are accomplishments that do not boast. 

Which brings me to this wonderful Schubert recital. It was recently rebroadcast by Radio 4 and thus captured in splendid sound. (Digression : I wish major recording companies would use radio engineers for their piano recordings – I am fed up hearing the sounds of the piano mechanism and the glaring, dimensionless sound that the likes of Decca and DG produce. A radio engineer knows how to capture a performance! Or at least, European ones do…)

Like the Hammerklavier, Schubert's unfinished sonata known as the Reliquie poses awful problems for the performer. Unlike most of the unfinished sonatas, there are reasons to believe that Schubert just abandoned the sonata, and the completion of the scherzo has been a puzzle that many people have tried to solve. And, IMO, the awkwardness of the solutions suggest that Schubert realised that the movement couldn't be completed as he had originally envisaged it. What we are left with is a fascinating score – perhaps the most unpianistic of Schubert's works. There are times when he seems to struggle to get a piano sound that will embody his ideas. And, like the Hammerklavier, the first movement is built around a bold harmonic scheme that requires a lot of skill to make seem logical. 

It's the sort of thing that Brendel excels at. If you've never warmed to the sonata, now is the time to give it another chance. Brendel performs the two completed movements only, but they emerge with a coherence that I find remarkable. I gave up learning this sonata many years ago, and I find myself drifting towards the music cabinet…

In fact, the cathedral analogy isn't entirely accurate here. I remember waking up one morning with a sudden sense of how to play the first impromptu of the D935 set. I had never been able to cope with the endless expansion of the major section. It seemed completely out of scale with the rest of the movement. The realisation I had was simple: this isn't architecture, it's narrative. Each episode of the story has to be allowed to take its own time, and the art of the storyteller is to pace it so that nothings seems to linger too long. This is, I think, where Brendel's Schubert scores. A storyteller's perfect sense of the balance between incident and narrative. 

I've been listening to this recital with pleasure these last few days. It's got that sense of wholeness that you get from a live performance by a performer who has a really all-encompassing vision of the music as well as an utter command of the notes. True, you find yourself thinking "Wow – Schubert!" rather than "Wow – Brendel", but that's the mark of a really fine player, isn't it?

01 Moments musicaux D.780, op.94
02 Fantasie for piano D.760, op.15 in C _Wanderer-Fantasie_
03 Sonate for piano, D.840 in C _Reliquie_ (unfinished)
04 Piano Sonata in A minor, D 784 Op Posth 143
05 Deutsche Taenze D790, Op Posth 171 - No 1

MP3, 256 kbs, edited losslessly

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Victoria Poleva - Langasm, Null, Nenia

Here she is again. This strange mixture of minimalism and Scriabinesque grandiosity. Like most contemporary music, you will either warm to it or dislike it. 

Langsam revisits the world of Mahler III's last movement – a world frequently revisited since Mahler himself, who revisited the movement when he came to write the concluding adagio of his ninth symphony. And, indeed, the chain of reference goes back further, because Mahler, in his third symphony, was revisiting the work of his fellow-student Franz Rott, who wrote one wonderful symphony before succumbing to paranoid schizophrenia. Mahler had re-used elements of Rott's symphony in his third symphony, and would carry these elements forward to his ninth. In Poleva's Langsam you will recognise, too, a strange emotional world that seems to haunt the former Soviet Union - not nostalgia, or something as straightforward as melancholy. It has a sort of numbness, a glassiness that is hard to put into words, and which I for one cannot put an exact word to.

The remaining works keep the pace up. I wonder how I feel about Poleva. I was going to write that she was a composer for a certain mood, a certain time of day and life. But then, so are most composers. The only composer I know of who is welcome at any time, in any place in my life is Mozart. 

Once again, I am not sure about the performer details for these live recordings, but web searches point to Sirenko as the conductor, which makes it likely that the orchestra is the Ukraine NSO. The sound quality is good this time - 320kbs. 

Victoria Poleva (1962)
«Langsam» for orchestra (1992 / Ed. 2009)
«Null» for symphony orchestra (2006)
«Nenia» for violin and orchestra (2004)
National symphony orchestra of Ukraine, Volodymyr Sirenko (conductor)

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Alexander Uninsky - The Chopin Studies

And who, you might ask, was Uninsky? Born in Kiev, he trained in the conservatory that also turned out greats like Horowitz and Brailowsky. He subsequently moved to Paris in 1923, where he studied with Lazare Lévy. He was awarded the conservatory's first prize for piano. In 1932 he won the second International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition. In fact, Uninsky tied for first place with the blind Hungarian pianist Imre Ungar, and the judges decided to award victory on the basis of the toss of a coin. Ungar lost.

You will find all this information in Wikipedia, by the way. I should know. I put it there. 

Listening to his playing, you might wonder what was so special about it. You have to remember that his formative years in Paris in the twenties immersed him in the anti-romanticism of the age. People wanted Chopin without the histrionics and posturing of the Great Virtuosi. It was an era of unsentimental, uptempo readings and clarity of interpretation. But you can also hear a rich, warm tone that is the stamp of the Kiev school of the period. The almost self-effacing quality of the pianists of the period (Magaloff was another such) meant that they quickly became old-fashioned sounding in the post-war era, when the rise of the LP contributed greatly to the return of the cult of the celebrity. 

A recent flurry of interest over the internet led me to revisit his Chopin studies, in a version lovingly restored by that old scofflaw, Dr Duffy. And listening it it again, I am struck by the unobtrusive but constant ebb and flow of the playing. Behind the clarity and apparent restraint is a flexibility that often manifests itself in ways that would lose you marks in a competition today. Listen, for example, to the central section of Op 10 No 3 – there is no doubt about it: the man is not playing equal notes. He is leaning slightly on the strong beat and shaving the weak one slightly. Or number 7, that bubbles along with a breathtaking lightness – more like our image of Mendelssohn than Chopin. 

And no, this doesn't mean that the more stark studies suffer. I find his reading of the last Op 25 study very reminiscent of Cortot's. There is tragedy there, but immense strength too. Both pianists realise that by simply playing the music, the story will unfold with its own logic. 

So please enjoy an honest pianist!

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Tai Murrai plays Bruch and Berg

Not one but two concertos performed by the American violinist Tai Murray. 

What can I say? I still remember discovering the Bruch first concerto at the age of twelve, and being in love with it for months. And, like many works of my teenage years, I think I listened to it to the point where I couldn't hear it any more. Aside from Kreisler's lovely recording, I don't remember actually listening to it by choice for many years.

All that changed when I heard it anew under the hands of Tai Murray. What is it about a player that grabs your attention and will not let go? I don't know, but I know when I hear it! It's not just the beauty of the sound she makes. It has something to do with a vocal quality to her playing. What I always loved about Kreisler was that each note seemed to have a consonant as well as a vowel, if you know what I mean : that the attack and release of each note was as unerring as the actual tone quality. Notes didn't just make phrases, they made sentences. Well, I sense that quality too in this playing. And she gets extra points for not trying to make the Bruch into something it isn't. You can lean too heavily on this score and make it sound trite, like a second-rate film score. She plays it for what it is. 

The Berg, too, benefits from that lack of hysteria and ability to maintain a focus on the overall plan of the music beyond the moment-by-moment gestures. Indeed, listening to the concertos side-by-side, I am amused by the thought of the Berg as potential first-rate music dragged down by overstatement and portentiousness, while the Bruch is second-rate music exalted by honesty.

But the important thing is to listen to this young violinist, and then go and buy her recordings – she has two now: a brilliant recording of the Ysaÿe solo sonatas, and a recording of American pieces that I have yet to hear. 

Bruch : Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Howard Shelley, Ulster Orchestra, Tai Murray
Berg : Violin Concerto
Tai Murray, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Kristjan Järvi

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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Victoria Poleva - Choral and orchestral works

Victoria Poleva - Choral and orchestral works

Opinions vary on Arvo Pärt and his influence. I've greatly enjoyed singing his choral pieces, and playing his solitary piano work. But I recognise that many people find the sparse writing of his "sacred minimalism" simply dull.

Victoria Poleva, a Ukranian composer born in 1962, has been classed with the sacred minimalist movement, but that's really too simple. For a start, these works reveal a delight in sonority and scale of sound. There's also a very sensual, ecstatic quality to the writing, and a strong sense of rootedness in the orthodox religious choral tradition. These are pretty vast works - "Слово" fields enormous choral and orchestral sounds, and a taxing solo line sung by the anonymous soprano.

And here's where I have to admit I don't know where these recordings originated. Two of them have appeared on Russian bulletin boards not famed for their vigilance in copyright protection. They came my way from a colleague in Germany who in turn got them from someone else. They sound like radio recordings, but have occasional imperfections that suggest that somewhere along the way someone re-encoded them. The orchestra is identified, but not the choir or soloists. And the choral conducting in "Credo" is credited to Bogdan/Bohdan Plish with a question mark. This may be because Plish conducts a choir called "Credo", and had nothing to do with the present recording.

Anyone who has any more information on the artists, recording etc, please comment.

And this doesn't matter as much as the music, which I think deserves a listen. Put it on loudspeakers and terrify your children and pets.

Credo (2009) for mixed choir and symphony orchestra
Symphony No. 3 ("White interment")
National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine, Volodymyr Sirenko (conductor)
Слово "Word" 2002  (on the text by Symeon the New Theologian for soprano, mixed choir and symphony orchestra)
"ONO" for symphony orchestra 2004
National symphony orchestra of Ukraine, conductor Volodymyr Sirenko
Choir possibly conducted by Bohdan Plish

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Poleva's page on Wikipedia