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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Gabriela Montero – Brahms Piano Concerto No 1

I am constantly astonished by Gabriela Montero's musical mind. It's not just the fertility of her ideas as she improvises, but the instant realisation of these ideas as complex piano music. All happening in real time. 

(I used to sneer at the idea of real time. What kind of time is unreal time? Then I developed a teenager, so I can answer that question. Time spent by teenagers in the bathroom is unreal time.)

The only danger of her powerful genius at extemporisation is that it has tended to overshadow her stature as an interpreter. So I am pleased to be able to redress the balance just a little, with an upload of the first Brahms concerto. 

It is followed, you will be glad to know, by a piece of Montero.

I've had a funny relationship with Brahms. The first funny thing is that Brahms has been unaware of it. In my twenties I became a passionate Brahmsian (having spent my teenage years playing Mozart endlessly). But as I got older I began to find Brahms self-conscious of his role as a Great Composer, and, frankly, self-pitying in an entirely unlikeable way. 

I think a turning point arrived when I read an anecdote told by one of the Schumanns' children. Brahms used to visit their house and entertain the children (and terrify everyone else) by doing handstands on the upstairs bannisters. Now there, suddenly, is a vision of a muscular daredevil that is at odds with the stuffy grumpy bollox we thought we knew. And I realised that for all its faults, the earlier works have a genuine sense of muscular energy and vitality that are more than enough to make me forgive their excesses. 

Throughout all of this, the work I have never tired of is the first concerto. There is something deeply physically satisfying about the piano writing – those opening bars from the piano cause me instantly to forgive the bombast of the orchestral opening, and that lovely bucolic moment when the last movement turns to D major always makes me smile. 

I grew up on the Arrau/Giulini recording, in which Arrau's poetry constantly challenges Giulini's high-voltage conducting, right from the first bars of the piano entry, where Arrau seems to float timelessly. Montero lays her cards on the table here: there is a sense of improvisation, of exploring the possibilities of an idea, but with a sense that this is no mere meandering – she has a very clear idea of where the music is going.

I do find her tempo for the first movement sometimes too heavy-footed, especially those rather bombastic octaves that build up to climaxes, but her handling of the lyrical elements is warm and generous – think Katchen.

Enough. Download and listen to a player who matches the devilry of Brahms very well indeed! 

Gabriela Montero, NDR Philharmonic, Hannover, Eivind Gullberg Jensen
Brahms : Piano Concerto No 1
Encore : Montero
Studio Concert, NDR, Hannover, 13 Feb 2014

320kbs radio recording
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